Saddam Hussein expressed his "joy" last week when Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez was restored to power after a 48-hour coup.

The first phone call Chavez then placed was to Cuba's Fidel Castro.

Surprisingly, in Washington, officials from both parties cheered the Chavez restoration as a victory for democracy.

Once he donned the presidential sash, Chavez set about corrupting or dismantling every aspect of these systems. For example, he replaced the constitution with one that vested in him extraordinary powers and that replaced the bicameral Congress with a single-house legislative assembly thoroughly under his control.

He used threats and physical violence to intimidate the media. He packed the Supreme Court and otherwise worked to undermine the integrity and independence of the judiciary. He tried to supplant free labor groups with a government-controlled union. He attempted to make indoctrination in Marxism a mainstay of a revised national curriculum.

Then there are the mobs which Chavez calls "Bolivarian Circles" — fanatically loyal units modeled after and tutored by Castro's communist cadre who are, as in Cuba, employed by the dictator to deliver patronage to supporters and to threaten or attack the opposition.

Such extra-constitutional units have performed similar functions for other despots of this hemisphere. Some of the more notorious have included Manuel Noriega's Dignity Battalions in Panama, the Sandinistas' Turbas Divinas Divine Mobs in Nicaragua, and Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier's Ton Tons Macoutes in Haiti.

For a while, Chavez's mobs had a softer look, as little old ladies delivered medicine to the poor. But the Circle's murderous side emerged recently when its members gunned down trade unionists and other anti-Chavez protesters. It was those killings that prompted Venezuelan military leaders to launch their short-lived effort to bring Chavez's misrule to an early end and restore democracy to their country.

This regrettable outcome was not because the United States was behind the coup — as Chavez, Castro and leftists in American political and media circles have claimed. If anything, it was probably because the Bush Administration declined to encourage, support or endorse such an action.

In fact, late last year, the senior Pentagon official responsible for Latin America policy actually warned potential coup plotters not to overthrow Chavez.

What is more, the U.S. government was clearly taken by surprise at this development when it did occur.

Initially informed that Chavez had resigned the presidency and that, before doing so, he had accepted the resignations of his vice president and cabinet, the Bush team thought a constitutional transfer of power would be forthcoming. It responded in the way it should have under those circumstances, with relief and pleasure that a metastasizing cancer had been removed from Latin America.

It manifestly did not have in place the political and public diplomacy plans that would have ensured that Chavez was unable to return to power — the sort of plans that would have been hatched by a government that had forewarning of, let alone was involved in launching, any coup.

That's not just regrettable; it is a strategic calamity in our backyard. Chavez is consolidating a dictatorship after using elections to come to power, taking a page from the playbook of such democrats-turned-totalitarians as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In the process, he is manipulating the hopes of long-suffering Venezuelan voters and imposing a political and social revolution inspired by Mao, Fidel, Qaddafi, Saddam and other monsters.

Venezuelan oil and money is now providing life support to Castro's dictatorship and a threat to its democratic neighbors, notably Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, whose governments have evidence that Chavez is actively supporting insurgencies in their countries. Of particular concern is Chavez s support for Marxist-Leninist FARC narcoguerrillas in Colombia — a force the State Department defines as a terrorist organization.

To apply President Bush's standard, Chavez is not with us in the fight against terrorism; he is against us. Accordingly, the United States should be as fully committed to the liberation of the people of Venezuela as it has been to those of Afghanistan and, it is to be hoped, those of Iraq.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.