Venezuela's political troubles entered a new phase last week with protests over the leadership at Petroleos de Venezuela, the state oil company, that turned into a massive march on the presidential palace. The rapidity with which President Hugo Chavez was purportedly forced to resign, an interim government named, and then deposed by Chavez loyalists to clear the way for his return, raises piquant questions about what really happened and where Venezuela is going from here.
What is evident is that Mr. Chavez is largely to blame for the situation that led up to the brief coup. Since he was elected in 1998 by a huge margin, promising to address past corruption and help Venezuela's growing majority poor, he has manipulated constitutional processes and intimidated opponents to advance his leftist, populist agenda while leaving corruption and poverty largely untouched.
These tactics alienated just about every sector of Venezuelan society. His public works program, the "Plan Bolivar," assigned soldiers to non-traditional roles of repairing hospitals and managing vegetable markets, which many in the military resented. It also diverted authority for these programs away from local governments.
Mr. Chavez attempted unsuccessfully to nationalize the Venezuelan Workers Federation, the country's major labor organization. A year later, he ran his own unofficial candidate for the union's presidency. When that failed, he called the elections fraudulent.
In October 2000, Mr. Chavez signed an agreement with Fidel Castro to provide Cuba with a sizable chunk of its oil needs in exchange for welcoming Cuban experts to train Venezuelan teachers and help develop new school curricula. In March 2001, some 10,000 parents and teachers gathered in various cities across the nation to protest what they perceived as an effort to indoctrinate their children.
What's more, Mr. Chavez turned the government into a tragicomic opera. His weekly "Alo Presidente" television show is a forum for endless political harangues and attacks on journalists whose reports he disputes. His political police allegedly had a role in hiding Peru's fugitive spymaster, Vladimir Montesinos. And he has pursued relations with such international pariahs as Saddam Hussein of Iraq and, of course, Cuba's Castro.
Within the hemisphere, Mr. Chavez has been a recurrent migraine for leaders of neighboring democracies. Reports that the Venezuelan government has permitted Colombia's FARC guerrillas to establish camps inside Venezuela's western border have soured relations with that country. Bolivian leaders were upset when Mr. Chavez reportedly met with union organizer Felipe Quispe. Last year in El Salvador, Venezuelan relief workers who arrived to aid earthquake victims were on the verge of getting kicked out, allegedly for proselytizing villagers with leftist propaganda.
The Venezuela strongman has even challenged the Free Trade Area of the Americas and has vowed, with Castro, to set up a rival hub of influence within the hemisphere to thwart the advance of globalism and market economics.
Clinton and Bush administration officials wisely refrained from openly criticizing Mr. Chavez, or from antagonizing him in such a way that he could paint the U.S. as the source of all Venezuela's problems. Castro, his mentor, is a master at this sort of diplomatic theater and has no doubt passed on some of his tricks to his apprentice in Caracas.
This time too -- in response to the pulsating events over the weekend -- the Bush administration has shown restraint in its reaction. Although it deplored the interruption of constitutional order, it laid the blame for Friday's short-lived toppling on Mr. Chavez's own actions and policies, which provoked protests that were made only more vigorous by his autocratic actions in response.
Little more can be said or done at this point except to urge that the institutions of democracy and the rule of law are respected. For the moment, it will be important that international watchdog groups such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and others are able to conduct assessments in Venezuela and exert pressure to maintain open space for dialogue, dissent, and civil liberties.
At the time of this writing, it remains to be resolved whether the initial protests actually toppled Mr. Chavez, or were cleverly manipulated events aimed at isolating and discrediting his opponents. What is certain is that space for open political discourse and consensual decision-making will be reduced unless Mr. Chavez can be persuaded to mend his ways.
Above all, it is regrettable that the policies of a budding despot provoked both loyalists and opponents to act in undemocratic ways in Venezuela. But now it's time to stand beside the institutions of democracy and rule of law, and to concentrate on how they might be rebuilt.
Venezuela still faces tough times ahead. Its first taste of pluralism in 1958 never brought a consolidation of democratic habits. Participation in government was never broadly encouraged and its economy was based on living off exploited oil resources. Stability depends on accessible, accountable government and the rule of law. Prosperity depends on a market economy which encourages private enterprise. Venezuela's challenge will be to somehow get to that point where progress in these areas can be achieved.
Stephen Johnson is policy analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal