Democracy Dictates Latin America's Future
By Moises Naim
Originally published in the Financial Times,on April 26, 2002.
In January 2000, Ecuadoreans took to the streets and forced Jamil Mahuad, their
democratically elected president, to resign. A few months later, Peruvians did
the same to Alberto Fujimori. Last January popular protests in Argentina drove
out President Fernando de la Rúa. Three countries, three differing sets
of circumstances and three presidents with contrasting personalities; yet there
is a telling common thread to events.
In contrast to what, for decades, was the usual practice throughout Latin America,
the fall of a democratically elected president in Ecuador, Peru and Argentina
did not lead to repression by a ruthless military junta and the disappearance
of thousands of political opponents. Instead, demo- cracy was maintained and
constitutions were respected. In Peru, democracy was even strengthened as a
result of Mr Fujimori's removal. Moreover, in all three cases, civil society
and not the military was the main agent of change.
Now Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has almost suffered the same fate. But not quite.
In Venezuela the military hijacked what was a genuinely civil and profoundly
democratic expression of dissatisfaction with Mr Chavez. Important groups in
Venezuelan society were marching for freedom and democracy - and ended serving
as the launch pad for a profoundly undemocratic projectile. The hopes of householders,
students, oil industry managers, the unemployed and organised labour were shattered
by the myopic ambitions of a small, undemocratic coterie.
The new interim president, the leader of a business lobby, and his military
sponsors - one of several factions within the armed forces that were jockeying
for cabinet positions in the post-Chavez government - failed to recognise that
Mr Chavez was being ousted because of his exclusionary politics and his lack
of respect for democracy. His successors also adopted the politics of exclusion
and, unlike the broad-based, civilian, social movement that brought them to
the Miraflores Palace, they represented a tiny, non-influential sliver of the
military and the business sectors.
Ignoring the fact that most Venezuelans have lived all their lives in a democracy,
the new government eliminated the National Assembly and most other elected bodies.
It forgot that the international community no longer sees a country's internal
affairs as untouchable but is willing to intervene to defend democracy.
The morning afterwards, instead of turning out to celebrate Mr Chavez's demise,
Venezuelans stayed at home. Other Latin American governments immediately denounced
the coup. Inside the military, tensions mounted and the generals who were left
out or, even worse, saw their rivals in power rebelled. Soon, the Bolivarian
Circles, paramilitary groups organised, funded and armed by the Chavez administration,
were in the streets - and the conditions were created for Mr Chavez's return
The effectiveness of the Bolivarian Circles stands in sharp contrast to the
clumsiness of all other participants. Not for nothing have thousands of Cuban
sports trainers and paramedical personnel been working in Venezuela for the
past three years. Their presence is part of the payment in kind that Venezuela
receives for supplying 60 per cent of Cuba's oil needs on highly advantageous
terms. Obviously the survival of the Chavez regime is vital to the Cuban economy.
The only policy statement made by the would-be finance minister of the interim
government was that the oil deal with Cuba would be immediately halted.
What are the lessons of this tragicomic saga? First, the Venezuelan military
does not know how to stage a coup. It tried twice in 1992 and failed. Now it
has failed for the third time. Ironically, the corruption and incompetence of
the Venezuelan armed forces have become a shield that protects democracy whenever
autocratic tendencies boil over. I hope the difficult times ahead in Venezuela
will not disprove this conclusion.
But even when coups succeed, Latin American militaries find it harder to retain
power than they once did. Civilian society seems to have at last become at least
as influential as the military, if not more so. New communications technologies,
notably the internet, have spawned powerful forms of activism.
New international constraints also add to the difficulties of would-be dictators.
The "CNN effect" and its influence on global public opinion, together
with a democratic charter signed by all members of the Organisation of American
States that commits them to isolating and sanctioning any member government
that abandons democracy, are conditions the military juntas of the past did
not have to face.
Third, Venezuela is a deeply divided country socially and politically, not
just between rich and poor. No group can hope to retain power by excluding the
others. Successive Venezuelan governments have systematically ignored this rather
obvious reality. Mr Chavez's predecessors made the mistake of ignoring the needs
of large swaths of society. He repeated the mistake and the faction that tried
to unseat him followed this myopic and unsustainable practice. Venezuela's future
stability critically rests on how quickly its current and future leaders overcome
this learning disability.
Another interesting, but perhaps not surprising, lesson is how rapidly the
world's attention shifted from Caracas to Washington. The main story is no longer
about Venezuela and the factors that led to the ill-fated attempt to oust a
government that, though democratically elected, had highly undemocratic practices.
The story quickly became about what Washington - or rather, the Bush administration
- knew, or did or did not do. Its political adversaries at home and its ideological
critics abroad have seized the Venezuelan episode as evidence to confirm their
prejudices or advance their interests.
At such times, the fundamental point is easily missed, or given short shrift.
It is that Venezuelans love their democracy and their freedoms. They took to
the streets for them and many died for them - regardless of what Washington
or Havana did.
© by Vcrisis.com & the author