Playing With Fire

Nicholas D. Kristof

December 13, 2002


CARACAS, Venezuela - The international community is playing a very dangerous game here in Venezuela, along with self-described democrats who are calling for military intervention. To consider what could go wrong, just look next door at Colombia, torn apart by civil war for half a century.

Every evening at 8 p.m., middle-class Venezuelans pour out of their homes to bang pots to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chávez. If I were Venezuelan, I'd be with them. Mr. Chávez is an autocratic leftist demagogue who is running the economy into the ground, manipulating the Constitution and fostering hatred between rich and poor. Venezuela would be much better off if he resigned.

But he is also the elected president, and military intervention to oust him could trigger armed clashes. The global community has no right to try to nudge him out, and indeed should speak up and condemn the loose calls in Venezuela for army intervention.

At Altamira Plaza, the focal point of the anti-Chávez movement, senior military officers parade about in uniform and give rousing speeches calling on the armed forces to demand that President Chávez step down.

"The military should have intervened long ago," Maj. Ulises Hernández told me. "I don't know what has happened to their consciences."

Adm. Daniel Comisso put it this way: "The government is legitimate in its origins but was delegitimized by the way it exercised power. It systematically violated the Constitution. In that sense, the armed forces are obligated to act."

Washington has mostly kept to the sidelines, after its embarrassing endorsement of an aborted coup against Mr. Chávez in April, carefully and wisely calling only for an "electoral solution." But César Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who is representing the international community as a negotiator between the two sides, has publicly laid much of the blame for the crisis on President Chávez in an apparent shove to get him to resign or call early elections.

Huh? What Latin America needs is stability and respect for electoral office, not what could be interpreted as a signal from Mr. Gaviria to people across Latin America: If you think your president is illegitimate, take to the streets and call for a coup, and then the international community will arrange a nice compromise.

Make no mistake: This is not about Venezuela alone. The larger issue of elected leaders who go wrong has come up in Pakistan, Peru and the Philippines, just to stick with the P's.

If an elected president is slaughtering citizens, invading neighbors, brewing nerve gas or proclaiming himself president for life, it's fine for the world to help oust him. But polls show Mr. Chávez still has the support of about one-third of the electorate, and it's conceivable that he would win new elections if they were forced on him.

Granted, American officials are in a conundrum because it would be bad for the whole hemisphere if we were stuck with President Chávez until his term ends in 2007. But even he accepts that a binding referendum to remove him from office is constitutional beginning next August, half-way through his term. So why not wait and remove him then, when everyone agrees it is constitutional to do so?

The risk of forcibly removing Mr. Chávez immediately is that the poor who passionately embrace him will riot and bring Venezuela down. "It could get so bad we would have to loot," said José Siso, a hawker of Indian bread, who compared Mr. Chávez to Jesus. (The opposition demonstrators compare him to Hitler.)

The risk of violence is so great that Washington should get involved, ideally with Colin Powell coming for a day to knock heads together. But instead of leaning just on Mr. Chávez, we must also repeatedly insist that army officers stay in the barracks, that the opposition respect constitutional forms, and that a solution does not set a destabilizing precedent.

A Venezuelan journalist I met, Francisco Toro, is strongly against Mr. Chávez but also worries about the consequences of his removal. "In Colombia in 1948, the oligarchs assassinated [the populist leader Jorge] Gaitán," Mr. Toro said, "because he represented a particular problem that they wanted to solve. They never dreamed that 54 years later, Colombia would still be in civil war. You know how something like this starts, but you don't know how it ends."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company