MEXICO CITY -- Yesterday's failed coup attempt in Venezuela contained one great irony involving two presidents.
Here was the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the deposed president of Haiti, waiting in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, to be returned to power.
His host, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, has been his biggest defender, insisting that Latin America reject military coups like the one that overthrew the Haitian leader last year.
If the Haitian army coup were allowed to stand, Mr. Perez argued, it would set an important precedent against the democratic wave that has swept the hemisphere.
But in the early-morning hours, both presidents heard the crackle of machine-gun fire and knew that democracy was in danger of being reduced to a nine-letter word. Venezuela's 33-year-old democracy -- one of the oldest in Latin America -- nearly ended with a bullet.
This was not happening in an obscure place. Venezuela provides the United States with 20 percent of its petroleum products. It is the No. 3 provider after Saudi Arabia and Canada, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency.
Moreover, Venezuela and Mexico are the Bush administration's two biggest "success" stories, having turned from populist state-controlled economic policies to the free market.
The shock of the Venezuelan coup attempt, coming as it did against one of the hemisphere's great champions of liberty, inspired condemnation from Washington to Havana.
"I think it's both tragic and ironic that President Perez, who spoke loudest and longest for Haitian democracy, should himself be subject to a military overthrow," said Robert Pastor, head of Latin studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Yet for many, the failed coup underscores the fragility of democracy in the region and shows how appearances -- even in oil-rich Venezuela -- can be deceiving.
Behind Latin America's democratic facades are millions of dispossessed, impoverished citizens who have received no benefit from the economic programs touted by the Bush administration, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The Venezuelan situation could be duplicated at any moment, from Argentina and Peru to Guatemala and Nicaragua.
On the eve of the coup, Venezuelan government statistics showed that 57 percent of families could afford only one meal a day; that poverty had grown from 37 percent of the population in 1981 to 65 percent by 1989; and that unemployment among 15- to-24-years-olds was about 20 percent.
Salaries for urban Venezuelan workers in 1991 were 47 percent of what they were in 1980, after discounting double-digit inflation, according to the U.N. Economic Commission on the Caribbean and Latin America.
Three years into Mr. Perez's current term, government statistics show there have been 5,000 street protests, of which 2,068 ended in violence. In 1989, at least 300 people were killed at a protest over price increases.
Yet not everyone in Venezuela is heading for the poorhouse.
Last year the deputy interior minister of former President Jaime Lusinchi was accused of masterminding a drug-trafficking ring. Soon afterward, three generals -- including the head of the National Guard's anti-narcotics division -- were summarily cashiered for drug involvement.
Among the civilian scandals was one involving a corporation that supplies arms and ammunition to the military. The company's chief stockholder was President Perez's chief of security.
No wonder that polls last year showed 30 percent of the population would accept a dictatorship to cleanse the system.
A poll last week showed 81 percent of the electorate had little or no confidence in the 69-year-old Mr. Perez, who has asked his country's tolerance until his free-market policies take hold.
While the motives of the anti-Perez military men remain unclear, the circumstances that permitted them to act could be found in just about any Latin American country.
Sixty-six percent of Guatemala's rural citizens (about half the total population) live in poverty. In Peru, the number is 52 percent; in Panama, 59 percent; in Mexico, 37 percent, says the U.N. economic panel.
"The fact is, the Bush administration's policy has not addressed the economic gaps between the rich and poor," said Chuck Call of the Washington Office on Latin America. "This raises questions about [the administration's] neo-liberal model when you have people who cannot afford to eat."