Chavez saves Democracy?

Posted: Apr 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Pedro Carmona of Venezuela has a nice point. He didn't participate in a coup, he says. All he did was agree to serve as interim president after being told that Hugo Chavez had resigned! There are those who find this explanation a little smelly, and certainly it is self-serving. As a rule, if asked by military generals to become chief of state, one shows a little interest in what it is that happened to the predecessor.

Hugo Chavez is a provocative figure. He, and Chavez loyalists, are opposed to anti-Chavez coups. Pro-Chavez coups are another thing. Hugo tried to become chief of state via a coup d'etat in 1992, but failed, and went to jail for two years. But then he succeeded, winning one election, modifying the Constitution to permit him a second election, and winning it.

But President Chavez has many problems. The insurrection preceding his 48-hour dethronement was something substantially of his own making. There were tens of thousands of demonstrators out there protesting Chavez policies. He confronted that problem in high autocratic style: He forced television stations to go off the air, and ordered snipers and other armed loyalists at the presidential palace to open fire. When word got around that a dozen people had been killed and many wounded, military commanders took over, effecting his momentary withdrawal.

It has been a doleful journey. The Washington Post summarized it on April 13: "Along the way, Mr. Chavez seriously compromised the integrity of democratic institutions such as Congress and the courts. And unfortunately for the poor, who make up 80 percent of the population of an oil-rich country, Mr. Chavez was a terrible leader. His senseless mix of populist and socialist decrees seriously damaged the economy and galvanized opposition from businesses, media and the middle class, while his courting of Fidel Castro, Colombia's Marxist guerrillas and Saddam Hussein made him a pariah both in Latin America and in Washington."

But attention is now being given to the role the United States played in the attempted coup. The White House said there had been no collaboration with the generals, but there are skeptics. There is, of course, a long historical record of American intervention in Latin affairs. Sometimes we get so upset over the absence of a coup, we send down the Marines to remove an incumbent leader, as the senior President Bush did in 1989 in Panama.

There were Venezuelan efforts to do something about Chavez well before the April events. In November of last year, The Washington Post reported on a clandestine movement to oust Mr. Chavez. Reporter Scott Wilson wrote of "a petition drive on the streets, and a push in the National Assembly to have him declared insane by a medical panel appointed by the Supreme Court."

But the National Assembly was controlled by Chavez. The deadlock brought an apocalyptic prediction: "There is no legal solution, so what can we do? In my opinion, military intervention is inevitable." That was said in November by Oswaldo Alvarez Paz, who had been named by Chavez to help draft a new constitution.

U.S. thought in such matters is done at two levels. On the one hand, we need to swing with democratic elections, paying formal respect to correct political procedure. Hugo Chavez was elected, so Hugo Chavez gets to rule. But when we let our hair down, we occasionally have undemocratic thoughts.

"The lesson here (in Venezuela) is that charismatic demagogues can still win elections in poor countries," said Anibal Romero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University. "The economic and social instability is still with us. The field is still open for the successful appearance of these figures that, by distorting reality and securing the hearts and minds of the uneducated, win elections."

It was a coup that, in Peru, got rid of President Alberto Fujimori, and it was the absence of a coup that prolonged for year after year the reign of Juan Peron and his cousins and his aunts in Argentina. When Bolivia had its 49th coup in the 1960s, National Review magazine acerbically proposed that Bolivia should prepare festivities to celebrate its 50th coup, which was presumably in the making. Mexico avoided the problem for 70 years by going through the motions of an election.

We have an endless problem, contending with our superstitious assumption that a democratically elected leader is absolutely entitled to govern. He is presumptively entitled to govern. Salvador Allende was democratically elected in Chile, and in three years was busy subverting freedom of the press and the nation's constitution, inaugurating years of despotism by Augusto Pinochet.

The restored Hugo Chavez has said he will seek to cooperate with the policies of his opponents, and so far, he hasn't executed anybody, but democratic standards aren't automatically guaranteed by his restoration. The United States didn't engineer the attempted coup, but there is no reason to rejoice in its failure.