Bush's Latin diplomacy goes south

The White House is embarrassed after the State Department's Latin American specialist pointedly fails to condemn the Venezuela coup -- and the coup then collapses.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
Published April 17, 2002 10:13PM (EDT)

For a generation, the United States has been lecturing Latin Americans about the importance of democracy and the rule of law. But last week at the State Department the advice apparently had to go in the other direction.

On Friday afternoon, less than a day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was overthrown in what later turned out to be an unsuccessful military-backed coup d'etat, Otto Reich, the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, summoned senior Latin American diplomats to the State Department to discuss the sudden turn of events in the oil-rich South American country. For months last year, Reich's nomination was stalled in the Senate because, among many reasons, Democratic senators feared Reich was less than fully committed to democracy in Latin America. (Reich had a reputation as a Latin American hard-liner in several posts he held in the Reagan administration.) According to accounts provided by Latin American diplomats who attended the meeting, Reich's performance last Friday would have done little to assuage those fears.

Present at the meeting with Reich were ambassadors and other senior diplomats from most countries in Latin America, and Roger Noriega, America's ambassador to the Organization of American States. Reich began by handing out copies of a State Department press release that blamed Chavez's overthrow on Chavez himself and denied that any coup had even occurred. Reich then gave a tortured reading of the Venezuelan constitution in an attempt to illustrate that Chavez's apparent military overthrow really wasn't unconstitutional at all -- an explanation some diplomats at the meeting thought could only have been rationalized by the coup plotters themselves. Neither Reich nor other State Department officials would comment on the meeting.

Chavez had become increasingly unpopular with the Bush administration, with his pro-Cuba politics and recent threats to the independence of the country's state-owned oil company, which is the third-largest foreign supplier to the United States. Word of his ouster was also greeted positively by Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Since many Latin American governments were already condemning Chavez's overthrow, a number of the Latin American representatives at the meeting rose to take exception to the American line, and tell the administration that it should have more concern for the democratic process. First the Brazilian representative read from his country's official statement expressing regret over Chavez's overthrow and insisting that there had been a "break in the constitutional order" -- in other words, Brazil considered it a coup.

Reich disagreed and said there was no "break" or "disruption," again making reference to provisions of the Venezuelan constitution and to surprising details of how Chavez had allegedly left office. He then provided an example that made more than one of the diplomats in the room wince. Reich said that he knew of one Latin American country, for instance, that had recently had "four presidents in two weeks."

"He was saying it was the same case in Venezuela," said one Latin American diplomat at the meeting, referring to the quick series of presidential resignations that took place last December in Argentina.

In other words, Reich's logic apparently went, this sort of thing happens all the time in Latin America.

And as you might imagine, this didn't go down well with Argentina's representative at the meeting, the embassy's deputy chief of mission, Ricardo Lagorio. Lagorio had to explain to Reich that the difference was that Argentina's presidents had resigned and been replaced under constitutional means. So it really wasn't the same thing at all. (Reached by Salon Tuesday, Lagorio would neither confirm nor deny the account.)

Reich eventually, though grudgingly, conceded the point and the floor was opened for questions with the odd spectacle of a roomful of Latin American diplomats having to lecture an American assistant secretary of state about the importance of democratic process and the rule of law.

Within 48 hours, the Venezuelan coup plotters had overplayed their hand and lost the support of key military leaders who had just placed them in power. The new "interim" government -- whose members, according to news reports, had met with U.S. officials prior to the coup attempt and had received at least a sympathetic audience, if not tacit approval -- collapsed and Chavez was right back in power.

"This was something very embarrassing for the State Department in diplomatic terms," a senior diplomatic official from one South American embassy told Salon Tuesday afternoon. "Latin American diplomacy had to give a lesson to the State Department."

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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