A Venting for Venezuela

As the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, Venezuela has lately had money to burn. And where's it going? Some $4 million of it just went to import pregnant cows, which are being given to poor farmers under a generous loan program.

The cows are just one of many Evita-like benefits being showered on low-income Venezuelans by their president, the fiery populist Hugo Chávez. He's now rapidly using the nation's oil wealth to buy votes before an Aug. 15 referendum that will decide whether he should stay in office.

Forced on him by a multimillion-signature drive, the referendum is the latest example of the political tumult that's roiled this nation since Mr. Chávez, a former Army paratrooper who led a failed coup in 1992, was elected six years ago on a promise to redistribute wealth to the poor.

His potential ouster may not end the class warfare caused by his heavy-handed rule. Chávez's crude attempts to arrest opponents, pack the courts, and extend his time in office have led to violence, a short-lived coup against him, and street confrontations. Most of all, this admirer of Fidel Castro has created a huge but divided opposition set on removing him but one which doesn't offer a stable alternative.

At the least, the referendum signals a shift to use constitutional means to settle Venezuela's divisions. Chávez used trickery to block or delay the vote, and now he's trying to bribe and coerce votes from the poor, many of whom are disenchanted with his failed and corrupt administration.

Venezuela's fragile democracy is being challenged by Chávez's rushed and rough attempts to reduce economic disparities. Its poor should take whatever benefits are being offered, and then vote their conscience.

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