A second chance for a chastened Chavez

April 17, 2002

THE VENEZUELAN military's about-face on ousting President Hugo Chavez has given the flamboyant leader a chance to reassess his revolutionary style of politics and its impact on Latin America's oil-rich democracy. But the coup-that-wasn't also has exposed the Bush administration's parochial and misguided policy on Venezuela, and in the region at large.

Instead of roundly denouncing last week's coup attempt by Venezuela's premier business group and a cadre of military officials, Bush officials lashed out at Mr. Chavez, blaming him for his downfall. The leftist, populist Mr. Chavez has hardly endeared himself to the United States. An ally of Fidel Castro, he has befriended Saddam Hussein and Muammar el Kadafi. And his intention to replace the board of Venezuela's state-run oil company -- the subject of last week's riots that precipitated the coup -- alarmed the United States. After Saudi Arabia and Canada, the United States depends on Venezuela for crude oil and oil products.

But Mr. Chavez, himself the instigator of a failed coup in 1992, was the Venezuelans' choice for president in 1998 and again in 2000, with a solid majority. The core of Mr. Chavez's support lies with the rural and urban poor of Venezuela, who make up a majority of the country's 24 million people. His often strong-arm tactics in pursuit of his populist dream led more and more of the country's well-to-do to leave Venezuela. However, the United States, the champion of democracy, can't pick and choose the democracies it wishes to support. Its less-than-forceful response to the dissolution of the rule of law in Venezuela sent the wrong message to democratic leaders in Latin America, who swiftly denounced the overthrow of Mr. Chavez, and fueled theories that the United States had engineered Mr. Chavez's downfall. Neither benefited American interests in the region.

Some Latin American experts have faulted the anti-Castro diplomats at the State Department for the Bush administration's anti-Chavez response at the start of the coup. U.S. policy toward an entire continent cannot be unduly influenced by concerns over the Cuban-American vote.

Now for Mr. Chavez. He has been called many things, among them a militaristic demagogue. His so-called Bolivarian revolution has done little to improve the plight of Venezuela's poor, and yet his popularity has enabled him to win voter approval to rewrite the country's constitution and elect his supporters to nearly all the 131 seats in the Constituent Assembly.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of Venezuela's middle and upper classes have fled the country. The general strike of last week that preceded the coup was called by trade unionists who feared Mr. Chavez's meddling in the national oil company. A divided nation was further polarized.

Mr. Chavez's return to power by his supporters -- and some politically astute generals -- appears to have humbled the former paratrooper. He has pledged reconciliation, not retribution, and plans to hold meetings to resolve outstanding issues. He has a second chance to do right by his country and countrymen. Only time will tell if this newfound spirit is genuine.

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