Democracy shaky in S. America

Venezuelans are divided, following the recent fall and rise of President Chávez.

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The bizarre roller coaster of events in Venezuela over recent days – the precipitous resignation and arrest of embattled President Hugo Chávez on Friday, followed by his triumphal return to power Sunday – is another sign of the troubled state of democracy across Latin America.

For the mostly poor supporters of the red-bereted, populist Mr. Chávez, his brief removal after deadly riots last week was a military coup dressed up by the country's ruling elite as a popular uprising – and suspiciously supported by the United States.

For the middle and upper classes who reject Chávez as a bygone Latin dictator whose model is Fidel Castro's communist Cuba, his fall was a kind of Venezuelan spring, the work of a civil society galvanized by the rise of a megalomaniac.

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But no matter how one looks at it, Venezuela's turmoil suggests trouble in a region where leaders are still too often looked to as saviors. As long as democratic insti- tutions remain weak and regard for leaders swings from euphoria to rejection, analysts say, Latin countries will continue to experience turmoil like that in Venezuela.

"When civil society sees its hopes for democracy go down in flames with a 24-hour government that showed no respect for the rule of law, it's hard to speak hopefully of democracy's prospects," says Elías Pino Iturrieta, director of historical studies at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

Mr. Chávez, a former Army colonel who led a failed coup in 1992 before his election as president in 1998, was increasingly isolated before the weekend's events. He was faulted for growing belligerence toward his critics, including an array of non-governmental groups, the media, and some new opposition political parties. In the region, Chávez is not alone in difficulties. He is the second South American president to be removed from office in six months – following Argentina's Fernando de la Rua in December – at a time when leaders from Mexico's Vicente Fox to Peru's Alejandro Toledo have seen their once Olympian popularity plunge and doubts about elected leadership grow.

By Sunday, Chávez was looking much like his old self, delivering a long speech on national television from the same presidential desk where businessman Pedro Carmona, with the backing of the military's top brass, had declared himself president hours before. In his return speech, Chávez got at least one thing right: He said the country is deeply divided.

Spontaneous demonstrations both for and against Chávez popped up around the capital, Caracas, into Monday morning. There were reports of clashes among different military services.

Chávez comes out of the experience considerably weakened, most analysts agree, but they add that the groups that oppose him have lost even more in prestige and power.

Alberto Garrido, a Caracas political consultant and author of several books on Chávez, says the military only allowed Chávez to return to power in exchange for some commitments – in particular, the disarming of civilian groups known as "Bolivarian circles," which were becoming a kind of pro-Chávez militia. The resignation of the board of Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA, must also have been part of the deal, he believes, and "there must have been a deal on the [Colombian] border and the issue of Chávez's support for the FARC," Colombia's Marxist guerrillas.

A power struggle over PDVSA's direction is what touched off demonstrations last week that turned deadly – at least 14 people were killed – and led to Chávez's brief ouster. Oil is a touchy element of the national psyche for the world's fourth-largest oil producer – and the third-largest supplier of crude to the US.

If there is a silver lining to Venezuela's upheaval, it is that in a strange way Chávez "was saved by democracy," as Mr. Garrido says. He notes that a group of 19 Latin American leaders refused to recognize Venezuela's short-lived junta, invoking a democracy charter signed last year with the Organization of American States that requires sanctions against any coup in the region. The same cannot be said for the US, which called the coup a popular revolt that Chávez brought on himself.

But Mr. Pino notes that many of the country's prodemocracy forces did not support the new government after it became evident they had been used to promulgate what some called a "Chamber of Commerce coup."

"These groups were suspicious and then completely disheartened when what they saw replacing Chávez was a circle from the business elite with no respect for the rule of law," he says. One of Mr. Carmona's first acts was to suspend the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, and even the country's Chávez-inspired constitution.

One problem for the majority of Venezuelans – who oppose Chávez, polls before last week's events showed – is that the constitution was tailored to allow him to remain in power until 2021. "From his arrival in office Chávez worked to undermine the democratic pillars in that he never accepted give-and-take and pushed to concentrate power," says Miguel Díaz, director of the South America Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But a pro-democracy civil society never let up on him," he adds, "and I assume they won't rest until Venezuela gets a better government."

Even some observers sympathetic to Chávez's stated goal of building a society that serves more than a monied elite say that Chávez has been his own worst enemy, seeming to delight in antagonizing everyone from the media to the Catholic Church at home, to the US. "No one would argue that Chávez's style has helped him," says historian Samuel Moncada of Caracas's Central University of Venezuela.

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