South of the Border, Democracy Works

It was a good week for democracy in Latin America, and not such a good week for democracy in Washington and New York.

Beyond those immediate observations, we know far less at the moment than we need to know about the events leading up to the coup and countercoup in Venezuela. Who was killed in the violent street demonstrations of April 11? Who did the shooting? When did the State Department learn that a coup was imminent? What did our diplomats (and military attachés) say to the plotters? Why did the White House and the National Security Council ignore our treaty obligations to oppose the unlawful overthrow of an elected President?

These are not rhetorical questions. The establishment of democratic institutions, civil society and human rights in the nations of Central and South America is by no means assured. Continuing conflict over the region’s extreme disparities of wealth-and the reluctance of powerful interests to surrender their political privileges-continue to threaten the development of freedom and constitutional order. In theory, at least, U.S. policy seeks to encourage that development, and to discourage the recrudescence of dictatorship and despotism.

Yet the wind from Caracas carried a pungent, unwholesome aroma of earlier military interventions against elected governments-and the traditional complicity of the United States and the mainstream media in those criminal conspiracies. That smell intensified with the release of comments from the Bush White House, where press secretary Ari Fleischer seemed to welcome the forcible removal of the twice-elected Hugo Chávez and the installation of a “transitional civilian government” which “has promised early elections.”

As Mr. Fleischer uttered those words, Pedro Carmona, the oilman anointed as “dictator for a day,” was attempting to dismiss the National Assembly and the Supreme Court so that he could rule by decree. Only a sudden mass uprising by Chávez supporters and the turnabout of the military rank-and-file frustrated the schemers.

There was something surreal about the official U.S. response to this chaotic situation, coming as it did from an administration that had actually lost the popular vote in the last election here and only attained power by judicial intervention. Of course, no one is supposed to dwell on the 2000 election and its disputed aftermath anymore, irresistible as such comparisons may be.

Anyway, there were plenty of other ironies in the American response to the coup attempt. Among the most notable was Mr. Bush’s proclamation of “Pan-American Day” and “Pan-American Week” on April 12-the very same day that his administration was failing so miserably in its responsibilities to its southern neighbors.

His proclamation was intended to honor the growing hemispheric commitment to those shared values, and so on. In glowing terms, it describes the strong response of the Latin democracies to the terrorist assault on the Twin Towers last September.

Coincidentally, on Sept. 11, 2001, all those liberty-loving friends of the United States were in Lima, Peru, with Secretary of State Colin Powell for an important ceremony. They were there to approve the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document meant to strengthen the multilateral commitment to protecting constitutional democracy in the hemisphere.

Last week, on the very first occasion that the new charter was invoked, the U.S. was not merely unsupportive but actively obstructive, according to an excellent account by Karen DeYoung in The Washington Post on April 16. The nations that rallied behind us when we were attacked are disgusted, to put it very mildly. That they helped to undo the coup in Venezuela without Washington’s assistance only emphasizes the poor performance of the Bush administration.

Once again, the supposed masters of foreign policy serving Mr. Bush have displayed their own arrogance and incompetence. In this episode, they proved that they believe in multilateral diplomacy only when it serves the interests of the United States, and that they honor constitutional processes only so long as those processes produce the desired result. A single day’s duplicity has revived every ugly memory of the U.S. role in Latin America during the Cold War.

Those memories encompass the conduct of the mainstream press during that era, when newspapers often behaved as propaganda adjuncts of the Central Intelligence Agency. When The New York Times published an editorial endorsing the Venezuelan coup on April 13, the paper of record sounded weirdly anachronistic. It was as if the editors had forgotten everything they ought to have learned in the last four or five decades. The Times grudgingly acknowledged its error on April 16, in an editorial that denounced Mr. Chávez as “autocractic.” The editors confessed that in their enthusiasm, they had “overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed.”

North Americans often regard themselves as paternal teachers of democratic values to the underdeveloped countries. But evidently it is our elites who have much to learn about liberty from the people of Latin America.