Blew Your Coup? Some Who Failed Turn to Ballot Box

Hugo Chavez tried toppling Venezuela's leader. Now he's ahead in preelection polls.

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, Hugo Chavez, who only six years ago tried to overthrow a democratically elected president.

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 roots.

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 largest 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 initial 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 alike.

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.

"Our democracy may not be perfect, it's true we suffer from corruption and unresponsive representatives," says Yensis Uricar, a young truck driver from one of Caracas's poorest neighborhoods.

"But at least we've passed the era of people disappearing in the night into common graves. I'm afraid that once people started standing up to a president Chavez, that could happen."

Support among the poor

Chavez's popularity is centered in the country's poor and impoverished middle classes, where fury over a failing economy, crumbling public services, rising crime - and especially the perceived corruption and ineffectiveness of traditional politicians - feed desires for a tough non-politician.

The uncertainty about what Chavez would do as president augments the apprehension about him.

"We know he's a golpista [coup leader], we know he talks a populist line, but beyond that he's an unknown quantity," says Gammara of Florida International University. "That makes people nervous."

Chavez could end up displaying the same change of stripes as Bolivia's Banzer. But several of Chavez's pronouncements leave some Venezuelans doubtful.

He has hinted he might close down a congress that got in his way. And he has suggested he would assume the presidency the day after the election in December, and not in February at the end of the current mandate.

This prompted President Rafael Caldera to insist in a public address that he plans to govern for his full constitutional mandate.

Constitutional rewrite?

Chavez's call for a constitutional assembly to rewrite Venezuela's 40-year-old Constitution also makes many Venezuelans nervous.

The country has been one of Latin America's more stable democracies, but critics fear a constitution coming out of a Chavez presidency could leave the country with a more authoritarian system.

"Venezuela's problem is a political system based on state centralization and political parties that have lost all legitimacy," says Allan Brewer-Caras, a Venezuelan constitutional-law expert who has advocated a constitutional makeover since Chavez's 1992 coup attempt.

According to him, Venezuela could plunge into social upheaval if the country's democracy is not broadened to give more voice to new players that have surged onto the political stage in recent years - local leaders, rights activists, private business representatives, for example.

"The fault is not with democracy itself," he says, "but with the political system set up 40 years ago to operate as a democracy."

Other Latin countries have made their systems more democratic, Mr. Brewer says - but often after violent civil conflicts.

"Right now our rigid system is the principal factor conspiring against democracy," he adds. "The challenge is that either we change democratically to something more representative, or the change will come by other, perhaps less peaceful means."

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