From Venezuela, disturbing evidence of American incompetence
THE Bush administration's behaviour during the failed coup against Hugo Chavez is becoming a foreign-policy embarrassment. Christopher Dodd, a senator from Connecticut, is looking into what officials did and said during the chaos in Caracas. Did they know about the coup in advance? Did they help plan it? And what damage has the coup and its failure done to America's credibility?
The administration argues that since it had no idea a coup was coming, it could not have been involved in planning it. If that is true, it is a disturbing intelligence failure. Practically everyone in Venezuela knew a showdown was imminent. The CIA should surely have known it too.
The real issue is whether the administration was involved in planning the coup. American officials had contacts with the conspirators beforehand, and these contacts may have been more extensive than the administration at first admitted. But that proves nothing. Scores of Venezuelans, some of them anti-Chavez, troop through Washington all the time. So what?
Two individuals, however, have connections with both the White House and the coup. One is Gustavo Cisneros, a close friend of the Bush family. He is one of Latin America's richest men and owns the largest media group in Venezuela. He is also of Cuban descent. Rumour in Caracas says he bankrolled the coup, but there is no evidence of that. He was inside the presidential palace around the time of the coup and was called twice by Otto Reich, America's assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere. But what Mr Cisneros was doing is unknown. Mr Reich says the calls were for information.
The other person is Luis Giusti, a former head of Venezuela's state oil company. He has ties with the White House as an energy adviser. The coup was triggered by Mr Chavez's attempt to take over the state oil company. Mr Giusti's political allies backed the coup. But otherwise the evidence linking him, or the administration, to the coup is circumstantial, at best.
The real charge against the Bush administration lies elsewhere. On the first day, officials failed to condemn the coup and did not criticise the suspension of the National Assembly. They took Mr Chavez's "resignation" at face value. It was not until Latin America's leaders strongly condemned the coup that the administration changed its tune, with Colin Powell saying what should have been said at first: that the violent overthrow of a government is against American values and interests.
In recent years, by supporting the continent's "new democracies", the United States shook off its old reputation for treating Latin America as its back-yard. It has now got some of that reputation back, and at a time when it stands accused of abandoning Argentina to chaos, of failing to fulfil promises of free trade and of disappointing Mexican hopes of a deal with America on immigration.
The administration has also shone an unflattering light on its internal policy-making. George Bush himself has been an enthusiast for closer ties with Latin America, and has warmly embraced the "democracy clause" that requires members of the Free Trade of the Americas agreement to have elected governments. But many of his appointments come from an earlier stage in America's policy evolution: the "our-son-of-a-bitch" tradition. Three of the mid-ranking Latin America officials at the National Security Council, State Department and USAID are Cuban-Americans and staunch anti-communists. The Cuban connection mattered in Venezuela because Mr Chavez, an ally of Fidel Castro, ranks second only to the Cuban dictator in Cuban-American demonology.
Two other officials came to notoriety during the scandal over the Nicaraguan contras. Elliot Abrams pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about that policy; he has re-emerged as head of the NSC's office for democracy and human rights. John Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras during a savage period of repression; he is now ambassador to the United Nations.
But the most controversial figure is the man mainly responsible for policy in the region: Mr Reich, a Cuban-American who ran the State Department's office of public diplomacy in the 1980s, which, according to Congress, helped Oliver North raise money for the contras. Mr Dodd blocked debate on his nomination, and he took up his post only after a "recess appointment", allowing him to do his job for a year without Senate approval. The coup in Venezuela has deepened suspicions in Washington and Latin America about the people running American policy; and all the more so when the foreign-policy heavyweights, like Mr Powell, have their hands more than full elsewhere.