September 25, 2003

September 25, 2003 | Commentary on Latin America

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 it.

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 into debt.

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 percent.

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 corruption.

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.

Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire