In democracies, bad leaders are voted out not deposed
FOR several days at the end of last week, Venezuela staged the sort of tragi-comedy that was common in Latin America a generation ago. After civilian supporters of President Hugo Chavez had fired on a huge protest march, a faction in the armed forces staged a bloodless coup. The generals arrested Mr Chavez and installed as president Pedro Carmona, the leader of the private business lobby. A mere 48 hours later, Mr Chavez was back, restored to power by his own supporters in the army, and it was Mr Carmona's turn to be arrested. In the course of it all, some 60 people were killed.
These events bode ill for the future of Venezuela. The world's fourth-largest oil exporter is now even more polarised between supporters and opponents of Mr Chavez. But none of this came as a great surprise. Ever since his election in 1998, Mr Chavez has cut an anachronistic figure. His long-winded blustering against a corrupt "oligarchy" in the name of "Bolivarian revolution", his concentration of power in his own hands, his reliance on army officers and his appointment of worn-out Marxist professors to government were all reminiscent of an old-fashioned Latin American CAUDILLO. He struck up a close friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro and cosied up to countries such as Iraq and Libya.
For all this, Mr Chavez has not been repressive. Nor has he turned his country into a second Cuba. Though his instincts are authoritarian, he has respected democratic forms. His main fault is incompetence: his government scared off investors, failed to use high oil prices to fuel growth and did nothing to tackle poverty, crime and corruption.
As his popularity waned, Mr Chavez faced bolder and broader opposition, to which he responded by taking ever wilder steps. First he rammed through decree-laws expropriating some land and raising taxes on some foreign investors. Then he sought to seize direct control over Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil company. That triggered a general strike by workers and bosses, and led, as Mr Chavez seemed to want, to last week's confrontation.
By turning legitimate protest into a coup, the opposition fumbled a golden opportunity to curb Mr Chavez's power and showed a contempt for democracy greater than his own. In his moment of hubris, the unelected Mr Carmona, a manager of a petrochemical firm, decreed the dissolution of the National Assembly, elected less than two years ago (and in which Mr Chavez now enjoys only a narrow majority), and the Supreme Court. He named a cabinet consisting of his business friends, living up to Mr Chavez's caricature of him as an oligarch.
What now? Though less popular than he was, Mr Chavez still enjoys more backing than any single leader of the divided opposition. He has backed off from his takeover of PDVSA, but restored his grip on the armed forces. Even so, his advantage could prove short-lived. Though a new constitution allows him to remain in office until 2007, last week's events suggest that the armed forces have the final say.
This makes the reaction of the United States all the more worrying. Latin American presidents were quick to condemn the coup against Mr Chavez. But America, which claims to champion democracy in Latin America, held back. Worse, there are reports, still unconfirmed, that American officials knew that a coup was being plotted and gave the plot encouragement. If this is true, it would suggest extraordinary short-sightedness by Latin America's mighty neighbour. A message that George Bush welcomed the overthrow of inconvenient elected politicians would be noted in barracks everywhere.
That is the last thing the region needs. Three South American republics--Argentina, Ecuador and Paraguay--already have presidents who owe their jobs to the forceful removal of an elected predecessor (although, unlike Mr Carmona, each successor was at least chosen by his country's legislature). Democratic stability is under strain in Latin America. However much it deplores Mr Chavez, the United States should make it clear that he must not be removed by unconstitutional means. For his part, Mr Chavez would do well to stop posturing and start heeding the grievances of the opposition.