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Venezuela's Strange Days

April 17, 2002

It goes against the grain to put the name Hugo Chavez and the word "democracy" in the same sentence. It also seems strange to thank an army for maintaining democracy. But all of Venezuela has had that kind of through-the-looking-glass week.

The bizarre failed military coup that made Chavez a prisoner for 48 hours and then restored him as president of Venezuela went against expectations on several fronts. Latin American nations, several with an unfortunate history of military takeovers, rushed to demand the continuance of democracy. The United States, proclaimed champion of democracy, embarrassed itself by not denouncing the coup and was further shamed by the revelation that Bush administration officials had talked to the Venezuelan opposition for months before the coup.

The military action was born of a remarkable drop in Chavez's popularity in recent months as the economy went downhill. Protests against the president grew larger, oil workers went on strike and last week Chavez supporters opened fire on anti-Chavez demonstrators. That was too much for one faction of the military, which bundled the president off to an island prison. His opponents falsely claimed that Chavez had resigned; they installed Pedro Carmona, leader of the country's biggest business association, as president. Carmona, another man whose name will never be a synonym for democracy, dissolved the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Then pro-Chavez demonstrators took to the streets and several were killed. That prompted other members of the military to reverse the coup.

Chavez's flamboyant style wasn't dimmed by his brief stint in jail, but he has sounded more conciliatory. If he reaches out to his foes rather than continuing to divide the nation along class lines, Venezuela will benefit.

Chavez is no stranger to coups; as an army paratrooper in 1992 he unsuccessfully tried to grab power from an elected president. Six years later he won the presidency at the polls when his populist demagoguery caught fire with a huge, politically marginalized underclass. The president then proceeded to spend more time glad-handing leaders like Moammar Kadafi, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro than improving the economic lives of those who needed it most. He pushed through constitutional changes to extend his grip on power, tried to muzzle the press and other critics, flirted with Colombia's drug guerrillas and packed the Supreme Court and National Assembly with his allies.

All those are actions for the United States and Venezuela's neighbors to deplore. But it's one thing to oppose policies and another to back a coup. Washington quickly welcomed Chavez's ouster and said he had brought it on himself. It reversed course only when the Organization of American States denounced the change of regime.

The Bush administration insisted it did not give a green light to the attempted ouster. If so, the signals from Washington do not seem to have been treated seriously. Whatever its intentions, the White House failed to stay on the side of democracy.

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