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Chavez's Second Chance

This article appeared in the April 18, 2002, issue of The New York Times.

BYLINE: By Jennifer McCoy

Jennifer McCoy is director of the Americas program at The Carter Center and a professor of political science at Georgia State University.

The Bush administration's mixed signals about last weekend's attempted coup in Venezuela -- first, as the administration reports, warning against it, then approving it when it happened and then backpedaling -- have given rise to charges that President Bush not only waffled but was not sufficiently firm about defending basic democratic values. But the confusion in Washington in many ways mirrored the confusion on the ground in Venezuela, where there were crossed signals and unclear intentions within the military, between the military and the opponents of President Hugo Chavez, and among the opposition groups themselves.

The more immediate repudiation of the coup by the presidents of other Latin American democracies demonstrated a clearer resolve to defend legitimately elected governments. But Venezuela also illustrates how complex and difficult it can be in Latin America to improve the quality of democratic governance. Venezuelans have failed to learn from their past. The traditional political and economic leaders who dominated Venezuelan democracy for 40 years have yet to absorb the lesson of their striking loss to Mr. Chavez at the polls in 1998. The public was tired of an ossified system in which a small circle of powerful politicians made the decisions and closed its eyes to the needs of its increasingly impoverished citizens.

In the absence of strong organized political parties, Venezuelan civic groups, unions and business organizations have emerged over the past two years as the main challengers to the Chavez government. But to some, the hubris of Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman named as interim president, and his circle as they narrowed their base and unexpectedly moved to dissolve the Congress seemed to demonstrate autocratic instincts as strong as those driving Mr. Chavez. The military and many of the groups that had allied with Mr. Carmona withdrew their support, allowing Mr. Chavez to return.

President Chavez has repeated the failed strategy of Venezuela's first attempt at democracy in 1945, when leaders alienated the Catholic Church, businesses and political parties while working for radical change. Those leaders were overthrown by a military coup three years later.

Venezuela has now had a close call, and both its own leaders and its neighbors should learn from it. Mr. Chavez must change his confrontational style and inflammatory rhetoric, which encouraged class polarization. His opponents must realize that to regroup politically, they have to offer constructive criticism and listen to the grievances of the poor. For the rest of the world, the coup shows that Latin American democracy is still fragile and needs international support.

The Organization of American States has the power to recommend actions to protect and strengthen the democratic process in a member country where democracy may be threatened. The O.A.S. should have acted more quickly, sending delegations as soon as there were signs that the Chavez regime was threatening the country's democratic system of checks and balances and the freedom of expression of its citizens. Mediation could have been offered as communication broke down between the government and its critics.

Now, to heal wounds and dispel mutual suspicions, international organizations like the O.A.S., the United Nations or private groups should offer help in organizing a credible investigation into last week's violence. And they should help Venezuelans develop new mechanisms for national dialogue, like roundtables now being used in Peru. These should bring together workers, businesses, the church, political parties, academia and other groups to discuss crucial national decisions and to restore Venezuelans' sense of a common destiny.

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