May 3, 2002 | News Releases on Latin America
WASHINGTON, May 3, 2002-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez survived last month's popular uprising, but democracy in that troubled country may not be so lucky unless the Bush administration takes an active role in promoting it, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.
That's because Chavez hasn't renounced the radical agenda that caused the revolt in the first place-handing over the education system to Cubans, thwarting the press, misusing the military and taking steps that have nearly strangled Venezuela's struggling economy-says Latin America Policy Analyst Stephen Johnson.
Before Chavez, Venezuela and the United States enjoyed a friendly and mutually beneficial relationship, he says. Venezuela was a reliable trade partner and the supplier of up to 13 percent of U.S. oil imports. Moreover, the nation was a democratic ally in a region where democracy has struggled to gain a foothold.
All that changed in 1998, when voters, disillusioned with corruption and economic failure, elected Chavez, a cashiered army officer. He moved quickly to position Venezuela as a counter-weight to American influence in the region-aligning himself with pariah states such as Libya, Iraq and Cuba, assisting Marxist rebels in Colombia, and encouraging the efforts of dissidents in other neighboring states.
Chavez also re-engineered the constitution to ensure himself a long stay in office, Johnson says. He tried to bust the nation's largest union, but he backed down in the face of a nationwide strike. And he brought in Cubans to help develop a new school curricula, one that prompted parents to protest that their children were being "indoctrinated with foreign ideology."
By the end of 2001, Chavez had replaced 40 cabinet members, attempted to silence the media and to hide Peru's fugitive spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos, and embarrassed the largely Catholic nation with flip remarks about Pope John Paul II after a Vatican meeting. He also saw his popularity rating fall from 76 percent in 1999 to 29 percent. To help restore democracy to Venezuela, the Bush administration should work with Venezuelan politicians and civic leaders to promote democratic institutions and free-market reforms, Johnson says.
It can, for example, encourage international watchdog organizations to assess human rights, civil liberties, press freedoms and labor rights in Venezuela. It can press for much-needed reforms, from rooting out corruption to reducing state control of the economy. And it can improve commercial relations with democracies that Chavez has courted as potential opponents of free trade.
"For a long time, we've done little, hoping to avoid a fight with Chavez," Johnson says. "But it's time for us to let the Venezuelan people know that we stand with them-and to help those who are trying to build a free, open and democratic society."