If Venezuela weren't the largest oil exporter to the US, Washington might not be worried that one of Latin America's oldest democracies has just effectively taken over a corrupt Congress and court system by something close to mob rule.
But it is worried, not just because of oil security but because Venezuela might set a precedent in Latin America for rolling back democracy.
A new assembly elected to rewrite the Constitution has now assumed unexpected powers. This throw-the-bums-out approach to cleaning up democratic institutions was led by Hugo Chavez, a former Army officer whose failed 1992 coup led to his election as president last December on a promise of "peaceful social revolution."
His tactics have immediate emotional appeal, but they carry a danger that any constitutional government may be stripped of its powers if popular will demands a quick solution.
It was easy oil wealth, spoiled by a selfish elite, that helped bring Venezuela to this sad point. Corruption had extended even to the electoral system. And poverty that comes with dashed expectations of riches is the worst kind for young democracies.
The only violence so far in the capital was a tense shoving match on Friday between Chavez supporters and congressional advocates. The elected Congress vows to use its few remaining powers to thwart Mr. Chavez. Both sides should cool off, and keep "revolution" within the elected system.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society