Losing Latin America

SYNOPSIS: By failing to condemn the recent coup in Venezuela, the Bush administration has shown its willingness to throw away the democracy that took so long to achieve in Latin America

Many people, myself included, would agree that Hugo Chávez is not the president Venezuela needs. He happens, however, to be the president Venezuela elected — freely, fairly and constitutionally. That's why all the democratic nations of the Western Hemisphere, however much they may dislike Mr. Chávez, denounced last week's attempted coup against him.

All the democratic nations, that is, except one.

Here's how the BBC put it: "Far from condemning the ouster of a democratically elected president, U.S. officials blamed the crisis on Mr. Chávez himself," and they were "clearly pleased with the result" — even though the new interim government proceeded to abolish the legislature, the judiciary and the Constitution. They were presumably less pleased when the coup attempt collapsed. The BBC again: "President Chávez's comeback has . . . left Washington looking rather stupid." The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, didn't help that impression when, incredibly, she cautioned the restored president to "respect constitutional processes."

Surely the worst thing about this episode is the betrayal of our democratic principles; "of the people, by the people, for the people" isn't supposed to be followed by the words "as long as it suits U.S. interests."

But even viewed as realpolitik, our benign attitude toward Venezuela's coup was remarkably foolish.

It is very much in our interest that Latin America break out of its traditional political cycle, in which crude populism alternated with military dictatorship. Everything that matters to the U.S. — trade, security, drugs, you name it — will be better if we have stable neighbors.

But how can such stability be achieved? In the 1990's there seemed, finally, to be a formula; call it the new world order. Economic reform would end the temptations of populism; political reform would end the risk of dictatorship. And in the 1990's, on their own initiative but with encouragement from the United States, most Latin American nations did indeed embark on a dramatic process of reform both economic and political.

The actual results have been mixed. On the economic side, where hopes were initially highest, things have not gone too well. There are no economic miracles in Latin America, and there have been some notable disasters, Argentina's crisis being the latest. The best you can say is that some of the disaster victims, notably Mexico, seem to have recovered their balance (with a lot of help, one must say, from the Clinton administration) and moved onto a path of steady, but modest, economic growth.

Yet economic disasters have not destabilized the region. Mexico's crisis in 1995, Brazil's crisis in 1999, even Argentina's current crisis did not deliver those countries into the hands either of radicals or of strongmen. The reason is that the political side has gone better than anyone might have expected. Latin America has become a region of democracies — and these democracies seem remarkably robust.

So while the U.S. may have hoped for a new Latin stability based on vibrant prosperity, what it actually got was stability despite economic woes, thanks to democracy. Things could be a lot worse.

Which brings us to Venezuela. Mr. Chávez is a populist in the traditional mold, and his policies have been incompetent and erratic. Yet he was fairly elected, in a region that has come to understand the importance of democratic legitimacy. What did the United States hope to gain from his overthrow? True, he has spouted a lot of anti-American rhetoric, and been a nuisance to our diplomacy. But he is not a serious threat.

Yet there we were, reminding everyone of the bad old days when any would-be right-wing dictator could count on U.S. backing.

As it happens, we aligned ourselves with a peculiarly incompetent set of plotters. Mr. Chávez has alienated a broad spectrum of his people; the demonstrations that led to his brief overthrow began with a general strike by the country's unions. But the short-lived coup-installed government included representatives of big business and the wealthy — full stop. No wonder the coup collapsed.

But even if the coup had succeeded, our behavior would have been very stupid. We had a good thing going - a new hemispheric atmosphere of trust, based on shared democratic values. How could we so casually throw it away?

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.16.02