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Who Loves Ya, Hugo?


Jerome Doolittle

President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Otto Reich, Ari Fleischer, and the editors of The New York Times soiled themselves thoroughly and publicly over the recent Venezuelan putsch. Thus we are unlikely to hear any more from them about the coup that wasn’t.

Too bad, because an intriguing question has been left hanging: What sent the Venezuelan people out into the streets to undo the coup that toppled their unpopular president?

Every story agreed that President Hugo Chavez’s eighty percent electoral majority in 1998 had dwindled to an approval rating of about thirty-five percent by the time the oil-and-army crowd made its hapless move on him.

And yet that small minority of supporters was somehow able to sweep him back into power. What was the other sixty-five percent doing?

After all, they formed a two-to-one majority that included the generals, the mayor of Caracas, the professional and business classes, the country’s largest labor union, the managers of the national oil company, the editors of the newspapers, and the owners of the television stations.

And George W. Bush sat right behind them, thumping his tail on the floor and panting with ecstasy.

So why couldn’t the Venezuelan establishment keep its handpicked president, oilman Pedro Carmona Estranga, in office for more than two days?

Part of it was the astonishing stupidity of Mr. Bush’s newest ally, a freedom-lover who in just 48 hours dissolved the National Assembly, fired the Supreme Court, and then went on to alienate both the army and the country’s largest labor unions.

But Mr. Carmona still might have survived, if the people of Venezuela hadn’t taken to the streets all over the country to demand the return of President Chavez.

And yet according to those polls, remember, two out of three Venezuelans were fed up with Chavez. What were those huge crowds so angry about, then, and where did they come from?

A few clues appeared in the Times and elsewhere during the media coverage of the coup and the counter-coup. But these hints tended to be buried in plain sight, a few words tucked away here and there in gray columns of text:

“The capacity of Venezuela’s oil fields to produce more fell during the Chavez years, when the government took a greater share of the profits to finance social programs. . .” reported the Times on April 13.

And, the same day: “The interim government repealed 49 economic laws passed by the Chavez-controlled National Assembly last year, legislation that business leaders feared would damage the economy.”

From the Times of the following day: “Mr. Chavez won office promising to overturn the old social order. People loved it. He held referendums to win backing for what he has called a peaceful revolution, redrafted the constitution and embarked on a series of social programs that he pledged would ease life for Venezuelans who live below the poverty line.”

What were these unspecified laws and programs? The Times didn’t go into this except for passing on a few details from a pro-Chavez demonstrator:

“Ms. Avila cited new programs to combat malnutrition and illiteracy in Catia. She said that she was able to start her small business -- selling women’s underwear -- because of a micro-loan program that had been started under Mr. Chavez’s presidency.”

No doubt there was more to it -- certainly those huge crowds in the street weren’t all lingerie merchants -- but you couldn’t tell by the news coverage that followed the coup.

The best I was able to come up with was a December 28, 2001, column in the San Francisco Examiner  by Conn Hallinan. Its headline, some four months before the event, was “U.S. Cooking up a Coup in Venezuela.”

The columnist wrote, “The staggering gap between a tiny slice of ‘haves’ and the sea of ‘have-nots’ is little talked about in the American media, which tend to focus on President Chavez’s long-winded speeches and unrest among the urban wealthy and middle class.

“U.S. newspapers covered the December 10 ‘strike’ by business leaders and a section of the union movement protesting a series of economic laws and land reform proposals, but not the fact that the Chavez government has reduced inflation from 40 per cent to 12 per cent, generated economic growth of four per cent, and increased primary school enrollment by one million students.

“Rumblings from Washington, strikes by business leaders, and pot-banging demonstrations by middle-class housewives are the fare most Americans get about Venezuela these days.

“For any balance, one has to go to local journalists John Marshall and Christian Parenti. In a December 10 article in the Chicago bi-weekly In These Times, the two reporters give ‘the other side’ that the U.S. media always go on about but never present:

“The attempts by the Venezuelan government to diversify its economy, turn over idle land to landless peasants, encourage the growth of co-ops based on the highly successful Hungarian model, increase health spending fourfold, and provide drugs for 30 to 40 per cent below cost.”

Still, none of this explains how a president with such dismal poll numbers could be reinstated by popular demand. For that we are left to speculate.

Who paid for those polls? Mrs. Avila from the proceeds of her underwear business? Or someone like Venezuelan TV mogul Gustavo Cisneros, a fishing buddy of George W. Bush’s who recently moved his headquarters from Caracas to Coral Gables, Florida?

Mr. Cisneros doesn’t pay much attention to the little people like Mrs. Avila. While they were making all that ungodly racket in the streets, his station was running Hollywood films non-stop. Among them were Nell, Pretty Woman and Lorenzo’s Oil.

Addressing himself to his opponents after the counter-coup, President Chavez said, “Once again, sadly, you have demonstrated that there are two countries -- one that is virtual, one that is real.”

May, 2002


Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle