Thursday, April 24, 2003

The New York Times

March 5, 2003
Hugo Chávez and the Limits of Democracy

WASHINGTON - For decades Venezuela was a backwater, uninteresting to the
outside world. It could not compete for international attention with
nearby countries where superpowers staged proxy wars, or where military
juntas "disappeared" thousands of opponents, or where the economy
regularly crashed. Venezuela was stable. Its oil fueled an economy that
enjoyed the world's highest growth rate from 1950 to 1980 and it boasted a
higher per-capita income than Spain from 1928 to 1984. Venezuela was one
of the longest-lived democracies in Latin America.

Venezuela is no longer boring. It has become a nightmare for its people
and a threat not just to its neighbors but to the United States and even
Europe. A strike in its oil industry has contributed to a rise in gasoline
prices at the worst possible time. Hasil Muhammad Rahaham-Alan, a
Venezuelan citizen, was detained last month at a London airport as he
arrived from Caracas carrying a hand grenade in his luggage. A week later,
President Hugo Chávez praised the arrest orders of two opposition leaders
who had been instrumental in organizing the strike, saying they "should
have been jailed a long time ago." Mr. Chávez has helped to create an
environment where stateless international networks whose business is
terror, guns or drugs feel at home.

Venezuela has also become a laboratory where the accepted wisdom of the
1990's is being tested - and often discredited. The first tenet to fall is
the belief that the United States has almost unlimited influence in South
America. As one of its main oil suppliers and a close neighbor has
careened out of control, America has been a conspicuously inconsequential

And it is not just the United States. The United Nations, agencies like
the Organization of American States and the International Monetary Fund,
or the international press - all have stood by and watched. In the 1990's
there was a hope that these institutions could prevent, or at least
contain, some of the ugly malignancies that lead nations to self-destruct.
Instead, the most influential foreign influence in Venezuela is from the
1960's: Fidel Castro. The marriage of convenience between Cuba and
Venezuela is rooted in the close personal relationship between the two
leaders, with Mr. Castro playing the role of mentor to his younger
Venezuelan admirer. Cuba desperately needs Venezuelan oil, while the
Chávez administration depends on Cuba's experience in staging, managing or
repressing political turmoil.

Another belief of the 1990's was that global economic forces would force
democratically elected leaders to pursue responsible economic policies.
Yet Mr. Chávez, a democratically elected president, has been willing to
tolerate international economic isolation - with disastrous results for
Venezuela's poor - in exchange for greater power at home.
The 21st century was not supposed to engender a Latin American president
with a red beret. Instead of obsessing about luring private capital, he
scares it away. Rather than strengthening ties with the United States, he
befriends Cuba. Such behavior was supposed to have been made obsolete by
the democratization, economic deregulation and globalization of the

Venezuela is an improbable country to have fallen into this political
abyss. It is vast, wealthy, relatively modern and cosmopolitan, with a
strong private sector and a homogeneous mixed-race population with little
history of conflict. Democracy was supposed to have prevented its decline
into a failed state. Yet once President Chávez gained control over the
government, his rule became exclusionary and profoundly undemocratic.
Under Mr. Chávez, Venezuela is a powerful reminder that elections are
necessary but not sufficient for democracy, and that even longstanding
democracies can unravel overnight. A government's legitimacy flows not
only from the ballot box but also from the way it conducts itself.
Accountability and institutional restraints and balances are needed.

The international community became adept at monitoring elections and
ensuring their legitimacy in the 1990's. The Venezuelan experience
illustrates the urgency of setting up equally effective mechanisms to
validate a government's practices.

The often stealthy transgressions of Mr. Chávez have unleashed a powerful
expression of what is perhaps the only trend of the 1990's still visible
in Venezuela: civil society. In today's Venezuela millions of once
politically indifferent citizens stage almost daily marches and rallies
larger than those that forced the early resignations of other
democratically presidents around the world.

This is not a traditional opposition movement. It is an inchoate network
of people from all social classes and walks of life, who are organized in
loosely coordinated units and who do not have any other ambition than to
stop a president who has made their country unlivable. Two out of three
Venezuelans living under the poverty line oppose President Chávez,
according to a Venezuelan survey released in January.

This amorphous movement is new to politics and vulnerable to manipulation
by traditional politicians and interest groups. For example, last year a
military faction took advantage of a huge but civil anti-Chávez march and
staged a coup that ousted the president for almost two days. By rejecting
the antidemocratic measures adopted by the would-be new president, the
leader of a business association, the movement helped bring about his
quick downfall.

Today the Venezuelan opposition consists of several factions, some of
which have participated in talks with the government. Yet it is a mistake
to equate these formal bodies with the widespread and largely leaderless,
self-organizing movement that has emerged in Venezuela. Many foreign
observers discount the opposition as mostly rich or middle class, a
coup-prone coalition of opportunistic politicians.

No doubt some protesters fit this ugly profile. Nor is there any doubt
that the Venezuelan opposition is clumsy and prone to blunders. Still, it
has helped millions of Venezuelans awaken to the fact that for too many
years they have been mere inhabitants of their own country. Now they
demand to be citizens, and feel they have the right to oust through
democratic means a president who has wrought havoc on their country.
It is a measure of Venezuela's toxic political climate that even though
the constitution allows for early elections, and even though President
Chávez has promised that he will abide by this provision, the great
majority of Venezuelans don't believe him. They are convinced that in
August, when the constitution contemplates a referendum on the president,
the government will resort to delaying tactics and dirty tricks. With
international attention elsewhere, Mr. Chávez will use his power to
forestall an election and ignore the constitution.

Venezuela's citizens have been heroically peaceful and civil in their
quest. All they ask is that they be given a chance to vote. The world
should do its best to ensure that they have that opportunity.

Moisés Naím, minister of trade and industry of Venezuela from 1989 to
1990, is editor of Foreign Policy magazine.