Venezuela's Glorious Revolution?
By Carroll Andrew Morse, Tech Central Station
08/13/2004 - A country lurches fitfully towards democracy. The institutions are in place, though their functioning is less than ideal. Then, democratic progress hits a snafu. A military leader takes control of the government. First, he purges his opponents from the legislature. Next, he wipes away the established institutions and redesigns the government to his own liking, centralizing power in his own hands.
Has movement towards democracy been irreparably harmed? Maybe not. If it is the seventeenth century, the military leader is Oliver Cromwell and the country is England. The Cromwell interregnum delayed but did not derail England's democratic evolution. History worked its way around Cromwell; a few decades after his death, the largely bloodless Glorious Revolution sent English government in a more democratic direction than ever before.
If we are talking about current events, however, the military leader is Hugo Chavez and the country is Venezuela. We do not yet know how democracy will fare when the story of Hugo Chavez has ended. We do know that the next major chapter will be written on August 15, 2004. On that date, Venezuelans will vote in a constitutionally mandated referendum to decide whether or not President Chavez should be recalled.
The referendum almost certainly will not end Venezuela's governing crisis. Chavez fought hard to prevent this referendum, and is unlikely to give up power easily. He might not accept the result, charging fraud and declaring a "state of emergency" to protect his revolution. Or he could accept a loss and demand the right to run in the election to choose a new president that follows a successful recall. The Venezuelan Constitution is clear neither on his eligibility to re-run after being recalled, nor on the issue of who has final authority to decide this matter.
The opposition distrusts the institutions that will count the votes, institutions under the control of Chavez's allies. The government's decision to limit the number and the activities of international electoral observers further heightens the suspicion of government fraud. If the opposition loses a close vote, they may not accept the result. Enough may become disillusioned to a point where they are willing abandon the path of peaceful change.
Citizens and leaders of democracies outside of Venezuela have reacted to the electoral chaos in two ways. One reaction is a strategic quietism. No one outside of Venezuela wants to taint Chavez's opposition, making them vulnerable to charges that they are foreign proxies. Such charges resonate strongly enough in Latin America to send bunches of undecideds in Chavez's direction.
The second reaction is more insidious. Venezuela is being treated as just another instance of Third World instability, another example of power in Latin America passing from junta to junta (though the juntas now have better PR than ever before), another case demonstrating that the people of Latin America are not yet ready to govern themselves. The United Nations Development Program most diplomatically stated this view during the release of their April 2004 report. They subtly blamed the people of Latin America for their own governing problems, stating that "Latin American democracies are suffering from a deep crisis of confidence after 25 years of progress towards elected civilian government".
As far as Venezuela is concerned, the reaction of the democratic pessimists is at least two years out of date. History has moved to its next phase, even if the coverage has not. The people of Venezuela are confident enough in democracy to fight for democracy with democracy. The Venezuelan flirtation with totalitarianism with a populist face has crested. Its peak was sometime during Chavez' consolidation of power in the Presidency between 1998 and 2002. Since mid-2002, Chavez has not been in control of the political agenda. Instead, the people's desire to restore democratic government has driven events. Chavez's government has been in a reactive mode.
There is no reason to assume that Chavez's vision of governance must leave any more lasting mark on the world than Cromwell's vision did. And, given the twenty-first century's faster pace of history, in addition to being Venezuela's Cromwell, Hugo Chavez could also be the catalyst for Venezuela's Glorious Revolution. The people of Venezuela have responded to creeping dictatorship by staging a non-violent and democratic revolution. It is an ambitious undertaking. Given Venezuela's population of 25 million, it is the largest attempt at a democratic revolution in the history of the Americas. The American Revolution brought representative democracy to a paltry 3 million people; the Mexican Revolution involved just 15 million.
The unprecedented size of the Venezuelan effort to promote democracy and the rule of law using peaceful methods means that Venezuela is destined to become somebody's beacon. Venezuela's democratic revolution should be a unifying event for small-d democrats across the globe. Liberal internationalists who believe in action through formal consensus, neocons who believe that promoting democracy promotes peace, and the libertarian right and radical left who believe that governmental power must always be vigilantly checked should find common ground in Venezuela. They should be able to unite in support of a non-violent movement that seeks to remove a President who has flagrantly abused his power by jailing political opponents, packing the courts, ruling by decree, threatening the press, etc.
If democratic believers cannot find common ground and the largest attempt at a democratic revolution in the history of the Americas fails, Venezuela will become a beacon for dictators. Venezuela will serve as a powerful example of how a little anti-American rhetoric and a few superficial trappings of democracy can be used to manipulate domestic and international political processes to subordinate the public good to the quest for personal power. If, on the other hand, democratic believers can unite and help bring Venezuela's revolution to a peaceful and democratic conclusion, Venezuela will become a beacon for democracy. Venezuela might even become the beginning of a global scale democratic revolution, a demonstration that the citizens of the world have learned how to most effectively aid those who peacefully organize against creeping tyranny.
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