Venezuela and Zimbabwe: Democracy on the Brink

Article excerpt

Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez have something in common. The president of Zimbabwe and the president of Venezuela are both leading their countries to ruin. While Zimbabwe's friends are helping to send it over the edge, Venezuela's friends could help avert a catastrophe and pull the country back from the brink.

In order to stay in power, Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Chavez are destroying their countries' economies, undermining their democratic institutions, and promoting deep divisions within their societies that could lead to civil wars.

In Venezuela, Chavez would like to install a Fidel Castro-style government. To do so, he is intimidating the press, subjugating the judiciary, and ensuring the irrelevance of the Congress. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe is using the same tactics. But while Chavez exploits the division between Venezuela's rich and poor to gain support, Mugabe prefers using racism.

He is seizing farms owned by whites without paying any compensation. While he claims he wants to give the land to poor peasants, much of it winds up in the hands of his family and friends. His wife, Grace, personally threw out the owners of the 2,500-acre estate she coveted. Others have also benefited from the takeovers. For instance, the head of Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation was rewarded for his loyalty with a 1,500-acre farm.

In the past, Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of the region. Lack of rain and Mugabe's policies ended that and now half its people are facing starvation.

As one official at the US Agency for International Development observed recently: "If I had to list five things that a government could do to turn a drought into a famine, the Mugabe government is doing all of them exponentially."

Remarkably, the reactions of the regional political organizations in these two situations could not be more different. The African Union (AU), which recently replaced the Organization of African Unity (OAU), has done nothing. Perhaps that is an improvement, as the OAU actually endorsed Mugabe's attacks on the opposition and his fraudulent election last year by declaring the voting legitimate. But the AU may yet turn out to be little better than the OAU in supporting democracy, as one of its very first acts was to refuse to admit the president of Madagascar to the group. …