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After Chavez: Supporting Democracy In Venezuela

By Stephen Johnson , Heritage Foundation

President Hugo Chávez's efforts to turn Venezuela into a leftist authoritarian state are over. More than 150,000 citizens marched on the Miraflores presidential palace on April 11 to repudiate his increasingly authoritarian policies. After snipers fired on them from rooftops, senior military commanders took control and urged the embattled president to step down.

Pedro Carmona Estanga, head of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and one of the organizers of the protest, agreed to lead a transition government. Although the episode concludes a short, sad chapter in Venezuelan history, the challenge ahead for Venezuela's politicians and civic leaders is formidable. They must put together a new government and heal wounds left by a leader who twisted political institutions to consolidate his personal grip on power while dividing the nation with his confrontational style.

The United States can help. One of the world's leading oil producers, Venezuela has always been an ally and a key trade partner. In this moment of turmoil, Venezuelan democrats need our support. But while Venezuela's departure from constitutional order is regrettable, this is not the time to scold those responsible or attempt to restore Chávez and his increasingly undemocratic agenda to power, as the United States did with Haiti's Jean Bertrand-Aristide in 1994.

Chávez had lost considerable popular support over the last year, and it is not clear that there was any practical remedy to his shenanigans under a constitution that he engineered to be rewritten early in his administration. Nor would it have been possible to rein in his self-indulgent behavior in the atmosphere of belligerence he created. This is, after all, the man who established and armed partisan gangs called "Bolivarian Circles" and promised to "crush" any and all opponents.

Instead, the United States should call for a return to the institutions of democracy. And it should facilitate that effort by increasing contact with Venezuela's political and social leaders and by offering to help them construct a new order and address the weaknesses that led to this breakdown.

The Bush administration should move quickly to ensure that Washington-based non-governmental organizations such as the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute have the resources necessary to help Venezuela's battered political parties remake themselves into policy and leadership incubators.

The State Department's Public Diplomacy bureau should encourage politicians and civic leaders to turn away from their traditions of centralized authority, corruption and populist economics by sponsoring international visitor exchanges and organizing seminars on government and economic reform.

Above all, Washington must realize that what happened in Venezuela was not a coup by a small group, but a broad, public rejection of policies that were leading Venezuela into economic chaos, into closer relations with rogue regimes such as Iraq and Cuba, and away from liberty and economic opportunity that, at heart, most Venezuelans are striving for.

Stephen Johnson is a Latin America policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute.

April 15, 2002

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