A Tale of Two Coups

It’s been a tough week for democracy and American diplomacy. In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf pulled a coup against himself and U.S. diplomats were apparently stunned. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez pulled a coup against his countrymen and U.S. diplomats were once again, well…stunned. The difference in political attention and media coverage accorded these two affairs has been — for lack of a better word — stunning.

Print and broadcast coverage of events nearly half the world away in Pakistan have been ubiquitous since Mr. Musharraf declared a “State of Emergency” and fired his self-appointed Supreme Court last Saturday. Photos and footage of protesting, out of work, Pakistani lawyers being dragged away in handcuffs by police in Islamabad have produced breathless coverage from correspondents who also freely reported that there is now no freedom of the press in Pakistan.

These images were apparently enough to give liberals in the U.S. Congress post traumatic stress disorder, causing a number of members to muse about cutting off economic, military and intelligence assistance — and of course, blame George W. Bush. On Wednesday, while President Bush was giving French President Sarkozy a guided tour of Mount Vernon, Under Secretary of State John Negroponte was on Capitol Hill begging the solons not to pull the plug on Pakistan and abandon “an indispensable ally in the war on terror.”

Meanwhile, the potentates of the press and the powerful on the Potomac have all but ignored the coup in Caracas, just 1,400 miles south of Miami. Last week Venezuela’s rubber-stamp legislature approved 69 constitutional changes drafted by their party boss, Hugo Chavez. If affirmed by referendum on 2 December, the amendments would dramatically expand the powers of Venezuela’s chief executive, permit the government to seize private property without court approval, virtually eliminate civil liberties, and allow Mr. Chavez to serve — like Kim Jung Il in North Korea — as president for life. To make this “deal” attractive to the people, the Venezuelan work-day would be officially shortened to six hours.

On Wednesday this week, while Presidents Bush and Sarkozy toured George Washington’s gardens and Congress mulled the means of tightening the screws on Pakistan, more than 80,000 people took to the streets of Caracas to protest the Chavez coup. When students gathered on the campus of Central University and refused to disperse as ordered by police, the cops and National Guard troops pulled back allowing goons from Mr. Chavez’ United Socialist Party, many wearing ski masks, to open fire on the student gathering.

Despite numerous accounts of the Caracas clashes in the Latin American and European press — even the BBC — there has been scant coverage in the U.S. media — and almost no mention of Chavez’ machinations by our diplomats. The protests in Pakistan — including pitiful pictures of jailed lawyers — have gotten almost as much ink and airtime in the U.S. as the Hollywood writer’s strike. President Bush even called Mr. Musharraf to tell him to “take off his uniform” and hold elections as promised. Yet, official Washington has been practically mute in criticizing Mr. Chavez. Why the difference?

Part of the answer is, of course, that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and Venezuela doesn’t — yet. Interestingly, in his prepared remarks before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Negroponte made only one elliptical mention of Islamabad’s nukes — and focused instead on the need to keep Pakistan with us in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Notably, while everyone was busy bashing Mr. Musharraf, he was quietly moving a full division of Pakistan’s army from the border with India to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Pakistan-Afghan frontier – long a Taliban-Al Qaeda stronghold.

For skeptics — and I confess to being one when it comes to the press and politicians — there may be other explanations for the disparity in how the two coups have been covered and commented upon.

First, Mr. Musharraf has been an ally of the United States in our war against radical Islam since 1981. America’s allies are second only to the U.S. military as whipping boys for the American media. Conversely, Mr. Chavez has proclaimed himself to be America’s enemy since he came to power in 1998. His promise of spreading a “21st Century Socialist Revolution” resonates favorably with the U.S. left. Last May, when Mr. Chavez seized control of Venezuela’s most popular radio and TV stations, it created barely a blip in the U.S. press. 

Second, Venezuela is the fourth-leading supplier of crude oil and petroleum products to the United States. With oil soon to be at $125 per barrel — or higher — is it too cynical to ask if the Chavez coup has been buried by our political and media elites because they are worried about finding fuel for their limos?