When is it considered legitimate to try to overthrow a democratically-elected government? In Washington, the answer has always been simple: when the US government says it is.
Not surprisingly, that is not the way Latin American governments generally see it.
On February 16, the governments in the Mercosur trading bloc (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela) released a statement on the past week's demonstrations in Venezuela. They described “the recent violent acts” in the country as “attempts to destabilise the democratic order”.
The governments stated, “their firm commitment to the full observance of democratic institutions and ... reject the criminal actions of violent groups that want to spread intolerance and hatred in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as a political tool”.
When much larger demonstrations rocked Brazil last year, there were no statements from Mercosur or neighbouring governments. That is not because they oppose President Dilma Rousseff; it's because these demonstrations did not seek to topple Brazil's democratically-elected government.
The Obama administration was a bit more subtle, but also made it clear where it stood.
When Secretary of State John Kerry says, “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protesters”, he is taking a political position.
Because there were many protesters who committed crimes: they attacked and injured police with chunks of concrete and Molotov cocktails, and they burned cars, trashed and sometimes set fire to government buildings, amid other violent acts.
An anonymous State Department spokesperson was even clearer when he responded to the protests by expressing concern about the government's “weakening of democratic institutions in Venezuela”. He was joining the opposition's efforts to de-legitimise the government, a vital part of any “regime change” strategy.
We know who the US government supports in Venezuela. They do not really try to hide it: there is US$5 million in this year's US federal budget for funding opposition activities inside Venezuela. This is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg ― adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars of overt support over the past 15 years.
But what makes the latest US statements important is they are telling the Venezuelan opposition that Washington is again backing regime change.
Kerry did the same thing last April when the United Socialist of Venezuela (PSUV) candidate Nicolas Maduro was elected president and opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles claimed the election was stolen. Kerry refused to recognise the election results.
Kerry's aggressive, anti-democratic posture brought such a strong rebuke from South American governments that he was forced to reverse course and tacitly recognise the Maduro government. There was no doubt about the election results.
Kerry's recognition of the results put an end to the opposition's attempt to de-legitimise the elected government. After the PSUV won municipal elections by a wide margin in December, the opposition was pretty well defeated.
Inflation was running at 56% and there were widespread shortages of consumer goods, yet a solid majority had still voted for the government. Their choice could not be attributed to the personal charisma of Hugo Chavez, who died nearly a year ago; nor was it irrational.
Although the past year or so has been rough, the past 11 years ― since the government got control over the oil industry ― have brought large gains in living standards to the majority of Venezuelans who were previously marginalised and excluded.
There were plenty of complaints about the government and the economy, but the rich, right-wing politicians who led the opposition did not reflect their values nor inspire their trust.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez ― competing with Capriles for leadership ― has portrayed the demonstrations as something that could force Maduro from office. It was obvious there was no peaceful way that this could happen.
The government has everything to lose from violence in the demonstrations, and the opposition has something to gain.
By February 17, Capriles, initially wary of a potentially violent “regime change” strategy, was apparently down with the program. Bloomberg News reported he accused the government of “infiltrating” the peaceful protests “to convert them into centres of violence”.
US support for regime change undoubtedly inflames the situation, since Washington has huge influence within the opposition and the hemispheric media.
It took a long time for the opposition to accept the results of democratic elections in Venezuela. They tried a military coup, backed by the US, in 2002. When that failed they tried to topple the government with an oil strike.
They lost a vote to recall the president in 2004 and cried foul; then they boycotted National Assembly elections for no reason the next year.
The failed attempt to de-legitimise last April's presidential election was a return to this dark but not-so-distant past. It remains to be seen how far they will go this time to win what they could not win at the ballot box.