By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Can democracy teach old saber rattlers new nonviolent tricks? The question leaps out around the world - from the Philippines, where once rebelling Gen. Fidel Ramos served as elected president for six years, to Venezuela at this moment.
Here polls show that the leader in a pack of candidates for December presidential elections is a retired lieutenant colonel, Hugo Chavez, who only six years ago tried to overthrow a democratically elected president.
The Chavez candidacy is echoing across a Latin America where all regimes but one (Cuba) are "democracies" - as US officials like to trumpet - but where the transition to democracy still has shallow roots. Many analysts have predicted that the region's difficult political and economic transition could lead to a populist and antidemocratic reaction from a public soured on reform. Rudderless oil exporter? So far that hasn't happened. But Venezuela could be the first case, some observers warn. It has been racked by a crisis in its state-centered, oil-based economic system - it is the world's largest exporter of oil to the US - and left rudderless by widespread rejection of traditional political parties. Latin America was a stronghold of military regimes just a generation ago. It has already witnessed the "democratization" of a few former military leaders. The most notable case is that of Bolivian President Hugo Banzer, a former Army general, elected to the presidency in June 1997 after first ruling the country from 1971 to 1978 under a military dictatorship. Mr. Banzer's years as a dictator were marked by severe human rights violations. He went to great lengths, both during his presidential campaign and after winning last year's election, to assure Bolivians of his democratic rebirth. "The difference from Chavez is that Banzer had a record of playing the democratic game" after his dictatorship, says Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami. Banzer has defended his strongman actions under dictatorship as necessary to achieve stability during the turbulent 1970s, but since then "he's generally comported himself as a committed democrat," Mr. Gamarra adds. Some observers say that, once elected, Chavez could turn out like Argentine President Carlos Menem or Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, both of whom talked a strong populist line in their initial campaigns, only to follow market-oriented economic-adjustment policies once in office. Colonel Chavez's attempted coup against then-president Carlos Andrs Prez in 1992 landed him in prison for two years before he was pardoned. He scares Venezuela's business elite and foreign investors alike. His populist discourse promises a nationalist economic policy modeled more on North Korea than on the free market - and vengeance against "corrupt" leaders who put the country in its current recession. He also hints at a moratorium on foreign debt payments. But what worries a broader spectrum of Venezuelans is Chavez's past propensity toward rule by force rather than law. …