Is Democracy Always Worth the Trouble?


Apr 24, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on April 24, 2002.

Once the coup occurred, U.S. support of Chavez was optional.

While the United States' attention is focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan, it's also important to remember that we have vital long-term strategic interests in Latin America and that those interests are best served by stable and democratic governments. This is why the recent coup and counter-coup in Venezuela, one of the world's leading oil producers, deserves more attention.

In the 1990s, Latin America experienced a strong, regionwide trend toward democratic governance that encompassed every country in the region except Cuba. Although Latin American democracies remain under pressure, the democratic trend has held.

But what happens when a democratically elected president is working to undermine democratic institutions? What if that same leader is working to undermine global U.S. strategic interests? And if that president's behavior oversteps the bounds of tolerance of major sectors of the population and is overthrown, what course of action would be in the best interests of the United States and of Latin American democracy? Should the U.S. refuse to deal with the new regime and demand the deposed president's restoration? Work with the successor government and seek an early return to democracy? Take no action?

These questions need to be kept in mind in considering the dilemmas the Bush administration faced in the botched coup attempt in Venezuela.

The spectacle of a democratically elected leader working to undermine democracy is unfortunately common. In Latin America there was the case of Argentina's Juan Peron, like Hugo Chavez a former military officer with great appeal among the poor. Peron, though elected, ran what was in effect a dictatorship and in the process devastated the country's economy. His overthrow in 1955 was no loss to democracy. Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's self-coup in 1992, in which he closed the Peruvian Congress and awarded himself full powers, was another case in point.

Upon coming to power in 1999, Chavez launched what he calls the Bolivarian revolution, which was supposed to redress the inequities in Venezuelan society. In fact, it amounted to a Peronesque attempt to destroy the checks and balances inherent in a democratic constitutional system. Chavez also moved to extend his control over independent sectors of society, including labor organizations and the media. The concentration of political power was part of a vision that included opposition to economic liberalization, anti-Americanism and sympathy for Fidel Castro and Colombian guerrillas.

Chavez's moves to extend his reach to two key institutions laid the groundwork for the failed coup. The first was his attempt to gain control of the powerful Confederation of Venezuelan Workers. The union's leadership resisted and prevailed in a vote for control of the organization. The second was Chavez's firing of key managers and the packing of the state-owned oil corporation's board of directors with his supporters. Employees responded with a strike that came close to paralyzing oil production.

The crisis escalated with a general strike declared by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers and the industrialists' federation, mass demonstrations demanding Chavez's resignation, the killing of 15 demonstrators by Chavez supporters and the president's ouster by the military.

There are no credible indications of U.S. encouragement or support of Chavez's overthrow. That would have been inconsistent with U.S. international obligations. But once the coup took place, was the United States obliged to support Chavez's restoration? That was the position of a majority of Latin American countries in condemning the coup. Some no doubt acted on principle; others perhaps did not wish to give ideas to their generals.

But given his history, restoring Chavez to power was not necessarily in the best interests of Venezuelan democracy. Seeking to moderate the new government and a rapid return to real democracy would have been an eminently defensible policy.

Now that Chavez is back in the presidential palace, the United States has to make the best of a bad situation. An effective approach would consist of a two-pronged strategy. The Bush administration's offer of normal relations with Chavez if he is willing to work toward reconciliation in Venezuela and cooperation with the U.S. would be one prong. The other would be strengthened support of civil society sectors in Venezuela because their continued independence offers the best hope for the survival of Venezuelan democracy.

Angel Rabasa, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp., is the author of Colombian Labyrinth (RAND, 2000).

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