After abandoning military dictatorship for
civilian-elected rule in 1958, Venezuela became what appeared to be
a linchpin of democracy in South America. In addition to being one
of the world's leading oil producers, it has been an important U.S.
ally and trading partner for decades.
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 turned to Hugo Chávez
Frías, a charismatic army officer who once tried to
overthrow a legitimately elected president and now promised voters
that he would carry out a revolution against corrupt politicians to
help the country's majority poor.
elected, Chávez instead manipulated the constitution to
increase his own powers, bullied opponents, and alienated key
sectors of society. Beyond Venezuela's borders, he encouraged
leftist movements in neighboring countries and forged ties with the
world's pariah regimes. As corruption and poverty increased, the
business community and labor joined disillusioned citizens in the
streets to protest. By February 2002, senior military officers were
calling for the president to step down.
April 11, when between 100,000 to 200,000 protesters marched on the
presidential palace, Chávez shut down the media. When
assailants fired into the crowd, dissident officers told the
president they no longer supported him and asked him to resign. On
the spot, they assembled a transitional government; but then, as
the improvised junta made mistake after mistake, the military
withdrew its backing and restored Chávez to power.
about this bizarre chain of events remains a mystery. Complicating
its foreign policy stance, the Bush Administration issued what
critics perceived as a tepid statement lamenting the breakdown in
constitutional rule while providing a hopeful description of a
situation that was still very much unsettled. Now the
Administration must determine how to advance a complex agenda:
encouraging democratic institutions that have been badly shaken,
staying engaged with a potentially hostile government, and
regaining credibility in its efforts to champion among neighboring
countries the principles of democratic rule and open markets.
Inaction could allow further
destabilization of an important trade partner and energy supplier
could facilitate the efforts of hemispheric forces that are hostile
to political pluralism and open markets. To ensure that this does
not happen, the Bush Administration should:
- Promote an open
environment for Venezuela's democratic politicians, the media, and
civil society by encouraging international scrutiny of
human rights, civil liberties, press freedoms, and labor rights in
Venezuela; by helping weakened political institutions to rebuild
their foundations; and by increasing contact with Venezuelan
democratic and civic leaders.
Venezuelan leaders to pursue a reform agenda while there
is an opportunity in Chávez's Administration and in the
National Assembly to do so. Reforms should address Venezuela's
excessively centralized national authority, lack of checks and
balances, corruption, and state intervention in the economy.
- Renew support
for the region's democratic institutions and promote hemispheric
free trade. Doubts about the Bush Administration's
commitment to democratic governance could be put to rest by
increased support for programs that promote the adoption of more
effective democratic practices. Congress should grant the President
trade promotion authority to advance free markets in a region that,
lacking such encouragement, could lose faith in them.
POPULISM AND FALSE EXPECTATIONS
Venezuela is blessed with natural beauty
and a wealth of resources but afflicted by a paternalistic state.
Once ruled by generals who supported their regimes by taxing coffee
exports, the country enjoyed skyrocketing wealth after huge
petroleum reserves were exploited in 1917. Succeeding leaders led
impoverished citizens to believe that they would benefit from this
wealth, and social welfare came to be considered a birthright.
Enlightened political parties began to
develop in the 1930s, and in 1958, the country rejected military
dictatorship in favor of elected rule. The first civilian
president, Romulo Betancourt, tried to restrain spending and
institute pro-market policies, but the populist economic policies
of previous military regimes proved resistant to change.
Milking an easy source of revenue that
required little public accounting, succeeding presidents took the
socialist path of increasing state intervention. Rafael Caldera
raised taxes on oil profits to 70 percent and expanded welfare
benefits. Carlos Andrés Pérez--president during the
1973 oil boom when crude prices rose 400 percent--established food
subsidies and doubled the number of government jobs. In 1975, his
administration nationalized the petroleum industry and created more than
a hundred loosely controlled state enterprises. When oil prices
dropped in 1977, "wealthy" Venezuela was in need of loans to pay
off a $12 billion debt.
During the 1980s, the political leaders
who had pioneered Venezuela's democracy continued to outspend what
oil abundance could provide and fell into disrepute. Returning to
office in 1989, Carlos Andrés Pérez tried to cut
deficits by imposing austerity measures recommended by the
International Monetary Fund. When he raised bus fares, riots
erupted in which some 200 people perished.
Meanwhile, a then unknown army lieutenant
colonel named Hugo Chávez, who had been conspiring for
nearly a decade to impose a leftist military regime, sensed an
approaching opportunity. In 1992, he led a band of trusted
officers to overthrow President Pérez. Although the failed
attempt resulted in 17 deaths and a jail sentence for
Chávez, the embattled Pérez was impeached shortly
thereafter on corruption charges. The court-martialed Chávez
emerged as a popular hero.
CURING POPULIST FAILURES WITH A RADICAL
1998, Hugo Chávez faced no strong competition for the
presidency and won because the party system had broken down. His
youth appealed to a predominantly younger population, and his mixed
race and humble origins endeared him to the middle class and poor
who did not see themselves represented among the political and
economic elites. Chávez's competitors were a former beauty
queen and what appeared as spent war-horses from the Democratic
Action and Social Christian parties, which many Venezuelans had
come to consider as irrelevant.
Chávez appeared to many to be a
redeemer with his promises to sweep away corruption and lift up
Venezuela's poor majority, whose ranks had swollen from 27 percent
in 1980 to about 60 percent in the 1990s. Rather than offering Venezuelans the
true change they desired, however, Chávez presented, in more
concentrated form, the paternalistic leadership and spendthrift
economics that had failed the country in the past.
Specifically, like the military strongmen
who preceded democracy, Chávez liked to appear in uniform,
appointed trusted army officers to cabinet posts, and governed by
barking orders. Motivated by a distrust of the Venezuelan business
community and free-market policies in general, he restricted
domestic enterprise while promising to expand social programs.
Cloaking his agenda in patriotism, he called his program
"Bolivarian" after the great 19th century South American liberator
his first year, Chávez dissolved the National Assembly and
called for a constitutional convention that rewrote the national
charter to extend his term of office from five to six years and
entrust more power to the presidency. Arguing that the new
constitution required a new government, he organized national
elections in 2000 and was able to capitalize on his immense
popularity to elect a majority of members from his Fifth Republic
Movement (MVR) to the new legislature.
the same time, he tried to consolidate his influence over nearly
every political and social institution in the country--alienating
key sectors of society and the government as he did so. Among these
- The armed
forces. In June 2000, Chávez inaugurated a program
called Plan Bolívar, which tasked the military to repair
hospitals, manage vegetable markets for the poor, and supervise
some public schools. Not only did many soldiers resent being
employed in this way, but the program also took money for public
works away from local jurisdictions, thereby reducing their
authority. At the same time, the military's leadership proved
scandalous. Senior officers were accused of diverting some of the
funds into other budgets and even into their own pockets.
In 2000, Chávez attempted unsuccessfully to nationalize the
Venezuelan Workers' Federation (CTV). A year later, he ran his own
"official" candidate for the union presidency. Then, failing in
that, he declared the union elections fraudulent. His campaign
against both organized labor and private enterprise encouraged an
unusual convergence of forces when the CTV joined the Federation of
Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FEDECAMARAS) on December 10,
2001, for an unprecedented national strike that shut down most of
- Schools. To improve Venezuela's decaying
education system, Chávez set out to establish "Bolivarian"
model schools that offered extended schedules and meals to students
in poor neighborhoods. In October 2000, he followed up with a
decree allowing the minister of education to fire teachers in both
public and private academies on the basis of reports submitted by
roving inspectors. Chávez also signed an agreement with
Fidel Castro to bring in Cuban educators to help train Venezuelan
teachers and write new curricula. In March 2001, 10,000 parents and
teachers gathered in Caracas and 20 other cities to protest
perceived efforts to indoctrinate their children with a foreign
media. Venezuela's 1999 constitution requires the press to
report only "truthful information." President Chávez often
disputed news accounts and ridiculed reporters for their mistakes.
In October 2001, he called the news director of Globovisión
an "authentic enemy of the revolution" and threatened to revoke the
network's license. In January 2002, Chávez's supporters
surrounded the headquarters of the newspaper El Nacional, accusing
it of spreading lies and threatening to burn it down.
- The state oil
company. Less than a year after Chávez had become
president, his meddling in Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) provoked
an exodus of nearly 2,000 executives. On November 13, 2001, he
announced a package of 49 "revolutionary decrees" that, among other
things, hiked oil royalties and sought to discourage foreign
companies from participating in local exploration. In February
2002, he attempted to replace PDVSA's president with a loyalist who
favored diverting more of the company's revenues to the government
to alleviate budget shortfalls and fund promised social programs.
In protest, the monopoly's 40,000 workers staged a production
Adding salt to the wounds he inflicted on
these institutions, Chávez turned the government itself into
a comic opera. For example:
- Within three years, he replaced 40 cabinet
- His political police allegedly helped hide
Peru's fugitive spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos until U.S. agents
discovered his whereabouts; and
- After meeting Pope John Paul II last
October 12, the president reportedly left the Vatican comparing him
to a potato in a childish play on words to journalists--"El Papa"
(Father) versus "la papa" (potato). That incident caused deep
embarrassment among many in predominantly Catholic Venezuela.
Overall, Chávez's popularity fell
from a high of 76 percent in April 1999 to 29 percent at the end of
After his election in December 1998, President Hugo
Chávez leveraged his popularity to consolidate power and
launch a populist revision of governing institutions. These
changes-which failed to provide jobs, cut crime, or curb
corruption- succeeded in fueling resentment.
December 1998 Hugo Chávez Frías is elected
July 1999 Chávez supporters dominate a constituent
assembly elected to write a new constitution (the nation's
December 1999 A new 350-article charter is approved
overwhelmingly by referendum, despite a 54 percent abstention rate.
The country's name is changed to Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,
social benefits are expanded, and the president's term is raised
from five to six years.
June 2000 Chávez introduces Plan Bolívar.
Funds normally given to state or local governments for public works
are diverted to the military, where they are reportedly stolen or
misdirected by senior officers. The nation's controller general is
July 2000 Chávez is re-elected president under the
new constitution, according to which he starts a fresh first term.
His MVR following wins a majority in the new National
October 2000 Chávez signs a pact with Fidel
Castro, agreeing to supply a third of Cuba's petroleum needs in
return for Cuban help in training teachers and developing
curriculum for "Bolivarian" schools. Although Venezuela has high
unemployment, Chávez reportedly gives Cuban doctors, sports
coaches, and intelligence officers jobs as part of the
January 2001 President Chávez introduces his
National Education Project to indoctrinate students against the
forces of globalism and threatens to take over private
June 2001 Chávez unveils partisan "Bolivarian
Circles"-armed mobs patterned after Cuba's revolutionary defense
committees and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas' "turbas divinas"-to
intimidate political opponents.
U.S. FBI agents capture fugitive Peruvian spymaster Vladimiro
Montesinos in Caracas. A member of Chávez's MVR following
declares that Venezuela's political police covered up Montesino's
whereabouts "in return for money."
November 2001 Chávez introduces a package of 49
decrees that tighten state control of various industries and enable
the government to confiscate what it deems unused land.
December 2001 Discontent over the decrees leads to an
unprecedented national strike called jointly by business and labor
January 2002 Some 200,000 citizens protest Chávez
in the streets of Caracas.
Longtime Chávez adviser Luis
Miquilena quits as interior minister after a feud regarding the
president's unwillingness to reach out to business and labor
February 2002 Four military officers, including an air
force general and a navy rear admiral, call for Chávez to
Venezuela's economy worsens because
of low oil prices and continuing capital flight. Chávez
allows the Bolívar to free float, losing about 30 percent of
April 1, 2002 Civic leaders announce plans to call a
referendum on Chávez's presidency.
April 8, 2002 Business and labor call a national strike
that shuts down some 80 percent of the nation's businesses and cuts
oil production at PDVSA.
April 11, 2002 During a massive march on the presidential
palace, Chávez closes commercial television stations.
Suspected Bolivarian Circle members fire on marchers. Senior
military officers reportedly pressure Chávez to resign and
persuade business leader and protest organizer Pedro Carmona to
preside over an improvised junta.
April 12, 2002 As crowds cheer Chavez's departure, the
interim junta dismisses elected officials as well as presidential
appointees. Members of the armed forces withdraw their
April 13, 2002 The military returns Chávez to the
GOVERNMENT TEETERING IN THE BALANCE
Increasingly, businessmen, civic leaders,
journalists, and political opponents (whom Chávez called
"squalids") looked for ways to ease him out of power. Even in the
poor neighborhoods of Caracas, there was disillusionment.
Unemployment increased because of the repressive business climate,
and crime rose an estimated 80 percent thanks to a politicized and
disorganized police. Assemblyman Leopoldo Puchi--once a
Chávez supporter--warned, "If the President persists in
improper conduct, the National Assembly will take action."
what kind of action they would take was never clear. With good
reason, the bar to removing a sitting president should be a high
one, but the constitution that Chávez had caused to be
rewritten made that process uncertain. Lawful alternatives were
subject to interpretation and required the assent of a National
Assembly and Supreme Court that were packed with Chávez
supporters. These alternatives included:
- Declaring the
president incompetent. According to Article 233 of the
1999 constitution, Venezuela's Supreme Justice Tribunal would need
to designate a medical commission to certify the president's
incapacity and present its findings to the National Assembly as
Ecuador did in the case of President Abdala Bucarám, known
as El Loco for his unpredictable behavior.
- Impeachment. Article 233 allows the
National Assembly to remove the president for abandoning or failing
to carry out the duties of his office. If more than two years
remain in the term of an official who has been found guilty of
these charges, new elections are to be scheduled within 30 days
after his removal from power.
- Recall by
referendum. Article 72 of the constitution says that "all
offices and judgeships by popular election are revocable" by
referendum. For a high official to be recalled, that person would
have to have served half of his or her term of office, and at least
20 percent of registered voters would need to sign the petition.
Moreover, a minimum of 25 percent of the electorate would need to
vote in the actual recall, and for it to be successful, the number
of those voting for the official's removal would have to exceed the
actual number who voted for him in the original election.
Doing the math based on his reelection to
office in 2000, Chávez could not be removed from office
before January 2004. Some 2.3 million voters would have to sign the
petition out of approximately 11.7 million total electors. More
than 3.8 million would have to vote against him to exceed the
number who voted for him in his last election in 2000, which was
staged as a reaffirmation of his 1998 victory.
There was no easy solution to the
discontent that followed the December 10 national strike, leading
to speculation in the press on how long Chávez would last.
Despite the foment, public opinion polls told a different story.
Although Chávez registered only a 29 percent approval rating
and 48 percent of respondents thought he was mentally unbalanced,
only a slim majority of 54 percent believed he should be removed
before the end of his term. Just five percent favored a military
such a situation, only a lawful removal would seem to have
broad-based support and would have avoided inciting violence. In
fact, support seemed to be building within the ranks of
Chávez's own MVR party in the National Assembly for a motion
to impeach him, but
no one could predict what his reaction would be to a massive public
During the unprecedented national strike
organized by FEDECAMARAS and the CTV on April 8, Chávez
defiantly ordered the private broadcasting media to air government
propaganda messages that the demonstration was a failure.
Television stations complied but split their broadcast images to
show empty streets and businesses. When the organizers turned the
strike into a massive street protest and some 150,000 people
marched on the presidential palace, Chávez closed the
stations to prevent those images from being seen all over the
snipers--some allegedly members of Chávez's "Bolivarian
Circles"--fired on unarmed marchers, dissident military commanders
found the excuse they needed to force the president to resign. They
assembled an improvised junta and persuaded FEDECAMARAS president
and protest organizer Pedro Carmona to preside, although it is not
clear that he was ever actually in charge.
Accounts vary as to what happened next,
but no political party or representative of the Venezuelan Workers
Union that co-organized the strike joined the effort to remove in
the junta tried to dissolve the National Assembly and other
elective offices, the military withdrew its support for the
insurrection and brought Chávez back.
U.S. INTERESTS AT STAKE
Before the Chávez presidency,
Washington had few concerns about Venezuela. It seemed prosperous.
It was a reliable source of petroleum and a trade partner. Its
leaders had always been friendly to the United States and sided
with Washington against Cuban- and Soviet-backed subversion in the
hemisphere during the Cold War. Venezuela was never the squeaky
wheel that got U.S. policymakers' attention.
When the United States became a net oil importer in the 1970s,
friendly Venezuela became one of its top suppliers. Last year, 48
percent of all U.S. oil imports originated in the Western
Hemisphere, and a third of those came from Venezuela. Just as significant,
the country has huge natural gas reserves--second only to the
United States in the Western Hemisphere--and provides an important
market for U.S. products. In 2000, Venezuela bought $5.6 billion in
goods and services from the United States, making it America's 25th
largest export market.
President Chávez has abused this relationship. During his
campaign for president, he criticized the United States for its
"savage capitalism" and promised to lead Venezuela down a different
path. On August 10, 2000, he became the first foreign head of state
to visit Iraq's Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War.
months later, he announced an alliance with Fidel Castro in Cuba,
striking a deal to supply 53,000 barrels of oil a day to the
island, reportedly in exchange for the services of Cuban doctors,
teachers, sports trainers, and intelligence personnel. He also used
Venezuela's position as a founding member of the Organization of
Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut production to sustain
high oil prices. As a result, the Bush Administration came into
office with an eye toward boosting imports from more stable allies
such as Mexico (although it would be difficult to make up for the
13 percent of total imports that Venezuela provides).
Stability in the
Within the Andean and Caribbean neighborhoods,
Chávez became a geopolitical gadfly. He refused to allow
overflights of U.S. aircraft tracking drug smugglers. He opposed
U.S. efforts to help neighboring Colombia curb drug trafficking and
strengthen state authority in rural areas plagued by Marxist
rebels. In addition, he reportedly established fraternal ties with
the largest group of rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC), calling them "Bolivarian" after his adopted
Videos and documents revealed by dissident
members of the Venezuelan armed forces suggested that some members
of his government promised the FARC guerrillas supplies and refuge
in exchange for not recruiting in Venezuela. A Venezuelan army intelligence report
claimed that six fronts, comprising some 740 combatants, had
established camps in such border states as Zulia and Táchira
for rest and resupply.
2000, Chávez reportedly visited Felipe Quispe, the head of
the Bolivian coca growers union, shortly before his organization
caused a disturbance killing 11 persons and wounding 120. He
allegedly gave money to Ecuadoran coup plotter Colonel Lucio
Gutierrez after his release from jail. When Venezuelan troops were sent to El
Salvador last year to help with earthquake relief, they were nearly
declared persona non grata after reportedly proselytizing local
villagers to support El Salvador's leftist Farabundo Martí
National Liberation front party, with which Chávez was
Chávez even boasted of creating a
rival center of power to balance U.S. influence in the hemisphere,
claiming that "We, Cuba and Venezuela...are called upon to be a
spearhead, and summon other nations and governments." Supposedly to that
end, Chávez has pursued a friendship with aging Cuban
dictator Fidel Castro, cultivating an image as his heir in leading
the Latin American left.
Foro de São Paulo, a Brazilian-based organization
representing some 39 socialist parties from 16 countries in the
hemisphere, regards Chávez highly and shares much of his
agenda. Both the
Foro and Chávez oppose U.S. counterdrug efforts in Colombia
and want to thwart the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Chávez has even touted a "Bolivarian Alternative for the
Americas," or ALBA, which plays off the Spanish acronym for the
FTAA: ALCA (Area de Libre Comercio de las Américas).
REBUILDING A BROKEN DEMOCRACY
Venezuela's democracy was destined for
crisis from the time it was conceived as a caretaker state. Over
time, it came to be managed by a custodial political class that
neglected to encourage broad public participation or share much
authority with local jurisdictions. Because rule of law was never
firmly established, personal connections came to trump the notions
of fair play and reliance on impartial institutions. The election
of a charismatic despot was the regrettable climax of a succession
of insular, paternalistic governments.
Because Venezuelans seemed to tolerate
these deficiencies, U.S. policymakers never felt compelled to
address them. When they became the source of conflict within the
country in the 1990s, U.S. programs to support democratic
institutions were already being redirected from Latin America to
Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. With the election of
Hugo Chávez to the presidency, reform messages from the
United States would have met a cold reception had they been
communicated; but Clinton Administration officials refrained from
open criticism to avoid antagonizing Chávez, who could
easily have been tempted to point to America as the source of
his ouster and return make any U.S. attempts to influence the
situation even more difficult. Powerful figures for and against
Chávez have shown their distrust of democratic institutions
and constitutional rules. Chávez himself is beholden to
those who brought him back--his new vice president, José
Vicente Rangel; trusted members of his cabinet; a few loyal
generals; leaders of his Bolivarian Circles; and his Cuban
advisers. Because of its intrusion into politics, the military has
been disgraced and further fragmented, while the business community
has likewise been discredited because of its participation in the
However, there are positive elements in
this drama. The international community, represented by the
Organization of American States (OAS), has vigorously affirmed the
institutions of democracy. Moreover, Venezuela's increasingly
independent National Assembly did not participate in the overthrow
and voted to conduct its own investigation into the events that
precipitated it. The Supreme Court, dominated by justices loyal to
former Interior Minister Luis Miquilena, who split with
Chávez in January 2002, may also act more independently.
the midst of these circumstances, Venezuelans must now begin to
reform their government. Because it is in America's interest to
encourage a stable, democratic Venezuela, Washington should assist
this effort where feasible. Further trouble there would mean the
continued decline of an important market for U.S. products, an
increase in out-migration of people and capital to stable neighbors
such as the United States, and the possible revival of
Chávez's strident anti-democratic influence in Latin
America--all financed with oil profits. Should bankruptcy tip
Argentina's government to the left, or should instability befall
any of the region's other fragile democracies, South America could
become openly hostile to the United States and its cherished values
of public decision-making and open markets.
the absence of outside scrutiny and support, Venezuela's democratic
politicians and civic leaders could be overwhelmed by a regime
populated by radical loyalists, leading to continued or worse
encouragement to pursue a reform agenda, both loyalists and the
opposition may lose an opportunity to turn an emerging dictatorship
into a society of free choice. Without a clear demand from the
United States to end support for subversive groups such as the
Colombian FARC guerrillas, Venezuela could become an active party
in Colombia's conflict, provoking an international crisis.
Elsewhere in the region, if the United States lacks a clear
strategy to support the consolidation of democracy and the
expansion of free trade, it could find itself in the company of
address these issues, the Bush Administration should:
- Help safeguard
an open environment for Venezuelan democrats, media, and civil
society. The Administration can do this by promoting
outside scrutiny to limit actions by Venezuela's executive branch
that would restrict civil liberties, by helping Venezuela's
weakened parties to rebuild their foundations, and by increasing
contact with Venezuelan civic leaders.
Most immediately, the Administration
should encourage the OAS and other international watchdog
groups--such as human rights monitors, press fraternities, business
councils, labor organizations, and educational groups--to conduct
independent assessments in Venezuela. Observation by these groups
would send a message to the Chávez administration that it is
expected to adhere to internationally recognized limits and
standards. In addition to holding Chávez's overall
performance to the standards of its new Democratic Charter
(approved on September 11, 2001), the OAS should explore whether
Chávez's creation of armed partisan mobs supported by
government funds, such as the Bolivarian Circles, represents a
specific breach in the democratic order.
The Bush Administration should ensure that
the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy,
International Republican Institute, and National Democratic
Institute have the resources needed to help Venezuela's political
parties develop as responsible policy and leadership incubators.
Their outreach should include the dominant MVR group, which
Chávez established, as well as new parties, including
Primero Justicia and the traditional Democratic Action and Social
Christian organizations. Each of these should be persuaded to
expand their membership beyond elites to embrace all economic
classes and racial groups and encourage these people to seek
leadership positions. Coalition building and conflict resolution
should be principal topics of discussion.
Finally, U.S. Congressmen and prominent
officials from other democratic governments in the region should
make it a point to visit members of the National Assembly as well
as leaders of local governments and civic organizations to
encourage their work and boost morale.
Venezuela to pursue a reform agenda by advancing the idea
that Venezuela's majority poor can benefit more from reforms that
will establish a level playing field through rule of law and by
creating a climate in which small businesses can prosper. Whether
Chávez stays or eventually is impeached, those in charge
will need encouragement to correct much of what has gone wrong; in
addition to Chávez's actions, past traditions of centralized
authority, corrupt administration, state intervention, and populist
economics all have played a part in bringing about the present
To promote progress on reforms, the State
Department's Public Diplomacy bureau should offer international
visitor exchanges and organize seminars for speakers on such topics
as the balance of powers, judicial reform, community policing, the
role of property rights in promoting growth, and how curbing
government intervention can bolster small business. Even though
Venezuela would not qualify for U.S. development assistance because
of its oil wealth, grants should be made available to help support
pro-democracy, free-market, non-governmental organizations that can
advocate such reforms.
With regard to Venezuela's foreign policy,
the Bush Administration must make it clear that it is unacceptable
to encourage subversives in neighboring countries. If reports of
support for Colombia's terrorist guerrillas are true, Chávez
should be held responsible for aggression against the Colombian
state. For this and other reasons, it is important that the United
States broaden its security assistance to Colombia and press
Venezuela to deny the FARC the use of its territory to the maximum
- Renew support
for the region's democratic institutions and free trade.
Elsewhere in the hemisphere, the United States should address
misperceptions regarding its response to the events of April 11-13
and must make up for lost time by more actively promoting
democratic practices and free trade.
In contrast with the 19 presidents of the
Rio Group member countries who repudiated Venezuela's departure
from constitutional order, the Bush Administration initially gave
a more guarded statement, implying that Chávez had provoked
his own ouster and expressing hope that the Venezuelan people would
restore democratic rule. Critics pointed to this difference in
approach as evidence of weakness in the Administration's commitment
to democracy. Secretary of State Colin Powell should have laid any
doubts to rest when he told the OAS General Assembly that
"Democracies do not remain democracies for long if elected leaders
use undemocratic methods. And defending democracy by resorting to
undemocratic means destroys democracy."
Even so, the Bush Administration could
show its commitment in a more tangible way by speeding up U.S.
efforts to support ongoing political reforms through local
non-governmental organizations that advocate the consolidation of
democratic practices in such places as Argentina and the conflicted
Andean region. Public diplomacy and foreign broadcasting efforts
directed toward these countries should focus on providing
information on citizens' rights and responsibilities as well as
expectations regarding the behavior of democratically elected
The Bush Administration must also make a
more vigorous effort to improve commercial relations with
democracies that Chávez has been courting as potential
opponents of free trade. Congress should grant President Bush trade
promotion authority, allowing him to conclude proposed agreements
with Central American states, and the Administration should
consider negotiating similar bilateral treaties with Venezuela's
troubled Andean neighbors. Better trade relations with Brazil--a
trade competitor of the United States and a potential Chávez
ally--should also be made a priority if the proposed Free Trade
Area of the Americas is to become a reality in 2005. In addition,
the United States should offer the possibility of expanded trade
relations to the people of Venezuela when its government adopts
political and economic reforms.
THE OAS AND
Meeting in Lima, Peru, on September 11, 2001-the day of the
terrorist attacks in the United States-the Organization of American
States approved a document called the Inter-American Democratic
Charter. It contains 28 articles covering the relationship of
democracy to the inter-American system and human rights, its role
in development, measures to strengthen and preserve it, electoral
observer missions, and promoting a democratic culture. It provides
for suspending member states when there is a consensus that
democratic order has been interrupted.
In the case of Venezuela, the following paraphrased articles
would apply to acts against democratic institutions by either the
Chávez administration or its opponents: 1
- Article 3: The essential elements of representative
democracy include, among other criteria, respect for human rights
and fundamental freedoms, the pluralistic system of political
parties and organizations, and the separation of powers and
independence of the branches of government.
- Article 4: Among other elements, transparency in
government activities, probity, responsible public administration
on the part of governments, and freedom of expression and of the
press are essential to the exercise of democracy.
- Article 6: It is the right and responsibility of all
citizens to participate in decisions relating to their own
development, as well as a necessary condition for the full exercise
- Article 19: An unconstitutional interruption of the
democratic order or an unconstitutional alteration of the
constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order
of the member state constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to its
government's participation in the OAS General Assembly.
- Article 20: Any member state or the Secretary General
may request the Permanent Council of the OAS to make a collective
assessment of the situation and conduct diplomatic initiatives if
necessary. If those measures fail to restore democratic order, the
Permanent Council can invoke the General Assembly to take similar
- Article 21: If the General Assembly determines that
there has been an interruption in the constitutional order of a
member state and that diplomatic initiatives have failed, the
special session shall take the decision to suspend said member
state from its right to participate in the OAS by an affirmative
two-thirds vote of the member states.
- Article 22: Once the situation that led to the
suspension is resolved, any member state may propose that the
suspension be lifted.
1. Inter-American Democratic Charter,
Organization of American States, Lima, Peru, September 11, 2001,
(March 25, 2002).
Faith in dictators has characterized Latin
American politics since the region's colonization half a millennium
ago and has brought about more plagues than benefits. Gradually,
over the past century, personal followings have given way to
grassroots public participation as the region's governments have
begun to respond to the will of their citizens. Venezuela's
political institutions embarked on that transition but in their
frailty fell hostage to an authoritarian voice from the past.
Beyond the wreckage he created in his own
country through hubris and incompetence, Hugo Chávez had
illusions of spreading his populist dream throughout the hemisphere
to counter U.S. influence, which he has regarded as evil. Although
weakened by the experience of his near ouster, Chávez is now
surrounded by rescuers who share his radical vision. To the degree
that this group is successful in building an alliance with
resentful publics elsewhere, increased conflict, shrinking markets,
and refugee migrations to countries such as the United States will
be likely to follow.
to now, America has carefully avoided picking a fight with
Chávez. Instead of remaining aloof, however, it should
support Venezuela's democratic politicians, civic leaders, and
ordinary citizens in their challenge to rein in a freely elected
executive who is apparently intent on destroying his country's
Bush Administration can help by promoting international scrutiny of
human rights and civil liberties in Venezuela, by holding
Chávez up to internationally recognized standards of
democratic behavior, and by fostering a closer relationship between
U.S. and Venezuelan democratic institutions. Washington should
engage both Chávez and his opponents on a reform agenda and
dissuade him from further subverting democratic order in
neighboring states such as Colombia. Beyond Venezuela, the
Administration should redouble its efforts to help democracy and
free markets succeed in the hemisphere generally.
Venezuela's future should be in the hands
of the Venezuelan people. No one can face this challenge for them,
but democracies like the United States can and should stand with
them and give strength to those laboring to build a pluralistic
society and an open economy.
Stephen Johnson is Policy Analyst for
Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for
International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.