The unreality of “realism”

U.S. support for the coup of 2002 gave Chavez power and popularity that seem to have outlived him. Mistake!

Hugo Chavez is dead, but it looks as if Chavismo lives on. Even with an honest count, Chavez’s successor is likely to win handily. People who know more about Venezuelan politics than I do tell me that’s too bad: Chavez shifted the political window sufficiently that the alternative is no longer the rule of the local plutocrats and their multi-national partners.

I’m struck by one aspect of the news coverage: No one seems to mention the role of the U.S. government – specifically of the Bush the Lesser regime – in cementing Chavez in power.

In April, 2002, Chavez (elected three years earlier) was deposed by a military coup and replaced by the head of the businessmen’s association, in a move supported by the largest labor union, the Catholic Church, the mass media, and the military.

At that point, the U.S. had three reasonable options: keep quiet until the outcome was clear, support the coup and make sure it stuck, or support the right of the elected government to stay in power.

Instead, the State Department issued a statement welcoming the coup shortly before it fell apart: some of the anti-Chavez forces didn’t want go along with tossing out the constitution and abolishing the congress and the courts, the army didn’t like the appointment of an admiral to the defense ministry, and there was an unexpected surge of support for Chavez from the poor neighborhoods of Caracas.

All of this left Chavez in a much stronger position; if some of his supporters display a notably paranoid style, it’s hard to say that they don’t have real enemies. And of course it gave Chavez and his friends a devastating reply to complaints about Chavista departures from democratic norms, which have been substantial (though not by the standards of Galtieri or Pinochet or D’Aubuisson).

So, once again – as in putting in the Shah to replace Mossadeq – the cynicism of the self-proclaimed “realists,” with their constant search for “our sonofabitch” – backfired.

As Michael Walzer once said, there is neither advantage nor honor to be gained from doing evil badly.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

19 thoughts on “The unreality of “realism””

  1. So, once again – as in putting in the Shah to replace Mossadeq – the cynicism of the self-proclaimed “realists,” with their constant search for “our sonofabitch” – backfired.

    Eh, you win some and lose some. The Shah stayed in power for 25 years after the coup (which we and the British backed up), and he might have stayed in power longer if the Shah had come down on the protests hard at the very beginning, something that even the current Iranian government acknowledged in their history of it (and which Carter pushed him against).

    That said, it doesn’t really make sense to do that anymore in a situation where we don’t have another superpower actively trying to subvert our regional partner governments (and vice versa), and it especially didn’t make any sense to do that in the case of Chavez. Whatever his blustering, Chavez kept the oil flowing, and then the Venezuelan government turned around and spend a good chunk of that money on imports from the US.

    1. The Iran coup destroyed the moral authority of the US in the Middle East, something it has never really recovered. Up until that point the US was well regarded in Moslem countries. At that point, the US was far from being the unconditional supporter of Israel seems to be today.

      The US was panicked into the coup by the British who represented Mossadeq as a Communist fellow-traveller. Up until the 1950s, Iran was a quasi-dependency of Britain, who had presented themselves with an oil monopoly.

      Mossadeq in fact was an anti-British democrat who nationalised Anglo-Iranian Oil. It was the now-familiar story of the US putting its own (oil) interests before the interests of the people whose “freedom” it claimed to care about. The coup undermined the credibility of any local nationalists who regarded democracy as the best way forward for Arab countries.

    2. People HAVE RUN THE NUMBERS, Brett, they are not making this stuff up.
      Considering all foreign interventions by the US since the country began, 25% have led to democracy in place ten years after the intervention. This number is the same for both overt and covert interventions.
      In other words, 75% of such interventions, after all the blood and treasure expended, revert to a variant of the autocracy that existed before.

      You are welcome to claim that the US imposing autocrats, secret police, and torture on the rest of the world is our god-damned right, and we should continue doing it for whatever monetary advantage it brings our plutocratic class. But then don’t be freaking surprised when everyone else around the world is less than enthusiastic about the US, whether it takes the form of blowing up the Lebanon barracks, or attacking downed helicopters in Somalia, or sinking the USS Cole, or attacking the World Trade Center; or when it is civilized Europe refusing to take part in the US’ grand (and immensely expensive, and apparently completely pointless) invasion of Iraq.

  2. Will be interesting to see if US political elites actually acknowledge electoral outcomes in Venezuela now. It’s always amazing to common wisdom arise that elections are stolen because it’s apparently so unimaginable that socialism (in Venezuela), religious conservativism (in Iran), etc could actually command majority support. It’s perfectly possible to oppose changes in governments without relying on implausible theories of electoral fraud (that are generally in vogue for a couple weeks after an election and then forgotten about).

    1. some of the republicans i work with (i’m in texas so republicans are the majority of my workplace) still think all the inner-city precincts with zero votes for romney are evidence for a stolen election here at home.

      many of the folks i work with thought a drone strike on chavez would have been a good idea. on the other hand, many of the folks i work with think that foreign aid represents a double digit percentage of the federal budget. in some ways our foreign policy shop suffers from some of the same problems that corporate governance suffers from and for the same reason– one is unlikely to be punished for stupidity and short-sightedness in either area.

      1. I’m wary of those who might be quick to criticize another country’s weaknesses when it comes to democracy, when the concept is often so fuzzy. In Venezuela, it’s my understanding that the electoral flaws had less to do with ballot fraud than structural flaws – opposition intimidation, media pressure, etc. Here in the US, our ballots are also pretty clean, but the influence of money in politics is massively corrupt. We should be at least as concerned with our own politicians being bought and sold.

        1. ” but the influence of money in politics is massively corrupt.”

          True, the “in kind” contributions of companies like MSNBC and CNN, not to mention the NYT, amount to billions every election cycle.

      2. “And what about the Department of Energy. They’ve never produced a single watt of energy!” – actual quote from a relative of mine.

        I love/hate nonsense anecdotes like this that simply sound right to people inclined to agree with them. Countless other examples… life expectancy when Social Security started, etc. I currently live somewhere where the only English-language radio is Armed Forces Network and sometimes listen into Rush, where I suspect many of these “facts” take hold. Limbaugh himself seems quite aware that they’re nonsense, because odds are after making some particularly incredible claim he will add something like, “I’m serious. Look it up! Those in the drive-by media won’t admit it!” Most recently, I heard this applied to his claim that gun laws do not correlate with gun violence, citing the examples of Washington DC and New York City as particularly high in crime… maybe the two American cities with the biggest crime reductions in the past couple decades (not that this has much to do with gun laws).

  3. Did I read this right? It’s “too bad” that the local plutocrats don’t get to run the country?

  4. At that point, the U.S. had three reasonable options: keep quiet until the outcome was clear, support the coup and make sure it stuck, or support the right of the elected government to stay in power.

    Were it to happen today the Obama Administration would certainly go mum.
    Of course pressure would build with Hannity and crew raging for action at Murdoch’s cameras.

    All so boring…
    All so predictable…

    Aren’t you glad Romney didn’t win and you don’t have to listen to a “surge of Fox analysts” asserting that the good unemployment numbers are a direct result of confidence in a Romney Presidency?

  5. This is grossly unfair to actual realism.

    Actual realism says you don’t do anything to depose Chavez because IT’S NONE OF OUR BUSINESS WHO RUNS VENEZUELA. We deal with whoever the leader is, and we don’t demonize him or her.

    The problem with our foreign policy is imperialism. And do-gooder liberal imperialism is just as immoral and illegitimate as power-mad conservative imperialism. Indeed, in many ways it is worse– humans are capable of a lot MORE mass murder when they think they are morally justified.

    The US needs to shut its trap about who controls foreign governments. It isn’t our business.

    1. You don’t much hear C. Wright Mills’s old phrase “crackpot realism” anymore. I wonder why not?
      Relatedly, I’d love to see some American President get up and say: “The question of who runs country X is for the people of country X to decide. I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence and deny that we have preferences, but as far as talking about them goes, I’m reminded of an embattled governor I once knew who told a political ally facing a tough re-election bid, ‘I’ll come into your district and campiagn for you or against you, whichever you think would help.'”

  6. That Chavez, he sure was awful… Should have let the Plutocrats run the country….

    From wikipedia:

    Income and Poverty

    During the past decade under Chavez, the income poverty rate in Venezuela dropped by more than half, from 54% of households below poverty level in the first half of 2003, down to 26% at the end of 2008. “Extreme poverty” fell even more – by 72%. Further, “these poverty rates measure only cash income, and doesn’t take into account increased access to health care or education.”[9][85]

    Datos reports real income grew by 137% between 2003 and Q1 2006.[86] Official poverty figures dropped by 10%.[87]

    Venezuela’s infant mortality rate fell by 18.2% between 1998 and 2006.[90][91]

    1. Should have let the Plutocrats run the country….

      Which gets me thinking again about some sort of plutocrat index….
      Is there a way to measure/compare plutocrat control of States?

    2. Instead of BEING the plutocrat? What’s that estimated estate he left behind? Roughly a billion dollars? Man, the office of Venezuelan President must pay well.

      Or maybe he was just a kleptocrat well versed in using the language of ‘social justice’ to get liberals to ignore the way he was robbing his country blind. Accuse the oil companies of robbing the people, and people will ignore that you take their wealth, and keep it yourself.

      I’m thinking the latter.

      1. Out of interest I looked this claim about $2 billion up. It goes back to one right-wing blogger making it up. No evidence, no facts, no mention of houses in London, Swiss bank accounts, nothing. Just one guy making it up. But somehow I doubt this complete absence of evidence will mean anything to Brett.

  7. Chavez came into power through an election that was certified free and fair by international observers.

    More than could be said for George W. Bush.

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