S. America's era of 'civil coups'

Venezuelans held the third general strike of the year Monday, calling for President Chávez's resignation.

Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo made headlines throughout Latin America last week when he expressed concern about the future of his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez.

Public demonstrations calling for the embattled leader's resignation seem almost a daily occurrence in Venezuela, where the economy has foundered and unemployment has soared. Monday, businesses stayed closed as part of the third general strike this year.

But Mr. Toledo's sentiments may not have been exactly selfless. If Mr. Chávez falls, Toledo might be forgiven for worrying that he's next to go.

Minuscule approval ratings, persistent unemployment, and a long-running paternity claim against Peru's head of state – which ended only last Friday when Toledo finally recognized a 14-year-old as his daughter – have threatened to derail his 15-month-old tenure in office.

"I am concerned that institutional rule will be broken," Toledo told El Nuevo Herald, referring to a possible ouster of Chávez. "If one country falls, it can drag others with it." Toledo worried that Venezuela might "set a precedent through which presidents are removed even if they've been elected."

The failure of presidents to fulfill their term in office is nothing new to Latin America. In previous decades, an ineffective and discredited señor presidente being ousted by a generalísmo in dark glasses seemed the archetype of the region's turbulent politics. These days, however, presidential job security is threatened less by brawny military officers than by the strength of domestic public opinion.

"There is an impatience on the part of Latin American citizens that we haven't seen in a while," says Miguel Díaz, director of the South America project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It isn't that they are repudiating market economics or democracy, but they are simply repudiating bad leadership."

Indeed, although outright military coups in the region are now rare, several presidents have had to pack their bags early in recent years.

Ecuador dispatched the deeply unpopular presidents Abdala Bucarám and Jamil Mahuad in 1997 and 2000, respectively, following widespread protests. Paraguayan President Raúl Cubas resigned in March 1999 amid impeachment proceedings, while President Alberto Fujimori of Peru fled to Japan in late 2000 amid an onslaught of corruption scandals; the congress quickly declared him "morally unfit" to govern. And in Argentina, the deepening economic crisis and pressure from legislators compelled President Fernando de la Rúa to step down in December 2001.

However, experts disagree whether this trend of citizens pressuring vulnerable presidents to leave office early – one could call them "civilian coups" – strengthens or weakens democracy in Latin America.

"I see this as a positive trend," says Robert Pastor, professor of international relations at American University in Washington and director of Latin American Affairs at the National Security Council during the Carter administration. "We're seeing peaceful changes in governments. If an elected official loses his mandate, I think it is good that there is a civilian method to deal with it. As long as the Constitution is followed, this doesn't undermine democracy."

In Venezuela, for example, the Constitution permits a referendum on removing the president halfway through his term. In Chávez's case, that would come in August 2003.

The political costs to countries that remove a head of state without following constitutional procedures are "enormous," says Sergio Berensztein, a political scientist at the Torcuato di Tella University in Buenos Aires. "For example, you are out of the OAS [Organization of American States] or Mercosur [a regional trade bloc] if you officially abandon constitutional order."

But some worry even legal interruptions of power mask deeper problems.

"There is scant and declining confidence in political institutions and leaders," argues Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "One can applaud the legality and legitimacy of removing presidents, but this sets a disturbing precedent, and in the long run further erodes public faith in the democratic system."

Ultimately, some say that instead of tossing out individual presidents, Latin Americans should reconsider whether they want any presidents at all.

"Presidential systems require checks and balances and a division of power that buffers the powers and responsibilities of the president," explains Mr. Berensztein. "But we've never had that in Latin America. If the economy goes well ... you see presidents that can do practically whatever they want. But when the economic cycle doesn't play along, the presidents are weakened or even ousted.

"I think it is time to get rid of this scourge of presidents and move to systems that promote dialogue and consensus," he says, suggesting the region try European-style parliamentary systems. "Besides, things have gone so poorly so far. So why not change?"

Meanwhile, the irony of President Toledo's earnest concerns for President Chávez did not go unnoticed in Caracas, Venezuela's capital. "There is an adage," quipped Venezuelan Vice President José Vicente Rangel, "that some see the speck in the eye of another but do not see the plank in their own."

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