Venezuela, one of the world's leading oil producers, abandoned military dictatorship for civilian-elected rule in 1958. Twenty years ago, however, after paternalistic politicians began to mismanage the country's lucrative petroleum-based economy, Venezuela's people began to look for a savior. In 1998, they thought they found one in Hugo Chávez Frías, a former soldier who promised to end corruption and help the poor. Since becoming president, Chávez has instead moved systematically to concentrate power in his own hands, build alliances with rogue leaders elsewhere in the world, and aid subversive movements in neighboring states.
With the economy in decline and resistance to Chávez's increasingly authoritarian rule on the rise, Venezuela could be poised for extended turmoil. On April 11, Chávez's actions to repress the media and intimidate peaceful protesters ignited an attempted coup. To safeguard a once prosperous, friendly democracy, the United States should promote international scrutiny of civil liberties to limit repression and encourage outside contact with Venezuela's imperiled democrats; press Venezuela to pursue reforms to strengthen its democratic institutions and curb tacit support for subversive groups in neighboring states; and strengthen its efforts to help allies elsewhere in the region improve democratic practices and advance free trade.
Venezuela became rich when huge petroleum reserves were exploited in the early 1900s. After it opted for civilian-elected rule in 1958, however, its leaders took the socialist path of increasing state intervention in the oil industry to finance the government and social programs. By the early 1990s, the political parties that once pioneered Venezuela's democracy had so mismanaged the economy that they fell into disrepute.
As president, Chávez promised to help the nation's majority poor. Instead, he adopted the governing style of old-time military dictators and the spendthrift economics of his immediate predecessors. He called for a convention to rewrite the constitution and used it to arrange new elections to seat friends in the National Assembly and place loyalists on the Supreme Court. He diverted funds that would have been used by local governments for public works into the military and remolded the education system to teach a Cuban-style ideology.
Increasingly, opponents began looking for ways to ease Chávez out of power, even as he sought to control them with "Bolivarian Circles"--armed gangs paid with government money. Constitutional strategies against Chávez included a declaration of incompetence, impeachment, and recall by referendum; but these were bypassed on April 11, 2002, when the president closed down TV stations and his supposed supporters murdered demonstrators, prompting dissident military officers to force his resignation and install a transitional junta.
When this improvised government also acted undemocratically by dismissing the National Assembly, the military withdrew its support. Now back in power and protected by rescuers that reportedly include Cuban advisers, Chávez has promised a national reconciliation, but without renouncing his overall radical agenda.
Before the rise of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela had been a friendly ally. U.S.-Venezuelan trade relations had been secure, with Venezuela providing as much as 13 percent of U.S. petroleum needs while buying some $5 billion worth of U.S. goods and services. Now Chávez has forged closer ties with Iraq, Libya, and Cuba--all pariah states that aid international terrorist groups. Blaming private enterprise for Venezuela's woes and decreeing that the government can expropriate what it considers "unused" property, Chávez has provoked capital flight and accelerated economic decline. His meddling with the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela triggered an employee revolt that almost stopped production.
In addition, Chávez has refused to allow U.S. aircraft to overfly Venezuela to track drug smugglers, has allowed Colombia's Marxist guerrillas to camp in Venezuelan territory, and reportedly has encouraged dissidents in Bolivia and Ecuador. Chávez has long talked of creating a rival center of power in Latin America to offset U.S. political influence and undermine the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Should unstable governments in Argentina or Colombia fall to leftist regimes, he could realize that dream.
In the past, the United States refrained from antagonizing Chávez, largely to avoid an unpleasant controversy; but without help to safeguard dissent and promote a constitutional response to his actions, Venezuela's democratic hopes could be crushed. Chávez's tacit support of Colombian rebels could lead to international conflict. Elsewhere in the region, budding autocrats could be encouraged by his example to undermine fragile democracies and weak economies. The Bush Administration therefore should:
- Support Venezuelan democracy by urging international bodies such as the Organization of American States to keep watch over Venezuela's civil liberties, by supporting local non-governmental organizations that advance democratic principles, and by increasing outside contact with Venezuelan civic leaders.
- Encourage Venezuela to pursue a reform agenda by urging Chávez and the opposition to adopt more open participatory government, the rule of law, and a market economy to increase prosperity and uplift the nation's 80 percent poor majority. The United States should publicly challenge Chávez to end assistance to Colombia's rebel armies.
- Re-energize efforts to advance democratic habits and free trade in the Western Hemisphere. Support for civil society, public diplomacy, and foreign broadcasting efforts should focus on consolidation of democratic institutions being tested by internal disorder in other nations. Congress should approve trade promotion authority for President Bush to conclude free trade agreements with hemispheric allies to bolster fledgling market economies.
Democratically elected Hugo Chávez has systematically assaulted the very institutions that allowed him to become president and even has illusions of spreading his leftist dream throughout the hemisphere. Though they must face these challenges themselves, Venezuelan civic leaders and other citizens who are trying to restrain those impulses and restore their institutions deserve America's support. Countries like the United States can and should hold Hugo Chávez accountable to international standards of democratic behavior and counter his adventures elsewhere.
Stephen Johnsonis Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.