Venezuela and Zimbabwe: Democracy on the brink

Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chávez have something in common. The president of Zimbabwe and the president of Venezuela are both leading their countries to ruin. While Zimbabwe's friends are helping to send it over the edge, Venezuela's friends could help avert a catastrophe and pull the country back from the brink.

In order to stay in power, Mr. Mugabe and Mr. Chávez are destroying their countries' economies, undermining their democratic institutions, and promoting deep divisions within their societies that could lead to civil wars.

In Venezuela, Chávez would like to install a Fidel Castro-style government. To do so, he is intimidating the press, subjugating the judiciary, and ensuring the irrelevance of the Congress. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe is using the same tactics. But while Chávez exploits the division between Venezuela's rich and poor to gain support, Mugabe prefers using racism.

He is seizing farms owned by whites without paying any compensation. While he claims he wants to give the land to poor peasants, much of it winds up in the hands of his family and friends. His wife, Grace, personally threw out the owners of the 2,500-acre estate she coveted. Others have also benefited from the takeovers. For instance, the head of Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation was rewarded for his loyalty with a 1,500-acre farm.

In the past, Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of the region. Lack of rain and Mugabe's policies ended that and now half its people are facing starvation.

As one official at the US Agency for International Development observed recently: "If I had to list five things that a government could do to turn a drought into a famine, the Mugabe government is doing all of them exponentially."

Remarkably, the reactions of the regional political organizations in these two situations could not be more different. The African Union (AU), which recently replaced the Organization of African Unity (OAU), has done nothing. Perhaps that is an improvement, as the OAU actually endorsed Mugabe's attacks on the opposition and his fraudulent election last year by declaring the voting legitimate. But the AU may yet turn out to be little better than the OAU in supporting democracy, as one of its very first acts was to refuse to admit the president of Madagascar to the group. His crime: unseating a long-term incumbent in elections that were free and fair.

The leaders of the AU are currently touting a new program, the New Partnership for Africa's Development or NEPAD, in the hopes of attracting more aid from wealthy countries. One of the NEPAD's selling points is that it includes an African peer review mechanism that will supposedly help ensure good governance. Mugabe no doubt takes heart in the fact that the peers doing the judging would be the corrupt rulers of Libya, Sudan, Liberia, Mozambique, and others. African leaders have also blocked any serious consideration of Mugabe's tyranny by other groups like the Commonwealth countries and the Southern African Development Community.

In Venezuela, the situation is grave, but not hopeless, thanks to help from the Organization of American States (OAS). Venezuela's largest union and largest business organization have called for mass demonstrations and a national strike in mid-October. In response, Chávez has urged his supporters to take to the streets to defend his "revolution." Many of the poor see Chávez as their only economic hope, while many in the upper and middle classes think the only thing to negotiate is the date of Chávez's departure. Such a sharp division makes violence all the more likely.

The OAS, with the help of The Carter Center and the UN Development Program, are nonetheless trying to promote a dialogue between Chávez and the opposition. A recent mission to the capital, Caracas, by those three groups came up with a long list of recommendations on ways to achieve some level of national reconciliation.

The OAS saved Venezuela's democracy last April when it expressed its disapproval of a coup that had ousted Chávez. The president was returned to power within 48 hours. It is trying to keep the lid on until a referendum sometime next year can let the voters decide whether Chávez goes or not. Even the best efforts of outsiders, however, may not save Venezuelans from themselves a second time.

• Dennis Jett is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida.

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