Death by Democracy: Venezuela's Via Dolorosa

Mortally ill, scorned and rejected, Venezuela’s great liberator Simon Bolivar looked back from his deathbed on his Herculean efforts to forge a great democratic union in South America, and pronounced melancholy judgment: "America is ungovernable. He who serves the cause of revolution plows the sea."

That is the crux of today’s crisis in Venezuela.

On the surface, Venezuela is "governable." Hugo Chavez, the current president, is the seventh man to reach power in free elections since democracy dawned in the country in 1959.

(There had been a few earlier, sputtering stabs at democracy, but basically the country had been ruled by a succession of dictators ever since Bolivar liberated it from Spanish rule in 1821. Indeed, until the late-30s, Venezuela more nearly resembled a medieval feudal state than a modern nation.)

The problem is that democracy in Venezuela-as in much of Latin America-is more a matter of form than substance. Not surprisingly, in a broad-based survey a few years ago, one in five Latin Americans said they preferred, in some cases, an authoritarian government to a democratic one. Support for democracy was strong in only two countries-Uruguay (80%) and Argentina (76%)-while just 60 % in Venezuela professed faith in democracy. (The support level dropped to 52% in Chile, Paraguay and Peru, and fell further to 49% in Mexico and 41% in Brazil.)

Venezuela’s present predicament is compounded by the fact that of the seven "democrats" who have worn the presidential sash, Chavez is, by far, the least democratic and the most incompetent-and that is saying much, inasmuch as one of his predecessors is a fugitive from justice, and another served time in prison. For at least the past 30 years, presidents have specialized in crafting policies that have turned a rich country ever more into a poor country.

The errors of the past pale alongside Chavez’s madcap performance. Since early December, the country has been virtually paralyzed by a combination general strike and mass protest designed to persuade Chavez to resign or, at the minimum, agree to an accelerated referendum on the legitimacy of his presidency.

The movement gained powerful clout when oil executives and workers joined the strike, about a month ago. Oil is the country’s biggest source of income, and Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest producer, and third largest foreign supplier to the United States. Output is now down from the normal three million barrels a day to 260,000 barrels, according to the opposition. The government claims 600,000 to 700,000 barrels are being pumped.

But pump or no, striking ship captains and crews have kept virtually all the oil bottled up in ports. So, political turmoil in a "yawn" country for most Americans has already hit millions of us in the pocketbook. Oil prices have jumped 52% in a year, and crude oil for February delivery rose 65 cents a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Back to Chavez. Even if he is forced from office-which, right now, looks extremely unlikely-that would leave untouched the underlying problem of a political system built on quicksand. Granted, it would solve the immediate problem of ridding the country of a crackpot president whose idols include Mao Tse Tung and Fidel Castro and whose legacy so far is political gridlock, economic ruin and social upheaval and not a little bloodshed. There is, indeed, a clear risk of civil war in Venezuela, and should it come, the toll of dead, bloodied and homeless could reach Balkan proportions. Healing the wounds of such fratricide could take generations..

Chavez does have one important strength: the "enlightened" governments of the West, which cling tenaciously to the flummery that if a president is elected democratically, he is then untouchable. (By that logic, of course, the democratically elected Herr Hitler would have been untouchable.)

Chavez actually has been elected twice: once in 1998, and again in 2000, both times overwhelmingly (contriving the second time, to become the only president in Venezuelan history re-elected while still in office). He also scrapped the old Constitution and produced a new one, vastly expanding his powers. From a high of 80% in 2000, his backing in the polls has dropped recently to around 30%, as his autocratic style and demagogic policies spread alarm and misery.

But, to the international elites, the cries of anguish of the Venezuelan people matter far less than the niceties of preserving "democracy." It seems not to matter that Chavez himself is Public Enemy # 1 of democracy in Venezuela.

The State Department is, of course, caught in the same trap. Once democracy is deified, how to support the clamor of a people seeking to throw off their "democratic" shackles? (Oil also-quite obviously-figures in the namby-pamby posturing of the State Department in this crisis.)

Nobody seems, either, to notice that analysts from Plato onward have warned that democracy can-and frequently does-run amok. And, as the late (and eminent) political scientist Hans Morgenthau observed, some years ago, democracy is not some sort of gadget than can be installed, willy-nilly, in any political household.

Diego Portales, the architect of the political instruments that propelled Chile after independence far ahead of the other countries of Latin America, put it even more pungently:

"Democracy," he wrote in 1822, "is an absurdity in countries like those of America which are full of vices, and whose citizens lack the virtue necessary for a true Republic. . . . [Still], the Republic is the system we must adopt; but [one with] a strong, centralizing Government whose members are genuine examples of virtue and patriotism, and thus set the citizens on the straight path of order and the virtues. When they have attained a degree of morality, then we can have the completely liberal sort of Government, free and full of ideals, in which all the citizens can partake."

But, why go afield for expert opinion? While he fought as hard to lead his countrymen to a viable democratic government as he did on far-flung fields of battle, Bolivar was also, in his twilight years, deeply skeptical about the ability of the people to vault from colonial vassals to democracy. The federal form of government that he liked he rejected as unworkable:

"I believe," he wrote to a comrade-in-arms, a year before his death in 1830, "it would be better for South America to adopt the Koran rather than the United States’ form of government, although the latter is the best on earth." Instead, he came down on the side of a lifetime presidency with a strong, central government-but always subject to the free will of the people.

As he grappled with the enduring dilemma of Latin America-tyranny or anarchy?-Bolivar tinged his skepticism with a never-extinguished hope that the people could be raised up to the self-reliant level of his democratic dream through "moral enlightenment, our first necessity." This enlightenment would come from selfless leaders of learning and character, who would consult history and the experiences of other newborn lands, all under "the protection of the holy religion that we profess."

Venezuela-most of Latin America-would embrace no such vocation. Chavez, then, is not the first to scar democracy beyond recognition. But when he goes-if he goes-it will be the task of those who come after to build not on the rotten foundation bequeathed by those who went before, but on one matching the vision of the man who made them free.

Then it will be said that Simon Bolivar did not, after all, attempt to "plow the sea."