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,
Chavez, who only six years ago tried to overthrow a democratically
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
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
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
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
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. …