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A Sometime Champion of Democracy

Government: The Bush administration's initial acceptance of Venezuela's coup erodes the United States' moral authority.


MEXICO CITY — The Bush administration's rapid initial approval of this month's coup in Venezuela has tarnished its status as self-proclaimed champion of democracy and the rule of law in Latin America.

Moreover, the reaction to the attempted ouster of President Hugo Chavez especially rankled Latin leaders because it followed recent trade and security measures in which the U.S. has been seen as contradicting its principles.

The practical effects could include an erosion in support for U.S. policies on Iraq and the Middle East conflict, Latin American diplomats say.

To be sure, there is little sympathy in the region for Chavez, who has trampled on a few democratic principles himself. But by seemingly backing the overthrow of a freely elected leader, the United States has diminished its capacity for moral suasion.

"There is at least a short-term cost. It's not something people will forget," said Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra, a political scientist and director of the Mexico City-based Center for Economic Research and Teaching. "It's a displacement of the very ends that the United States is trying to promote."

After Chavez was replaced April 12, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer declared the Bush administration's support for new elections. And National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on a television news show two days later that Chavez's policies were not working for his country. But the administration has insisted that it took no action to encourage a coup or ensure its success.

Response Draws Fire

For all the administration's talk of backing democracies and free markets, its response gave the impression that the U.S. government selectively supports coups d'etat and a short-circuiting of the popular will, various observers in the hemisphere say.

A leading Brazilian newspaper, O Globo, said, "Washington's impatience, its supposed approval of the coup leaders and its hurry to approve an interim government bring back memories of a past that democracies of the continent repudiate with fervor."

Most Latin American leaders--led by the presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina--were quick to condemn the coup attempt. Upon his return to office, Chavez singled out Mexico's Vicente Fox by thanking him for refusing to recognize the coup leaders.

The Brazilian government reacted "with pleasure to Venezuela's return to constitutional order and its democratic process. . . . It marks an important achievement in the reaffirmation of Latin American values and democratic principles."

By contrast, President Ricardo Lagos of Chile is under fire at home for his seemingly ambivalent initial response to the news. Lagos' fellow leftists say Chilean leaders have a special responsibility to denounce coup attempts, given the violent 1973 overthrow of President Salvador Allende.

But it was the U.S. reaction that had immediate repercussions at the United Nations, with Latin American diplomats holding a private conclave and the large developing-nation bloc uniting quickly behind Chavez and, by implicit extension, against Washington.

The consensus, participants said, was that the coup plotters had acted only because they believed--rightly or not--that they had been given a green light by the Bush administration.

"The United States blew it badly," said a senior Latin American diplomat at the U.N. from a country that is normally supportive of Washington. "It is now trying to get out of this situation the best that it can. But damage has definitely been done."

U.S. Actions a Concern

The Venezuelan fiasco occurred amid lingering bitterness in the region after the U.S. slapped tariffs of up to 30% on foreign steel this year. That measure in effect seals off the U.S. market from exporters such as Brazil, which says the tariff runs counter to free trade principles.

U.S. law enforcement agencies' roundup of hundreds of foreigners after Sept. 11 and the secrecy surrounding their detention also concern many Latin Americans for what the actions convey about legal institutions that heretofore were regarded as exemplary.

"Some of the measures have been more appropriate to a dictatorship, and so I hope they are only temporary," said Diego Valades, director of the Center for Juridical Studies at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

In Mexico, Fox is under fire for forging stronger U.S. links. It doesn't help that his quest for legal status for about 3 million undocumented immigrants in the United States is stalled.

Elsewhere, there is exasperation in Argentina over U.S. reluctance to approve a financial assistance package to help the Latin nation out of its economic crisis.

Seeking to mend diplomatic fences after a difficult week in the region for the United States, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell assured the representatives of the Organization of American States at a meeting Thursday in Washington that the administration stands with critics of the failed coup.

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