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Why Latin Americans see a US hand behind every coup

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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.

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