WASHINGTON — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's consent to a recall vote has stunned most observers of Latin America. Diplomats, journalists, academics, and Wall Street analysts were in nearly universal agreement that the autocratic leader would stop at nothing to prevent a referendum on his presidency.
Recent Latin American history suggests, however, that Mr. Chávez's acknowledgment that his political opponents had met the requirements for a recall vote was the most likely outcome in the 18-month battle over the referendum. Time and again over the past 15 years, authoritarian leaders in the hemisphere have yielded in the face of organized internal opposition and international pressure.
That is not to say that the outcome in Venezuela was foreordained. On the contrary, the opposition had to overcome internal differences over the best way to confront Chávez and skillfully weave through a series of legal and political obstacles placed in its way by the government. And foreign observers, namely the Carter Center and the Organization of American States (OAS), had to persist in spite of threats to limit or even prohibit their presence.
But as long as the opposition and international community were committed to achieving a referendum, the costs to Chávez of illegitimately preventing one would have been high. The domestic unrest and international condemnation that would have resulted would have jeopardized his continued rule.
Chávez is one in a long line of modern Latin American leaders to learn that lesson. The first was Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who surprised many inside and outside his country when he stepped down after losing a presidential plebiscite in 1988. The US and some European governments employed diplomatic and economic pressure to ensure that the referendum took place in reasonably fair conditions and were prepared to sanction Chile if the results were not respected.
A year and half later, Daniel Ortega, the socialist president of Nicaragua, conceded defeat in an election. With the eyes of the world on Nicaragua and in the presence of 3,000 foreign observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter and representatives of the United Nations and the OAS, the Sandinista leader had little choice but to relinquish power.
In the interim, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega did steal an election - but his case may be the exception that proves the rule. The blatant electoral fraud, which was denounced by an international observer team headed by Mr. Carter, set off a series of events that led to the US invasion of Panama and the arrest of Mr. Noriega.
As difficult as it was for authoritarian leaders to withstand the democratic wave sweeping over Latin America in the 1980s, it is even harder today. Every country in the hemisphere - with the exception of Cuba - is a democracy, albeit far from perfect in many cases. The OAS, once phobic about involving itself in the internal affairs of member states, has now enshrined the promotion and protection of democracy in its Charter.
Since the early 1990s, the OAS has curbed antidemocratic excesses in Peru, thwarted an attempt in Guatemala to shut down the country's democratic institutions, and buttressed the Paraguayan government in the face of military threats.
In Venezuela's current situation, international observers played a critical role. OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria took up residence there for long periods of time, and he and Carter helped broker an accord last year between the government and the opposition to move toward a referendum. Following the verification of recall petition signatures early this month, Mr. Gaviria and Carter dismissed suggestions by the Venezuelan government that the opposition committed fraud during the process, and they privately and publicly pressured the electoral council to avoid delaying the certification of signatures. Their hand was strengthened by the looming annual meeting of OAS foreign ministers, who would have been expected to act if Carter and Gaviria documented and denounced illegitimate efforts to thwart the referendum.
The Venezuela story is far from over, however. If Chávez loses the Aug. 15 recall referendum - which public opinion polls suggest he will - a presidential election is to be held a month later. The government is already prompting renewed questions about its commitment to a fair process by prohibiting access of observers to the vote counting, which will be conducted electronically on an untried system, and charging democracy activists with treason for accepting support from the US National Endowment for Democracy. The international community needs to help ensure that the electoral process is fair and that the harassment of government opponents is halted.
As important as such steps will be for Venezuela, they also will signal to potential authoritarian leaders in the hemisphere, wherever and whomever they may be, that the costs of taking antidemocratic actions can be high.
• Mark Feierstein, a former State Department official, is associate vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which conducts public polling for RCTV, a private broadcaster in Caracas.