A Message From Venezuela

THE lesson from this week's attempted coup in Venezuela isn't that the military is primed to leap back into power in Latin America and the Caribbean - Haiti's recent experience aside. It's that the tough-minded free market economic reforms being implemented in many countries of the region create social tensions that can easily burst forth in rebellion.

In Venezuela, President Carlos Andres Perez has privatized industry, slashed state subsidies, and cut import duties since being elected in 1988. His efforts to bring the country into the world's economic mainstream have paid off - Venezuela's growth rate last year was a vibrant 9.2 percent. Inflation, while still high at 30 percent, is way down from the 89 percent of three years ago.

But the better times, as registered in economic statistics, haven't yet translated into better incomes and more buying power for many average Venezuelans. Millions of people, including soldiers, find that their pay is shrinking and what money they have doesn't go as far. In recent weeks, students in Caracas organized demonstrations to protest higher bus fares; teachers have struck over low pay.

Though the specific motives of the second-tier officers who launched the coup aren't clear, they doubtless felt that popular dissatisfaction with Mr. Perez had grown to the point that an overthrow might win support on the streets. They may have also hoped to capitalize on nationalist frustrations with the president over his reluctance to push hard to settle a long-standing border dispute with Colombia. And Perez, like a certain colleague to the north, has taken much criticism in the Venezuelan press for being more inclined to travel abroad than tend to the needs at home.

The colonels grossly miscalculated. Despite any disgruntlement with Perez, most Venezuelans were apparently shocked that the coup was even attempted - it seemed an anachronism in a country with 30 years of democratic rule.

But the cautionary note remains, not just for Venezuela but for other nations that are trying similar, often wrenching reforms. Leadership has to convince people that it won't tolerate corruption and it has the common man's well being in view.

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