THE ATMOSPHERE in Venezuela today is very much like what it must have been in Chile in the middle of 1973. That was when General Pinochet, backed by the US, organised a coup to crush a democratically elected left wing government.
In Venezuela, after the failure of an attempted coup in April against elected president Hugo Chavez, almost all of the media are trying to create the atmosphere in which another coup could work. It is as if a mad dog had bitten the whole of the upper class and much of the middle class.
But this dog has no teeth. Chavez has only taken the mildest of measures to help the half of the Venezuelan population who live on less than $2 a day. There is nothing like the upsurge of mass workers' struggle which Chile saw from 1969 to 1973. But this does not matter to the Venezuelan rich, whose luxury penthouse apartments and five-star hotels dominate the skyline of Caracas, the country's capital.
Behind them, clinging to the hills that surround the city, are the concrete and corrugated iron shacks where the millions of poor live. Chavez passed a law about nine months ago which gave small bits of the huge, uncultivated holdings of rich landowners to the poorest people. When the right tried to overthrow him, Chavez's supporters tried to stop them, supposedly with gunfire.
Previous presidents used massive force when faced with a virtual uprising of the country's poor in 1989 and with coup attempts in the early 1990s . The death toll on those occasions was many times greater than in April. But for the media and the rich this is irrelevant.
To them, the lives of middle class protesters trying to overthrow a government on behalf of the rich are worth a hundred times more than the lives of the poor. The big national newspapers and the main commercial-run TV channels treat those who died trying to overthrow the government as martyrs. Papers like El Universal and La Nacion contain page after page calling for the military to intervene to get rid of Chavez.
Witnessing such things brings home how little those who run the media really care about 'democracy'. You can see how ferociously they would react if a genuinely left wing government came to power anywhere.
Just as hypocritical is the behaviour of the US government. One of its most notorious members, Otto Reich-who was involved in supporting right wing death squads in Nicaragua in the 1980s-gave a nod and a wink to April's attempted coup.
Now the US has set up an office to 'help' with the 'transition' to a different political system in Venezuela-as if there were something undemocratic about Chavez lasting to the end of his elected term. Chavez clearly won two elections with big margins- something which George W Bush has not done.
The attitude of parties supposedly committed to improving the lot of the country's workers through parliamentary reform is just as bad. The parties Causa R, Accion Democratica (affiliated to the Labour Party's Socialist International) and the MAS (founded by ex-guerrillas and with no connection to the Argentinian party of the same name) have all thrown in their lot with the rich and the US.
They must feel they have little choice, since all have participated in governments which made the poor poorer through public spending cuts and IMF programmes. The rich have very little to worry about.
Chavez has gone out of his way to court them since the attempted coup. He has insisted he stands for 'enterprise'. He took a gaggle of big businessmen with him when he recently met Colombia's new hard right wing president elect.
He has tried to establish friendly relations with those right wing officers in the armed forces who chose to stand on the sidelines in April. And he insists he will do nothing to upset the supply of oil to the US. Venezuela is the biggest source of US-imported oil. He recently welcomed ex US president Carter to the country to help arrange a 'dialogue' with some of the opposition forces that backed the coup. Not surprisingly, ruling class voices internationally feel that the Venezuelan rich are getting hysterical for no reason.
A prominent article in El Universal has denounced the 'cowardice' of the Financial Times and some US State Department officials for saying that Chavez has already been forced into a position where he will do what he is told. In the shanty towns the conditions of the poor grow worse by the day. This is the backwash from the crisis that began in Asia in 1998, has swamped Argentina and is now spreading right across South America.
The country is in deep recession, yet the government has cut its spending by about 40 percent this year. It was the poor descending from the hills around Caracas to take over the city centre that finally ended the April coup.
A million of them demonstrated a month ago to show that they were not going to let the rich pick and choose the government of the country. Observers noted that the people who took part in the demonstration had previously had the attitude that Chavez would pass down reforms for them. Now, for the first time, some were beginning to see that they needed to organise themselves. With that lies the only hope in Venezuela.