VENEZUELA'S EMBATTLED DEMOCRACY

By JOANNE MARINER

Monday, Apr. 15, 2002

Bettering the recent Argentine record of three presidents in two weeks, Venezuelans, over a tumultuous weekend, have survived three presidents in two days. In a dizzying sequence of events that began early Friday morning, the country saw the ouster of president Hugo Chavez, the one-day interim government of Pedro Carmona Estanga, the swearing-in of vice-president Diosdado Cabello as provisional head of state, and finally, on Sunday morning, Chavez's return to power.

Although the circumstances of Chavez's removal from office are still not entirely clear, the basic outlines of the story are quite troubling. Not only were all of the niceties of constitutional procedure ignored, the military high command played a critical role, apparently forcing Chavez to step down. In a region whose history is rife with military dictatorships and other notorious examples of military overreaching, such intervention seems a disturbing throwback to past practice.

But even aside from the military's involvement, the threats to democracy in Venezuela merit serious critical scrutiny. Over the past year, the political situation in Venezuela has become increasingly polarized, confrontational, and chaotic. Although Chavez may now be afforded a respite from further street protests, the country's deep political divisions remain. The future of the Chavez government - and perhaps even of the country's democratic institutions - is far from assured.

Worse, Venezuela is not the only Latin country in which civilian democracy is embattled. As the Argentina precedent suggests, democracies all over the region are facing difficult times. Unable to provide voters the security and prosperity they demand, many civilian governments appear weak and ineffectual.

With ebbing popular confidence in the ability of democratic institutions to solve their problems, many Latin Americans are watching the situation in Venezuela with more than casual interest. Latin American leaders, especially concerned about the crisis, are prepared to use legal sanctions to protect Venezuela's constitutional processes.

The Chavez Presidency

Despite Chavez's popular mandate, he faced clear opposition from much of the business community and the middle class. As time went on, and the country's economic prospects failed to improve, Chavez's popularity fell. It was recently estimated to be as low as 30 percent of Venezuelans, down drastically from his earlier polling numbers.

Chavez developed warm ties with Fidel Castro and visited countries such as Libya and Iraq. His flirtation with authoritarian leaders worried domestic critics and angered U.S. government authorities. Yet despite an aggressive rhetorical style, Chavez was not a repressive president. Critics complained of his authoritarian "leanings," but rarely of specific actions.

Chavez's Ouster

Growing opposition to Chavez showed itself last week in a general strike and massive street demonstrations. On Thursday, just before Chavez left office, violent confrontations killed at least fifteen and injured 350. Armed Chavez supporters belonging to "Bolivarian Circles" are believed to be responsible for much of the violence.

Some accounts of the events have suggested that the military demanded Chavez's resignation after refusing his order to fire on opposition protesters. Chavez's supporters insist he was ousted in a straightforward military coup. Either way, the military clearly played a determinative role in Chavez's decision to leave power. Moreover, Chavez went into military custody directly from the presidency.

Business leader Pedro Carmona, Venezuela's president for a day, moved swiftly to dismantle Chavez's policies, ordering, for example, that Cuba no longer receive Venezuelan oil. He said he would call a general election within a year.

But on Saturday, with thousands of Chavez supporters taking to the streets to denounce his government, the Carmona presidency ended. In that day's unrest, dozens more are believed to have been killed, many by police.

U.S. Relief

The U.S. reaction to Chavez's ouster was one of relief. Although unlike in past Latin American coups, there is no evidence that the United States was behind Chavez's ouster, the government expressed little concern for democratic processes.

Latin Outcry

Latin American officials, who might more likely see themselves in Chavez's shoes, reacted to the ouster with a greater show of concern. On Friday, the day that Chavez's resignation was announced, nineteen Latin American presidents issued a joint statement condemning "the interruption of constitutional order in Venezuela."

On Saturday, officials of the Organization of American States announced that the organization was seriously considering invoking the recently-adopted Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela's provisional government. If Chavez's ouster was found antidemocratic under the terms of the charter, it would have required Venezuela's suspension from the organization and its exclusion from regional trade agreements.

One of the main leaders of the drive to condemn Chavez's expulsion from office was Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo. Toledo, who struggled to reestablish democracy in Peru against strongman Alberto Fujimori, has suffered a precipitous drop in popularity since taking office last year.

The Parliamentary Alternative

There is no easy solution to the question of strengthening democracy in Venezuela and in the rest of the region. This is partly because, to begin with, the problems that are undermining democracy are not simply political but also economic and social.

Nonetheless, a structural reform of democratic institutions in Latin America might usefully be considered. One change that might be beneficial is a switch from a presidential system of government to a semi-parliamentary one. The inflexibility of the presidential system - and particularly its inability to accommodate radical changes in a leader's popularity - seems ill-suited to the circumstances prevalent in Latin America.

Rather than oust a president before his term expires, a semi-parliamentary system would provide a controlled, legal procedure by which the country could switch its head of government when circumstances require. Surely a parliamentary "no confidence" vote would be a welcome contrast to the chaotic and violent events of the past few days in Venezuela.


Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. Her previous columns on international human rights issues may be found in the archive of her columns on this site. The views expressed in her column are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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