OVERTHROWING elected governments with bullets is wrong. Hugo Chavez tried in Venezuela, failed and spent two years in prison. Overthrowing them with ballots is approved. Mr. Chavez did that in Sunday's presidential election.
For the country of 23 million that sells one-tenth of the oil consumed in the United States, this looks like out of the frying pan, into the fire. The masses, getting poorer for years, rebuked the two-party system that kept them that way. The root cause is plummeting oil prices caused by the failure of the international oil cartel, OPEC, which Venezuela largely invented in 1960.
Mr. Chavez crusaded against corruption, the upper classes and foreign business, for higher wages and controls on foreign investment. He championed an elusive "third way" between socialism and capitalism.
Humble after victory, Mr. Chavez urged wealthy Venezuelans to bring back the capital they sent out of the country because of their fear of him. With a country hit hard by recession, inflation and debt, Mr. Chavez needs to attract the investment he scares away. The foreign oil industry is holding back until his policies become clear.
Since the overthrow of the last dictator 40 years ago, Venezuela has had South America's model democracy. But the center-right COPEI and center-left Democratic Action parties had turned into corrupt patronage machines.
"El Commandante," as Mr. Chavez is known, scares many with tTC his admiration for Fidel Castro and his threat to abolish the congress. He inspires many more who see him not as an anachronism but as a pendulum swinging.
For the United States, Mr. Chavez is an awkward case. He was denied a visa last year as a penalty for his 1992 coup attempt. He has talked responsibly since winning. Washington should treat him with kid gloves and look for mutual understanding. He is either the best thing to happen in Latin American democracy lately -- or the worst.
Pub Date: 12/09/98