Why Latin Americans see a US hand behind every coup

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was deposed in a coup d'état and then reinstated 24 hours later, hemispheric observers immediately wondered if the unseen hand of the United States was behind those events. It was natural that they would, because the US has a long history of involvement in such adventures. This episode is an enlightening case study.

Beginning in the 19th century, Latin American political factions seeking to change their governments have sought support in the US. One of the most notorious examples is Cuba. When that island was still a Spanish colony, rebels seeking independence established a lobbying arm in the US. After Cuban independence, the "outs" continued to flock to Washington looking for help against the "ins."

In the 1950s, opponents of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista agitated in New York, Washington, and Miami. When Batista fell to Fidel Castro, Castro opponents fled to Miami, where they still try to influence US policy.

Many other examples could be cited. In the Venezuelan case, the Bush administration has consistently made it clear that it does not like Mr. Chávez. It was natural that Venezuelans plotting his overthrow should come to Washington. They were received in the White House and State and Defense Departments.

Americans say that plans for the coup were discouraged, but there are many ways to let plotters know we support them without saying so. At about the same time, staff members of the International Republican Institute went to Caracas, where they met with Chávez opponents. (This institute, which is privately managed, was created during the Reagan administration, along with the International Democratic Institute, in an effort to transfer some foreign interventions from the government to private sponsors.)

The Republican Institute staffers might have been going to inform themselves or to encourage the Venezuelans, but the simple fact that they expressed interest, no matter how detached, might well have been taken as a sign of support. Similarly, the fact that the visitors to Washington were received in such places as the White House – that they were even admitted to the White House – was likely to have been taken by them as a show of support, regardless of the message they received.

It is difficult for Americans, even those accustomed to dealing with Latin Americans, to realize how desperate Latins are – despite their anti-North American rhetoric – for some sign of support from the United States. They are apt to hear what they want to hear in conversations with US officials at whatever level. This is because winners of internal Latin American disputes have usually – not always – been those supported in one way or another by the US.

In the 1964 election in Chile, the United States poured in millions of dollars' worth of surplus agricultural commodities for the Christian Democratic Party of Eduardo Frei to distribute as it saw fit to gather votes. In this and other ways, the CIA spent approximately $1 per Chilean voter. In the Johnson-Goldwater presidential campaign in the United States in the same year, Democrats and Republicans combined spent about 50 cents per voter.

In 1970, with Frei forbidden to succeed himself, the US changed from supporting a presidential candidate to opposing one, in this case the Socialist Salvador Allende. That effort was unsuccessful, and Allende was overthrown three years later by Chilean military forces. The Nixon administration had made clear that it did not like Allende, but to this day, it is not clear to what extent, if at all, the coup had US backing other than moral support.

IN FOREIGN POLICY, the facts are less important than what the public believes them to be. Because of the many instances in which the US has intervened, the public frequently sees intervention where none exists. This undergirds traditional Latin support for a policy of nonintervention.

But the Latins themselves are ambivalent on this score. Latin American political factions that cannot achieve their goals on their own do welcome – in some cases, actively seek – US intervention in support of whatever it is they are trying to do, while their opponents denounce it as Yankee intervention. This is one of the things that make it so difficult to determine the truth. There is no easy way out for US policymakers.

Moral: It's easier to get into a bear trap than out of one.

• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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