Which fork in road will Venezuela take?

Last Sunday, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez Frias demonstrated again the depth and breadth of his popular support. His candidates won 96 percent of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly, which will rewrite the country's Constitution.

The elections did not, however, resolve the main questions about Mr. Chavez's six-month-old government. Is he, as his supporters claim, setting the stage for a genuine renewal of Venezuela's discredited political system and a restoration of confidence in government? Or is he leading Venezuela down the path toward authoritarian rule, as his detractors assert? Can his advisers effectively manage Venezuela's complex, oil-rich economy or should we expect a continuing deterioration in the nation's fortunes? Finally, how should the US be managing its relations with Venezuela, which is now its main oil supplier.

There is little disagreement that politics in Venezuela had reached a dead end before the election of Chavez. Indeed, the overwhelming vote for Chavez - who as a young colonel seven years earlier had launched a failed military coup - affirmed the breakdown of the country's old political order. Ordinary citizens held government and established political parties in largely deserved contempt. Few Latin American countries were more poorly, or more corruptly, governed, and none lost more ground economically in the past generation. No one can seriously dispute that Chavez's election was a call for fundamental change, for a clean sweep and a remaking of Venezuelan politics.

What is in dispute is whether the Constituent Assembly will promote democratic change, or serve as prelude to a concentration of power by Chavez? There are reasons to be concerned about his commitment to democracy. His rhetoric is bombastic and intimidating. He's shown disdain for Congress and the courts, and regularly threatens to ignore them. He's stated, despite legal rulings to the contrary, that the new assembly will have the authority, not only to redraft the constitution, but to close parliament and the judiciary, and to take over their roles.

To be sure, neither the legislature nor the courts have earned much respect for their performance or integrity over the years. And Chavez has rarely stepped beyond his rhetoric to actually violate judicial or congressional decisions. When he has, the violations have so far been relatively minor. But, his rhetorical excesses have contributed to a polarized environment, hardly conducive to the give and take of democratic politics.

Chavez has also set off alarms with his appointments of military officers to key government posts. There's nothing illegal about this, and it may be natural for Chavez, who ran without a political party, to turn to the institution he knows best, to recruit the people he most trusts for positions of responsibility. But, the dangers to democracy of involving military personnel in political tasks should not be underestimated anywhere in Latin America.

On the economic front, despite his populist discourse, Chavez's policies have been standard free-market fare. Criticism may be justified that he hasn't done enough to address Venezuela's deep recession - but this slump clearly reflects a history of failed economic management. All things considered, the Venezuelan economy is not doing much worse than many others in Latin America.

Chavez is not your ordinary Latin American president. He's a military man, not a politician. He is unrepentant about his attempt to overthrow an elected government. His language is often overheated and threatening - and sometimes plainly antidemocratic. Yet he has the solid support of the vast majority of Venezuelan citizens, and there is no effective opposition to him or his policies. Under the circumstances, there is not much the US can do to shape events in Venezuela. The US should continue to seek, as it has so far, to establish a friendly and engaged relationship while making clear that the quality of the relationship depends on Chavez adhering to democratic norms. To the extent the US is able, it should be helpful and supportive if he sticks to a democratic path in remaking Venezuelan politics. But the US shouldn't hesitate to show opposition should he abandon that path.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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