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Democratic Survival: Venezuelan Triumph Leads the Way

21 years ago, a US-backed coup failed to overthrow the government of Hugo Chávez and replace it with one more amenable to US interests. The citizenry took to the streets, refusing to accept the attempt of their elite to replace the popular president, and succeeded. The Venezuelan experience may serve as an inspiration and example for other Latin American nations seeking to take a direction independent from overbearing US pressure.

Caracas (Venezuela) Feb. 18, 2009. Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a press conference at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas. © Harold Escalona /

May 29, 2023 22:08 EDT

A tradition of US imperialism in Latin America

President Hugo Chávez’s democratically elected government in Venezuela suffered an attempted coup on April 11, 2002. Chávez had prioritized programs to improve living conditions for those who were previously unrepresented and established an independent foreign policy in favor of the nation’s interests. This stance conflicted with the so-called Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, adopted in 1904, which had since become the guiding principle of US policy in the region.

In his 1904 State of the Union Address, Theodore Roosevelt claimed the right for the US, as the local “civilized nation,” to intervene in the internal affairs of states in the Western Hemisphere which it judged guilty of “chronic wrongdoing,” What it amounted to was a declaration of intention to oppose any government, foreign or regional, that jeopardized US interests. It laid the groundwork for the use of US military force and other forms of intervention in Latin America. In the years since, armed with the Roosevelt Corollary, the Monroe Doctrine became the ideological basis for US hegemony in the region, justifying the violation of the rights of nations of self-determination.

The case of Venezuela in 2002 seemed ready to be just one more chapter in the long history of US imperialism in the region.

The Chávez administration had redefined the rules of democracy by drafting a new Constitution, one that was voted on by the people, and that allowed for greater popular participation. The Chávez government had also reasserted its sovereignty over its vast oil wealth by moving to abort the privatization of PDVSA, the state oil company. In September 2000, it had organized a summit meeting in Caracas of OPEC oil-producing countries to stabilize prices at higher levels to increase the country’s main source of income.

Washington’s main opposition to Chávez’s foreign policy came when he met with OPEC leaders considered to be US adversaries, including those of Libya, Iraq, and Iran in preparation for the 2000 OPEC summit. Chávez met with Saddam Hussein and Muhammar Ghaddafi again the following year, and spoke out against the US invasion of Afghanistan as a reaction to 9/11, saying, “You can’t combat terror with more terror”.

The US intervenes

The situation came to a head when in April of 2002, with the backing of the Oval Office, Venezuela’s pro-Washington elite, high-ranking military officials, leaders of the traditional labor organizations, Catholic Church hierarchy, and chamber of commerce embarked on ousting the popularly elected government.

An intelligence brief dated April 6, 2002—a mere five days before the coup plot would be carried out—explicitly states that a coup was set to take place.

Under previous Venezuelan governments, neoliberal reforms increased poverty while the police and military used violent repression, but the US still perceived Venezuela as a flourishing democracy. This attitude was to fall by the wayside when, upon Chávez’s ascension, the United States ceased to respect the fundamental premise of respecting an elected leader’s mandate. A State Department cable leaked right before the coup revealing the dissident military factions’ intentions to detain and overthrow Chávez, exhibits the US’s advance knowledge of and direct involvement with the conspiracy.

On April 10, one day before the coup, US Ambassador Charles Shapiro spoke to the press after meeting the Mayor of Caracas. When asked if the US supported President Chávez, his reply was: “We support democracy and the constitutional framework” and he advised US citizens in Venezuela to “be careful”. The mayor, by his side, said: “If he doesn’t rule like a democrat, Chávez will leave office sooner than later.”

What came after was a wave of violence and repression that led to the arrest of Chávez, the killing of 19 people and injuring of over hundred, and saw Pedro Carmona, a business leader, swearing himself in as President, soon enjoying a visit from Ambassador Shapiro. All according to regular Rooseveltian protocol, thus far.

The Venezuelan people refuse to acquiesce

However, one factor had not been taken into consideration: the will of the Venezuelan people.

On April 13th, the people of Venezuela made history and made a dent on the Monroe Doctrine’s record. Community leaders and organizers, despite facing police repression and a corporate media blackout, took to the streets to demand that Chávez be brought back to office. Military officers and enlisted soldiers, loyal to the Constitution so recently installed by the Venezuelan people themselves, rose up against their commanding officers and demanded that Chávez be reinstated as the legitimate President. This joint civilian and military popular rebellion to save Venezuelan democracy made history and overturned the Rooseveltian, imperialist formula which had successfully overthrown other independent Latin American leaders in the past, among them Jacobo Árbenz, Salvador Allende, João Goulart, Juan Bosch and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The questions we must ask ourselves on an anniversary like this are: why does the United States continue to insist on an over century-old doctrine that causes it to turn its back on the aspirations of the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean? Why does the US government continue to promote violence, human rights violations, and undemocratic governance that it would not tolerate on its own soil? Why would the US continue to make people suffer in places like Venezuela by sanctioning the entire country for standing up for their self-determination? Shouldn’t any people, among the peoples of the world, be able to expect solidarity and respect from the US for standing up for democratic ideals?

In the end, Roosevelt’s version of the Monroe Doctrine is condemned to failure because a people’s determination to be free will always prevail. Why not turn, instead, to a policy of mutual cooperation, of respect for Latin American and Caribbean internal affairs? Why not convince rather than coerce, collaborate rather than take advantage? Why must it take the United States so long to understand that the instability, violence and exploitation it promotes in its own region backfires and leads to the migration challenges it faces today?

In Venezuela now, there’s a popular saying that refers to the day of the 2002 coup and the day—two days later—that Chávez was reinstated: “Every 11th has its 13th.” It is a significant sign of the new Latin America and Caribbean that has emerged in the 21st Century, a region that wants to bury a long history of US interventionism. For every Monroe Doctrine intervention, there will be an April 13th rebellion for sovereignty and dignity.

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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