When elements of the Venezuelan military forced president Hugo Chavez from office last week, the editorial boards of several major U.S. newspapers followed the U.S. government's lead and greeted the news with enthusiasm.
In an April 13 editorial, the New York Times triumphantly declared that Chavez's "resignation" meant that "Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator." Conspicuously avoiding the word "coup," the Times explained that Chavez "stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader."
Calling Chavez "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 Chavez 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, Chavez 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. Chavez 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. Chavez 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 Chavez 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 Chavez 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. Chapman said that if the Tribune could find no record of Chavez praising bin Laden, the paper would run a correction.)
The Tribune stuck unapologetically to its pro-coup line even after Chavez had been restored to power. Chavez'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 [Chavez's] successors."
Long Island's Newsday, another top-circulation paper, greeted the coup with an April 13 editorial headlined "Chavez's Ouster Is No Great Loss." Newsday offered a number of reasons why the coup wasn't so bad, including Chavez'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 Chavez's "incompetence as an executive," specifically, that he was "mismanaging the nation's vast oil wealth."
After the coup failed, Newsday ran a follow-up editorial (4/16/02) which came to the remarkable conclusion that "if there is a winner in all this, it's Latin American democracy, in principle and practice." The incident, according to Newsday, was "an affirmation of the democratic process" because the coup gave "a sobering wake-up call" to Chavez, "who was on a path to subverting the democratic mandate that had put him in power three years ago."
The Los Angeles Times waited until the dust had settled (4/17/02) to run its editorial on "Venezuela's Strange Days." The paper was dismissive of Chavez's status as an elected leader-- saying "it goes against the grain to put the name Hugo Chavez and the word 'democracy' in the same sentence"-- but pointed out that "it's one thing to oppose policies and another to back a coup." The paper stated that by not adequately opposing the coup, "the White House failed to stay on the side of democracy," yet still suggested that in the long run, "Venezuela will benefit" if the coup teaches Chavez to reach out to the opposition "rather than continuing to divide the nation along class lines."
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 Chavez, 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, his removal was a purely Venezuelan affair."
Ironically, news articles in both the Washington Post and the New York Times have since raised serious questions about whether the U.S. may in fact have been involved. Neither paper, however, has returned to the question on its editorial page.