Jun 1 2002

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

When elements of the Venezuelan military forced President Hugo Chávez from office in April, the editorial boards of several major U.S. newspapers, following the U.S. government’s lead, greeted the news with enthusiasm.

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

Calling Chávez “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 Chávez 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, Chávez 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. Chávez 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. Chávez 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 Chávez an “elected strongman” and declared: “It’s not every day that a democracy benefits from the military’s intervention to force out an elected president.”

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 Chávez 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. Accordingly, the paper ran a correction on April 20 indicating that Chávez had not in fact praised bin Laden.)

The Tribune stuck unapologetically to its pro-coup line even after Chávez had been restored to power. Chávez’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 [Chávez’s] successors.”

Long Island’s Newsday, another top-circulation paper, greeted the coup with an April 13 editorial headlined “Chávez’s Ouster Is No Great Loss.” Newsday offered a number of reasons why the coup wasn’t so bad, including Chávez’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 Chávez’s “incompetence as an executive,” specifically, that he was “mismanaging the nation’s vast oil wealth.”

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 Chávez, 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, [Chávez’s] removal was a purely Venezuelan affair.”

Ironically, news articles in both the Washington Post and the New York Timeshave since raised serious questions about whether the U.S. may in fact have been involved. Neither paper, however, has returned to the question with a follow-up editorial.