Venezuelan Coup D'etat; More Than One Lesson in democracy.(OPED)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

Venezuelan Coup D'etat; More Than One Lesson in democracy.(OPED)


Byline: Elizabeth Spiro Clark, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration backtracked and explained away its seeming willingness - even its secret desire - to accept the coup against Venezuela's democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. In this mini-drama, the administration is cast as the bad guy hypocrite, proclaiming U.S. support for democracy but dropping that support when it doesn't like the results.

The flap over the administration's actions, however, should not obscure the fact that this is not a simple case. It is true that the advance of democracy in this hemisphere owes a great deal to the commitments that governments have taken to defend democracy against coups. The Inter-American Democracy Charter that Colin Powell signed for the United States on September 11 is one of a number of new international instruments giving democratic standards real teeth as a tool to combat dictatorship. Even before the charter, the earlier 1991 Santiago Declaration obligated member governments of the Organization of American States (OAS) to consult on actions to reverse or punish coups against democratically elected governments. This declaration made possible OAS and U.N. support for U.S. military action to restore coup victim Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. Actions taken under the declaration helped abort coups in Peru, Ecuador and now in Venezuela. From this perspective, the failure of the coup is unequivocally welcome.

However, while what happened in Venezuela points to the importance of internationally accepted democratic standards as an effective basis for action, it also points out their inadequacies. Mr. Chavez's restoration was by no means an unalloyed victory for democracy. He may be a democratically elected president, but Mr. Chavez squandered much of his democratic legitimacy at a number of key junctures. For example, he asked voters in a 2000 referendum to suspend the constitutional rights of union leaders (violating international covenants), restricted freedom of association for judges, and embedded threats to press freedoms in his tailor-made 1999 constitution.

If the Americas are not again to be put in a position of having to restore in democracy's name a leader who in many ways has worked against democracy, the charter's standards should be refined and expanded beyond the mere focus on elections. There is a good reason why the charter focuses on elections.

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