Undermining democracy in Venezuela

April 18, 2002|By Franz Schneiderman

IT'S A sad day for American democracy when the leaders of countries whose human rights records and democratic practices are as deeply flawed as those of Paraguay and Peru show more respect for democratic institutions and the rule of law than the U.S. government demonstrates. But that's what happened last weekend, after elements of Venezuela's military led a coup that briefly ousted the country's elected president, Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Chavez's return to office is a triumph for his country's embattled democratic institutions and for the popularly elected leaders who stood behind his government. But the affair was a black eye for the Bush administration, which strained U.S. ties to allies in the region by backing the coup and will now have little credibility as an advocate for democracy in the Americas.

After strikes and unrest forced Mr. Chavez out of office April 11, a so-called interim government headed by businessman Pedro Carmona imprisoned the elected president, arrested other top government officials, dismissed the National Constituent Assembly and supreme court and suspended the constitution that the nation's voters had endorsed just two years ago. The unrest apparently was organized by factions of the country's military and financial elites determined to oust Mr. Chavez.

Countries throughout the hemisphere quickly condemned the coup, with the sharpest denunciations from nations such as Paraguay, Argentina and Peru, which have endured great brutality under military dictatorships. The Organization of American States denounced "the alteration of the constitutional order in Venezuela" and refused to recognize the regime.

But the tone was very different in Washington.

The Bush administration refused to call a coup a coup. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer referred instead to "a combustible situation in which Chavez resigned." The administration expressed support for Mr. Carmona as it unsuccessfully lobbied the OAS to tone down its criticism of his regime.

Indeed, a report by The New York Times that leaders of the coup recently met with senior Bush administration officials, who backed the Venezuelans' belief that Mr. Chavez should be removed, will fuel rampant suspicions in Latin America that the Colossus of the North was behind the overthrow.

With its class-conscious rhetoric of social revolution and friendly relationships with Cuba and OPEC colleagues such as Iran and Iraq, the Chavez government long has been a thorn in President Bush's side.

Mr. Chavez's sometimes strident rhetoric and egotistical style have sharpened some of his nation's divisions. And as Venezuela's economy weakened over the last year under the weight of falling oil prices and questionable economic policies, Mr. Chavez's once-overwhelming popularity has waned, and unrest increased, in a country that is the third-largest exporter of oil to the United States.

While all of this is cause for concern, the intensity of the Bush administration's hostility to Mr. Chavez is unwarranted.

Although he's chummy with Fidel Castro, Mr. Chavez is no socialist. He's an economic nationalist whose economic policies are much more reminiscent of Juan Peron's Argentina than Mr. Castro's Cuba.

And Mr. Chavez didn't introduce class divisions to Venezuela. In fact, he was elected to address them. Despite the country's tremendous oil resources, more than 80 percent of Venezuelans are considered poor and many eke out marginal lives in the sprawling slums that surround the nation's cities.

Large majorities twice elected Mr. Chavez president, giving him a strong mandate to help the nation's poor and break the stranglehold of the two corrupt political parties that have dominated Venezuelan politics for decades. Despite his mistakes, Mr. Chavez remains a powerful symbol of hope for many of his nation's poor. And the democratic institutions the coup threatened are deeply valued, even by many in Venezuela and throughout Latin America who oppose Mr. Chavez's policies.

Peru's President Alejandro Toledo, who is no friend of Mr. Chavez's, explained his country's opposition to the coup like this: "We are not defending the democratic characteristics of a particular government, we are defending the principle of the rule of law."

Most Americans might have thought the leaders of a country proud of its more than 200-year tradition of constitutional rule and eager to see itself as a beacon for democracy would respect such basic democratic principles.

But in the case of the Bush administration's policy on Venezuela, as in so many other cases in the blood-dimmed history of U.S.-Latin American relations, they would be sadly mistaken.

Franz Schneiderman edits The Sun's letters page.

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