Avoiding Confrontation In Venezuela
Avoiding conflict may not sound like much of a foreign policy, but
the Bush administration has achieved it in Venezuela, sidestepping
an unproductive war of words with a pugnacious president who calls
his opponents "squalids."
That's worth something, because an international shouting match
with Hugo Chávez would only distract attention from
Venezuela's real problems-the decay and collapse of its 40-year-old
welfare state, how its government will be rebuilt, and who will do
On one side is Chávez, a former coup participant and
cashiered army officer who was elected president on promises to end
corruption and reverse the nation's economic decline. Instead, he
used his office to conquer and dominate his opponents through acid
rhetoric, decrees curbing property rights and press freedoms, and
the creation of armed partisan mobs, thus provoking an uprising
against him in April 2002.
On the other side is a monopolistic oligarchy that once controlled
Venezuela's political and economic fortunes. It created a false
middle class through entitlements, price controls and subsidies
paid for by petroleum revenues from a nationalized oil
industry-until international oil prices declined and Venezuela fell
From that point in the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the ranks of
the poor increased from a fifth of the population to approximately
two thirds. Since the more populist Chávez took office in
1998, the number living in poverty or near-poverty has risen to 80
Clearly, Venezuela cannot return to more prosperous days by
following a charismatic autocrat on a mission to get even. Nor can
it return to the manipulated welfare state of the past, rotted out
from the core by profligate spending and attendant
Instead it must move in a different direction-one that strengthens
the bond between elected officials and voters, making them directly
accountable to the people they serve, and one that exchanges the
concept of the caretaker state for one of government as a service
that guarantees rights, liberties and equal opportunity.
But it can't do that if friends of democracy and free markets
remain on the sidelines. Ever since the Bush administration was
criticized for acknowledging the interim government during the
uprising that temporarily removed Chávez from power in 2002,
it has remained largely silent. Today, it needs to be more vocal
about what Venezuela could be with stronger, more democratic
institutions and a market open to all-not just the rich.
A growing number of Venezuelans want durable institutions, which
would bring a measure of stability they can't attain under the
personality-driven style of politics their country has now.
Washington can't support them without damaging their credibility,
but it can pressure all players to abide by Venezuela's
constitution. It can insist on international scrutiny of the
current process leading to a referendum on Chávez's
presidency, or in competing efforts to balance his powers with a
more independent congress and courts.
In any case, Venezuelan democrats need to know they have friends
abroad. While the Bush administration is wise not to pick a
personal fight with Chávez, it shouldn't be shy about
calling for democratic, market-based reforms.
Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America at The
Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public
policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire