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Democracy in Venezuela, Unsettling as Ever

By Michael Shifter
Washington Post, April 21, 2002

For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Sept. 11, 2001, turned out to be a decisive day in ways few could have imagined. Just moments after the terrorist attackson the United States, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking at a special session of the Organization of American States in Lima, Peru, eloquently defended a new democratic charter -- which called for hemispheric responses to interruptions of constitutional rule. That instrument was used for the first time to help bring Chavez back to power after a botched attempt to oust him on April 12.

Of all Latin America's leaders, Chavez had long expressed the most profound reservations about such a charter. A decade ago, Chavez himself, a former paratrooper, failed in a coup attempt against a democratically elected government in Venezuela. In January 2000, when Ecuadoran President Jamil Mahuad was ousted by a popular revolt with some military backing, Chavez sympathized with those who engineered the coup. And a year ago, at a hemispheric summit meeting in Quebec, Chavez led a move to block the adoption of the democratic charter.

Though he went along with its adoption on Sept. 11, Chavez has hardly concealed his disdain for liberal, representative democracy; rather, he has passionately extolled the virtues of quite a different notion, which hecalls "participatory democracy." As envisioned by Chavez, this brand of democracy eschews principles such as checks and balances and the separation of powers. Chavez has also criticized regional gatherings that issue pronouncements on the status of democratic rule in particular countries and thereby encroach on national sovereignty. Therefore, for many Latin Americans, the image of OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria together with Chavez -- recognizing his return to power as Venezuela's legitimate, duly elected president -- was drenched in irony.

In contrast to Chavez,President Bush pushed hard for the democratic charter a year ago at the summit meeting in Quebec, seeking to demonstrate to his Latin American counterparts that the region was a high priority for his administration. Powell's statement in Lima appeared to underline the commitment. But in the hours immediately after the coup directed against Chavez -- with Powell and other senior foreign policy officials consumed with the Middle East -- the U.S. government failed to express any concern about the evident interruption of the constitutional process in Venezuela. On the contrary, the Bush administration seemed pleased with the outcome that day and claimed Chavez's own actions had provoked his ouster. In the minds of some Bush administration officials, getting rid of Chavez -- whose anti-American rhetoric and friendship with Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein have long been irksome -- was no doubt tantamount to installing democracy.

Other Latin leaders, however, had a different response. Worried about the potential contagion effect of the Venezuelan scenario in their own fragile democracies, they took the initiative and immediately condemned the coup, invoking the democratic charter adopted seven months before. Although the United States went along with the Latin American move at the first formal meeting of the OAS on April 13, one day into the increasingly shaky coup, the initial U.S. reaction had already resulted in a loss of credibility on the democracy question. Latin Americans were, moreover, upset that the United States did not bother to consult with them before issuing an official statement. The image of Venezuelan generals standing behind Pedro Carmona -- a business leader they had tried to install as president -- had particularly chilling echoes of previous periods of military rule in Latin America.

The message of condemnation by Latin American leaders proved to be one factor in the extraordinary chain of events that ultimately led -- as the headline in the Argentine daily Pagina 12 put it -- to the "resurrection of Chavez on the third day." The democratic charter has been strengthened through its use -- especially in defense of one of its leading critics. If Latin American governments had failed to act as they did, and opted instead to follow the U.S. lead, the democratic charter would not be taken seriously. Friends of the charter should feel reassured, now that the instrument has been used to help its chief opponent.

It should not end there, however. Chavez himself, though Venezuela's elected leader, has undermined his country's democracy through his own policies, reliance on "Bolivarian circles" to bully opponents, and constitutional maneuvers to prolong his time in office. The Latin governments, through the OAS, should now take advantage of their unprecedented authority and legitimacy on the democracy question and engage constructively with the Chavez government to help advance reconciliation in Venezuela. This role, after all, is also essential to the spirit of the democratic charter. With Venezuela still so unsettled and sharply polarized, the OAS has an excellent opportunity to try to foster what is widely known throughout the region as concertacion, or building consensus among disparate political forces. The best way for the Bush administration to recover from this embarrassing episode and regain its credibility is to take an active part in supporting such an effort. President Bush himself should consult with his colleagues in the region and urge joint action through available mechanisms to help Venezuela heal itself.

The United States may be tempted to pursue quite different courses. One option might be to pull back from the region and distance itself from other Latin American governments. Another temptation may be to adopt an even more adversarial posture toward Chavez, justified by his continuing ties with Cuba and his presumed sympathy for the Colombian guerrillas, who in turn are at war with Colombia's democratic government. Neither of these approaches, however, would help move the United States off the sidelines in hemispheric affairs. And neither represents an effective way of dealing with the complex challenges posed by Venezuela and democracy throughout the region.

The premature triumphalism exhibited by the United States in reacting to the Venezuela coup revealed a misreading of the situation in that country. Chavez may not have expected the sort of "participatory democracy" he eventually got -- with genuine opposition forces, a coalition of "civil society" out on the street, protesting the president's confrontational style and failed policies. But Chavez's critics, including the United States, underestimated the intensity and passion of his hard-core base, made up overwhelmingly of the poorest Venezuelans. And they also failed to anticipate the fissures that quickly developed within the agglomeration of opposition groups -- and the political ineptitude of those who eventually assumed control.

Indeed, if last weekend's astonishing events show anything, they underscore the critical role that needs to be played by political parties and leaders in highly fragmented societies like Venezuela's. Although Chavez's success can be traced to his relentless indictment of the country's discredited traditional parties, it is clear that the void left by those wounded parties cannot be effectively filled by "civil society," no matter how inspired and energetic its members may be. The issue is less one of ideology -- the labels of "left" and "right" have little meaning in this context -- than of practicing clean and competent politics.

Especially in that oil-rich country, corruption underlies everything. Chavez has leveled corruption charges against his critics, who, in turn, have leveled the same charges against his administration. Venezuela's vast social inequities have made governing enormously difficult. As Venezuelans look ahead, their fundamental task will be to renovate political parties or establish new ones that will learn from the mistakes of recent decades and build political structures that are more modern and responsive to citizen demands. Indeed, throughout Latin America -- whether in Argentina, Peru or Ecuador -- this is perhaps the most formidable challenge.

And what about Chavez? How is he likely to behave after nearly being toppled? Will he be chastened? So far, his comments have been remarkably conciliatory. But Chavez is mercurial and predictions are hazardous.

More than three years ago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez -- the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer whose most fantastic flights of "magical realism" pale in comparison to Venezuela's recent reality -- wrote a telling profile of Chavez. After talking for hours with Chavez on a flight from Havana to Caracas, Garcia Marquez wrote, "I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot."

Now fate has given the two Chavezes yet another chance. May the best man win.