Before Hugo Chvez was elected Venezuela's president last December, he promised to clean out the country's Congress, gut and reform the judicial system, and deliver a new constitution.
Since taking office in February, Mr. Chvez has been true to his word, supporters say. But to his critics, the former army colonel and failed coup leader is rapidly dismantling one of Latin America's oldest democracies.
The nation is in the midst of a constitutional crisis that erupted last week as the newly elected 131-member constitutional assembly stripped the sitting Congress of most of its power. A day earlier, the president of the Supreme Court resigned in protest of what she called lost judicial independence. On Friday, the National Guard used water cannons and tear gas to stop members of Congress from reconvening in defiance of the constitutional assembly's actions.
One tactic the Congress may use is to withhold funding from the new assembly and refuse to approve presidential trips abroad. But some assembly members planned to meet yesterday and revoke all of Congress's remaining powers and declare an "executive emergency."
With two branches of Venezuela's democracy teetering, the United States and other nations are expressing concern about the changes under way. But for many Venezuelans, who continue to overwhelmingly support the red-bereted Chvez, what is happening here is democracy at work.
"The president is doing what he promised in his campaign and what we elected him to do, so how is that antidemocratic?" asks Anbal Silva, a watchmaker who lost his job five years ago in Venezuela's economic slump. "There aren't many Venezuelans who don't agree that Congress and the courts are filthy and corrupt," he adds.
Some observers say events in Venezuela serve as a warning of what can happen when democracies, even when relatively mature and established, fail to demonstrate that they operate for the common good. When powers like the legislative branch or the judiciary are perceived to be corrupt and only serving the interests of a few, the voting public not only might fail to react when those powers are threatened - but might also encourage their downfall.
Ask almost any Venezuelan if Chvez's failed 1992 coup is succeeding in 1999, and you are likely to get an answer that plays like a broken record: The traditional political parties that have ruled the country since democracy was reestablished in 1958 are responsible for turning the world's third-largest oil exporter into a nation of paupers while keeping the wealth for themselves.
"The only way to achieve the reform Venezuelans want is to get the Congress out of the way, because with so many personal interests at stake [members of Congress] would be acting at every turn to sabotage the process," says Luis Centeno, a civil lawyer here. "The success of one side means the demise of the other, so it's unreasonable to think some kind of cohabitation could work."
To what extent Venezuela's four-decade-old democracy is actually threatened remains open to debate. In a televised speech last Thursday, Chvez called the reform process "the liveliest of the century," and he insisted that rather than dying, "democracy is being born." But his remarks failed to match those of Supreme Court President Cecilia Sosa, who resigned Tuesday.
The new assembly is expected to try half of the country's judicial officials for corruption. Lamenting what she called the "disintegration" of "the last control on constitutionality and legality," Ms. Sosa concluded: "The court simply committed suicide to avoid being assassinated. The result is the same - it is dead."
Those words acted like a wakeup call to members of Congress, who had earlier voted themselves a long recess into October to make way for the constitutional assembly. After the assembly on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, opposition members of Congress tried on Friday to convene and challenge the assembly's actions.
The result outside the historic white capital in central Caracas was a tense shoving match between Chvez supporters and congressional advocates. Chvez called the confrontation a "macabre show" designed to sully Venezuela's reputation.
The streets around the capital were quiet yesterday, while leaders from the assembly and the congressional opposition searched for a way out of the impasse. But the coming months before the assembly delivers a new constitution early next year are likely to include more confrontations between "old" and "new" powers, observers here say.
"It's a good thing to pull out a decaying molar, but it's going to hurt," says Adolfo Salguiero, a lawyer and political columnist for "El Universal," a Caracas daily. "In the same way, an institutional reform that reaches to the roots is going to hurt some people's interests, and some of them are going to react."
Still, Mr. Salgueiro - who describes himself as "hardly a friend of the government" - acknowledges that an ample percentage of the population supports the Chvez "peaceful social revolution." And while he agrees with analysts who call the assembly's actions "tampering with the judiciary," he says he's not sure how reforms the voters have demanded could be accomplished otherwise.
What bothers Salgueiro is the threat of a concentration of powers implicit in the assembly's actions, and the repeated contradictions from within the Chvez government. The group including Chvez says the reforms can be carried out while upholding democratic principles. But another group from Venezuela's old extreme left would be in favor of suspending democratic guarantees if that proved necessary to complete the reform. "So far the more democratic-minded are leading the process," he says, "but that could change."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society