Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

The New York Times


August 14, 2004 Saturday 

Late Edition - Final


SECTION: Section A; Column 1; Editorial Desk; Pg. 15


LENGTH: 1009 words


HEADLINE: Venezuela's Fake Democrat


BYLINE: By Bernard Aronson.

Bernard Aronson, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993, works for a private equity firm that manages investments in Venezuela and elsewhere.



The most important struggle for democracy in the Western Hemisphere is now playing out in Venezuela, one of Latin America's oldest continuing democracies, and a leading supplier of oil to the United States.

 The immediate forum for this struggle is a referendum tomorrow on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Chavez -- a former army colonel who led a failed coup attempt in 1992 -- was elected on a populist platform in 1998, and, after rewriting Venezuela's Constitution, again in 2000.

 In an interesting twist, the referendum that could unseat Mr. Chavez, is, itself, part of the populist restructuring of Venezuela's democratic institutions that he has carried out-- including creating a unicameral legislature and renaming the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Nevertheless, when citizen groups petitioned to hold a referendum, the Chavez-dominated courts and National Electoral Commission forced them to collect millions more signatures than necessary -- and then to recertify many of those signatures. While the process dragged on, public employees who signed the referendum petition were fired, demoted and denied national identity cards and passports. Only after pressure from the Organization of American States and former President Jimmy Carter did the commission agree to let the referendum proceed. 

 There is no question that the struggle in Venezuela is rooted in the country's past. The corruption, crime, poverty and inequality under 40 years of rule by two political parties fueled a wave of popular disgust with traditional politics and a deep desire for change that carried Mr. Chavez to the presidency. But the struggle also marks a shift of sorts, one that highlights disturbing trends across Latin America.

 Like former President Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Mr. Chavez represents a new breed of Latin autocrat -- a leader who is legitimately elected but then uses his office to undermine democratic checks and balances and intimidate political opponents.

 Two months ago, for example, the Chavez-controlled National Assembly added 11 justices to the Supreme Court, and changed the requirement for confirmation from two-thirds of legislators to a simple majority, guaranteeing Mr. Chavez control of the judiciary. As a result, should Mr. Chavez lose the referendum, the court is likely to ratify his stated intention to run for president in the election to fill his vacancy, even though a disinterested reading of the Venezuelan Constitution suggests that he would be ineligible.

 Mr. Chavez's record of subverting democracy doesn't stop there. Though much of the Venezuelan media remains in private hands and is clearly allied with the opposition, it is slowly being strangled by regulations that deny it access to hard currency. And, whenever Mr. Chavez wishes, he decrees that all private television and radio stations, along with the state-owned news media, carry his speeches live.

 What's more, his government has manipulated the criminal justice system to thwart political opponents. Henrique Capriles Radonski, a leader of Justice First, a reformist political party, and the elected mayor of the Baruta district of Caracas, languishes in jail on a clearly fraudulent charge of fomenting a riot. Maria Corina Machado, a director of Sumate, a civic group allied with the opposition, is being prosecuted on charges equivalent to treason because her organization accepted a grant of more than $50,000 from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is financed in part by Congress, to educate Venezuelans about their voting rights. Yet only one Venezuelan has been arrested in the killings of more than 25 opposition demonstrators in clashes with supporters of Mr. Chavez over the last three years.

 The outcome of the referendum remains in doubt because Mr. Chavez has been spending state oil revenues freely and registering new citizens and voters en masse. (At the same time, signers of the recall petition have found their customary voting places moved at the last minute.) Moreover, Mr. Chavez retains passionate support among Venezuela's poor.

 The strength of populist appeal in Venezuela reflects another shift in Latin America, particularly in the Andean nations: Dispossessed populations, long locked out of their nation's economic and political life by class, economic or racial barriers, are now demanding a political voice. In Bolivia, last year, violent protests by Aymara Indians, angry over efforts to export gas through Chile, a longtime enemy, claimed more than 80 lives and subsided only after President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada fled the country.

 Like the Bolivian demonstrators, Mr. Chavez's core supporters barely subsist in the informal economy. They have been convinced by their would-be leaders, and, often, by their own experience, that the reforms needed to compete in the global economy represent a new form of exploitation.

 A new agenda is needed that offers upward mobility and political empowerment to the hemisphere's poor. This would require not only a deepening of structural economic reforms and fiscal discipline, but a new focus on giving the poor title to their land, credits for microenterprise, easing the transition for small enterprises from the informal to the formal economy, cracking down on tax evasion and official corruption, and ending the subsidization of higher education at the expense of primary and secondary schooling.

 Sadly, the hemisphere's political leaders, north and south, have not found a language of political and economic reform that speaks to the region's impoverished masses -- particularly the indigenous populations -- to counteract the siren song of populism and demagoguery. Nor have they developed the political tools or the will to confront the slow strangulation of democratic liberties by elected leaders such as is now under way in Venezuela. If they don't do so soon, expect more leaders like Hugo Chavez: men who campaign to consolidate their power and inveigh against the oligarchs while their people descend deeper into poverty.





GRAPHIC: Drawing (Drawing by Anthony Russo)                                          


LOAD-DATE: August 14, 2004