You can set your watch by it. The minute some halfway decent government in Latin America begins to reverse the usual order of things and try to give the have-nots a break from the grind of poverty and wretchedness, all the usual suspects up here in El Norte rouse themselves from the slumber of indifference and start barking furiously about democratic norms. It happened in 1973, in Chile; we saw a repeat performance in Nicaragua in the 1980s; and here's the same show on summer rerun in Venezuela, pending the vote on recall of President Hugo Chavez on August 15.

Chavez is the best thing that has happened to Venezuela's poor in a very, very long time. His government has actually delivered on some of its promises to the poor. A million new pupils are in the schools, with millions more getting school meals. Public spending on education has tripled and doubled on health care. Venezuelan poor people are living longer, and more of their babies are surviving past the first weeks and months. The government is promoting one of the most ambitious land reform programs seen in Latin America in decades.

Most of this has been done under conditions of economic sabotage: oil strikes, military coup and capital flight have resulted in about a 4 percent decline in GDP for the five years that Chavez has been in office. But now the economy is growing at about 12 percent this year, and with world oil prices near $40 a barrel, the government has extra billions that it can use and is using for social programs.

So naturally the United States wants him out, same way the rich in Venezuela do. Chavez was reelected in 2000 for a six-year term. A U.S.-backed coup against him was badly botched in 2002. Now he faces a recall vote on August 15.

The imperial script calls for a human rights organization to start braying about irregularities or lack of respect by their intended victim. And yes, here's Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Chilean-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who leads Human Rights Watch, Americas. We last met Vivanco in this column helping to ease a $1.7-billion aid package for Colombia's military apparatus through the U.S. Congress. This time he's holding a press conference in Caracas, hollering about the "brazen" way Chavez is trying to expand membership of Venezuela's Supreme Court, the same way FDR did, and for the same reason: viz., that the Venezuelan Supreme Court has been effectively packed the other way for decades, with judicial flunkies of the rich. I don't recall Vivanco holding too many press conferences to protest that perennial iniquity. It was the Venezuelan Supreme Court that endorsed the dubious vote count for recall earlier this year.

The troupes of "international observers" recruited to save the rich any inconvenience traditionally include the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center, and in the case of the Venezuelan recall, they have mustered, dead on schedule. They exerted as much pressure as possible on the country's independent National Electoral Council (CNE), on behalf of the opposition, during the signature gathering and verification process. At the end of the process a few weeks ago, the head of the OAS mission, Fernando Jaramillo, had to be replaced by OAS president Cesar Gaviria because of his rabid public statements. The Carter Center's Latin America team is headed by Jennifer McCoy, whose forthcoming book "The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela," leans heavily against the government. One of its contributors is Jose Antonio Gil of the Datanalysis Polling Firm -- most often cited for polling data in the U.S. media. Gil was quoted in the Los Angeles Times on what to do with President Chavez: "And he can see only one way out of the political crisis surrounding President Hugo Chavez. 'He has to be killed,' he said, using his finger to stab the table in his office far above this capital's filthy streets. 'He has to be killed.'"

Media manipulation is an essential part of the script, and here, right on cue, comes Bill Clinton's erstwhile pollster, Stan Greenberg, who is now the Democratic party's leading pollster and political strategist. Greenberg is organizing the recall effort under contract to RCTV -- one of the right-wing media companies that heads up the Venezuelan opposition. It's a pollster's dream job -- not only does he have enormous resources and modern techniques against an old-fashioned, not very politically sophisticated left and poor peoples' movement, GQR (Greenberg Quinlan Rosner) has something that his comrades back home can only fantasize about: control over the Venezuelan media. Imagine Ken Starr and Rush Limbaugh controlling the daily content of ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, the NYT, Washington Post and almost all major newspapers, and almost all of U.S. radio stations during Clinton's impeachment. This is the media situation in Venezuela. Just think what Greenberg's deputy, Mark Feierstein -- a veteran of the NED's efforts in ousting of the Sandinistas in a similarly stacked election in 1990 -- can do with this kind of totalitarian media control.

NED? That's the National Endowment for Democracy, praised not so long ago by John Kerry, who, like the Bush administration, craves publicly the ouster of Hugo Chavez.

When you see the NED coming over the hill, it's arm in arm with the CIA and CIA-backed institutions in the AFL-CIO, where John Sweeney and his team have dismally failed to clean house. The NED has been helping fund the opposition to Chavez to the tune of more than $1 million a year. Among the recipients are organizations whose leaders actually participated in the April 2002 coup. They signed the coup decree that overthrew the elected president and vice president, abolished the county's democratic institutions including the constitution, Supreme Court and National Assembly, and installed the head of the Chamber of Commerce as president. The coup was only thwarted because millions of Venezuelans turned out to rally for Chavez.

The end of this particular drama has yet to be written. Progressive people here in the United States could make a difference if they got off their haunches and threw themselves into the fray.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.