Venezuela had a close call. The mutiny against democratic government failed. The army put it down. The battle was within the military, between units. President Carlos Andres Perez has a good chance to finish out his term next year and hand over to a democratically elected successor, no doubt an opponent, as he did in 1979. But the well organized coup attempt suggests that this is less than a sure thing. Combined with the so-far successful coup in Haiti, the Venezuelan mutiny suggests that self-congratulations on Latin America's inexorable shift to democracy are premature.
Mr. Perez presides over the highest growth in the hemisphere. Inflation is down. Foreign reserves are up. Venezuela's influence is at an all-time high. It is replacing the U.S. as protector of micro-states in the Caribbean. The president is admired throughout the world for his diplomacy, including the brokering of peace in El Salvador, quick provision of exile for Haiti's toppled president and the urging of democratic reform in Cuba.
But the gap between rich and poor is worse than ever. Strikes by aggrieved professions are endemic. Half the people, by government estimate, make do with one meal a day. The regime is widely suspected of corruption in state contracts. A newspaper poll said that 81 percent of Venezuelans have little or no trust in the government.
It is not what he has done wrong, however, but what he has done right that has brought Mr. Perez to this unpopularity. Constitutionally ineligible to succeed himself he is, at 68, running for a good name in the history books, at the risk of current opprobrium. Above all, he is bringing perestroika to Venezuela's economy, repealing the nationalization and statism he brought in during his first term in the 1970s.
The new welcome for foreign investment in oil helps in the long term. The end to food subsidies hurts the poor in the short term. Realistic price increases for petroleum raised the bus fares and sparked student riots. Army officers suffer a lower standard of living than in the past. Some are restive at the conciliatory approach to Colombia in an offshore boundary dispute.
Mr. Perez's austerity reflects the reality of lower world oil prices. His economic policy of attracting investment is the best hope for future maintenance of Venezuela's current provision of some 18 percent of U.S. oil imports and increased sales to Europe. Venezuela has been a beacon of stability and democracy since the last dictator was overthrown in 1958. The rest of the hemisphere is catching up. The army mutineers who failed to topple Mr. Perez, however, did shoot down complacency. Even Venezuela's democracy cannot be taken for granted.