Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro’s announced today that President Hugo Chávez had died at 4:25pm. According to Venezuela’s constitution [PDF], new presidential elections are supposed to be held within 30 days.
The news could present an opportunity for an improvement in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, but that is unlikely. Earlier in the day, Maduro announced that the Venezuelan government would expel the U.S. military attaché for unsanctioned meetings with certain Venezuelan military officers. While this is of course a significant development in U.S.-Venezuela relations that marks yet further deterioration, unfortunately it seems safe to say that most U.S. media outlets will not provide the crucial context necessary in order to understand current relations and why they are so tense.
Maduro mentioned the April 2002 coup d’etat in his press conference today. Declassified C.I.A. and other government documents reveal the U.S. role in that coup against Hugo Chávez. As Scott Wilson, former foreign editor at the Washington Post has explained:
Yes, the United States was hosting people involved in the coup before it happened. There was involvement of U.S.-sponsored NGOs in training some of the people that were involved in the coup. And in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the United States government said that it was a resignation, not a coup, effectively recognizing the government that took office very briefly until President Chavez returned.
I think that there was U.S. involvement, yes.
(Video clip here. This information has however never been reported this fully in the pages of the Washington Post itself.)
The coup was overturned two days later, but before it was the coup regime headed by businessman Pedro Carmona demonstrated its feelings about democratic institutions by dissolving the congress, the supreme court, and the constitution. The New York Times editorial board applauded the coup, writing, "Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator." The IMF explained that “We stand ready to assist the new administration in whatever manner they find suitable.” After the coup was overturned by Venezuelans in the streets and soldiers loyal to the elected government, and Chávez returned to Caracas from the island where his golpista kidnappers had taken him, the New York Times offered a sheepish apology for its previous applause. The U.S. government and the IMF, however, never apologized for their support for the coup.
It is also important to note that U.S. government interference in Venezuela did not stop there. The U.S. has continued to fund various groups in Venezuela opposed to the government – including political parties and media outlets. The U.S. State Department and entities such as the National Endowment for Democracy also have not disclosed who all of these recipients are, in Venezuela nor in other countries such as Bolivia, where the government has also expelled U.S. diplomats, and where the U.S. media has also done a poor job in providing context behind the deteriorating relations.
More recently, last month U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland referred to “how the transition is going to take place” in Venezuela. Not surprisingly, the Venezuelan government also took this to be a form of meddling. Talk of a “transition” was premature, and Nuland’s statement was “nothing less than the open meddling into issues that are for Venezuelans to resolve,” according to Eleazar Diaz-Rangel, editor in chief of Venezuela’s most-widely read – and probably most objective – newspaper Últimas Noticias.
It is hard to imagine U.S. government officials making similar statements if the leader of an ally country such as the U.K. or Israel were fighting for her/his life. But when it comes to Venezuela the behavior fits a pattern of ongoing efforts to undermine the elected government.
It will also be interested to see how the international community and the media will receive Maduro, should he become Venezuela’s next president. Chávez called on Venezuelans to support Maduro should new elections be necessary, and polls show Maduro would likely win over an Henrique Capriles or another opposition candidate. Both U.S. media outlets and U.S. government officials have often sought to blame poor relations between the U.S. and Venezuela on Chávez’s “fiery” personality; will they do the same with Maduro? Earlier media reports today indicate that the answer is probably yes. Media – and many other observers –also focused much on Chávez’s military background, something that Maduro does not have.
For his part, Maduro got an early taste of U.S. hospitality in 2006 when he was unceremoniously searched at the airport prior to departure back to Venezuela in his first U.S. trip as Venezuela’s Foreign Minister. It was an unfortunate first impression to make on the man who will probably be Venezuela’s next president.