Soenke Zehle on Sun, 21 Apr 2002 22:38:27 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move

U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move

April 18, 2002

When elements of the Venezuelan military forced president Hugo Chavez from
office last week, the editorial boards of several major U.S. newspapers
followed the U.S. government's lead and greeted the news with enthusiasm.

In an April 13 editorial, the New York Times triumphantly declared that
Chavez's "resignation" meant that "Venezuelan democracy is no longer
threatened by a would-be dictator." Conspicuously avoiding the word
"coup," the Times explained that Chavez "stepped down after the military
intervened and handed power to a respected business leader."

Calling Chavez "a ruinous demagogue," the Times offered numerous
criticisms of his policies and urged speedy new elections, saying
"Venezuela urgently needs a leader with a strong democratic mandate." A
casual reader might easily have missed the Times' brief acknowledgement
that Chavez did actually have a democratic mandate, having been "elected
president in 1998."

The paper's one nod to the fact that military takeovers are not generally
regarded as democratic was to note hopefully that with "continued civic
participation," perhaps "further military involvement" in Venezuelan
politics could be kept "to a minimum."

Three days later, Chavez had returned to power and the Times ran a second
editorial (4/16/02) half-apologizing for having gotten carried away:

"In his three years in office, Mr. Chavez has been such a divisive and
demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home
and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the
undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a
democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is
never something to cheer."

The Times stood its ground, however, on the value of a timely military
coup for teaching a president a lesson, saying, "We hope Mr. Chavez will
act as a more responsible and moderate leader now that he seems to realize
the anger he stirred."

The Chicago Tribune's editorial board seemed even more excited by the coup
than the New York Times'. An April 14 Tribune editorial called Chavez an
"elected strongman" and declared: "It's not every day that a democracy
benefits from the military's intervention to force out an elected

Hoping that Venezuela could now "move on to better things," the Tribune
expressed relief that Venezuela's president was "safely out of power and
under arrest." No longer would he be free to pursue his habits of
"toasting Fidel Castro, flying to Baghdad to visit Saddam Hussein, or
praising Osama bin Laden."
(FAIR called the Tribune to ask when Chavez had "praised" bin Laden.
Columnist and editorial board member Steve Chapman, who wrote the
editorial, said that in attempting to locate the reference for FAIR, he
discovered that he had "misread" his source, a Freedom House report.
Chapman said that if the Tribune could find no record of Chavez praising
bin Laden, the paper would run a correction.)

The Tribune stuck unapologetically to its pro-coup line even after Chavez
had been restored to power. Chavez's return may have come as "good news to
Latin American governments that had condemned his removal as just another
military coup," wrote the Tribune in an April 16 editorial, "but that
doesn't mean it's good news for democracy." The paper seemed to suggest
that the coup would have been no bad thing if not for "the heavy-handed
bungling of [Chavez's] successors."

Long Island's Newsday, another top-circulation paper, greeted the coup
with an April 13 editorial headlined "Chavez's Ouster Is No Great Loss."
Newsday offered a number of reasons why the coup wasn't so bad, including
Chavez's "confrontational leadership style and left-wing populist
rhetoric" and the fact that he "openly flaunted his ideological
differences with Washington." The most important reason, however, was
Chavez's "incompetence as an executive," specifically, that he was
"mismanaging the nation's vast oil wealth."

After the coup failed, Newsday ran a follow-up editorial (4/16/02) which
came to the remarkable conclusion that "if there is a winner in all this,
it's Latin American democracy, in principle and practice." The incident,
according to Newsday, was "an affirmation of the democratic process"
because the coup gave "a sobering wake-up call" to Chavez, "who was on a
path to subverting the democratic mandate that had put him in power three
years ago."

The Los Angeles Times waited until the dust had settled (4/17/02) to run
its editorial on "Venezuela's Strange Days." The paper was dismissive of
Chavez's status as an elected leader-- saying "it goes against the grain
to put the name Hugo Chavez and the word 'democracy' in the same
sentence"-- but pointed out that "it's one thing to oppose policies and
another to back a coup." The paper stated that by not adequately opposing
the coup, "the White House failed to stay on the side of democracy," yet
still suggested that in the long run, "Venezuela will benefit" if the coup
teaches Chavez to reach out to the opposition "rather than continuing to
divide the nation along class lines."
The Washington Post was one of the few major U.S. papers whose initial
reaction was to condemn the coup outright. Though heavily critical of
Chavez, the paper's April 14 editorial led with an affirmation that "any
interruption of democracy in Latin America is wrong, the more so when it
involves the military."

Curiously, however, the Washington Post took pains to insist that "there's
been no suggestion that the United States had anything to do with this
Latin American coup," even though details from Venezuela were still
sketchy at that time. The New York Times, too, made a point of saying in
its April 13 editorial that Washington's hands were clean, affirming that
"rightly, his removal was a purely Venezuelan affair."

Ironically, news articles in both the Washington Post and the New York
Times have since raised serious questions about whether the U.S. may in
fact have been involved. Neither paper, however, has returned to the
question on its editorial page.

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