WASHINGTON -- Venezuela's agony under a leftist demagogue elected by the people has enabled Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd to revive his vendetta against Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich. Dodd blames Reich for approving the 48-hour removal of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The problem is that the aborted coup was not approved by Reich or anybody in the U.S. government.
Dodd has wisecracked that Reich, in charge of Western Hemisphere affairs, lacked "adult supervision" in handling the coup while Secretary of State Colin Powell was in the Middle East. In fact, Chavez's government holds the U.S. blameless, recognizing that Reich neither encouraged nor condoned the Venezuelan president's temporary removal.
Why, then, are Dodd and his allies in Congress elevating Chavez, who as an army officer once bungled a left-wing coup himself, as a symbol of Latin American democracy? Dodd, who appears to be gearing up for an investigation of Reich's performance and is reported to be contemplating a trip to Venezuela, never seemed exercised about Chavez trampling democratic practices in trying to model himself after Fidel Castro. Nor do Reich's critics mention that Chavez's brief fall from power came after his troops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators.
Dodd may be less interested in protecting democracy in Venezuela than in settling old scores with Reich. That seems out of character for the easy-going, politically ambitious Connecticut senator. But Dodd's longtime adviser on Latin American affairs, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Janice O'Connell, has not forgiven Reich for his aggressive support for Nicaraguan Contras. She also sees the Cuban-born Reich as an obstacle to warm relations with Castro's Cuba.
O'Connell impresses on State Department officials that she represents the permanent government whose word must be heeded by temporary presidential appointees. When Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage went to Capitol Hill to confer with Dodd last week, O'Connell was at the senator's side.
As chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee dealing with the Western Hemisphere, Dodd refused even a hearing on Reich's nomination. Reich took office this year as a recess appointment to avoid the confirmation process, but President Bush plans to submit the nomination again in 2003. When a Reich supporter asked Dodd whether he would convene a hearing giving him a chance to refute charges spread by the senator's staff, Dodd replied: "Over my dead body." The Venezuelan fiasco now has generated new accusations.
I asked one senior U.S. intelligence official whether the CIA had a hand in the coup, and he replied: "I assure you that if we did, we wouldn't have made such a mess of it." While the Agency surely lacks the capability of removing hostile regimes in Iran or Guatemala as in Cold War days, neither is it capable of making the mess in Caracas. This was an amateur affair with the brief succession to president of businessman Pedro Carmona concocted by billionaire Venezuelan oil families, on the telephone from Miami.
While pro-Chavez legislators in Caracas have blamed Washington for plotting a coup, Chavez's minister of defense has denied it. "I think this is reckless," Jose Vicente Rangel said last week. Nor were reports accurate that Reich telephoned Carmona during his two-day reign. Charles Shapiro, the career diplomat newly installed as U.S. ambassador in Caracas, did call Carmona at Reich's instruction in two futile efforts to dissuade him from dissolving the National Assembly.
Last week, I interviewed two non-political eyewitnesses to the tumultuous events in Venezuela: a newspaper reporter and a police officer. They described in detail the course of events that led to Chavez's removal and restoration. There was no mention of a hidden hand from Washington.
The surest signal was the lack of uproar, outside of Havana, about Yankee intervention. The false dawn of Hugo Chavez's removal was greeted with relief in private corridors of power throughout the hemisphere -- as it was by Venezuela's people. Objective observers believe his popularity has diminished radically as he has driven down the economy.
None of this in itself will save Otto Reich. Dodd's vendetta poses a threat because of a potential stab in the back from career foreign service officers at the State Department. Reich must rely on constancy from the president and the secretary of state, who share his views and support his positions.