- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

In Venezuela, the dust is finally settling after the dramatic turbulence of the past two weeks. President Hugo Chavez is once again at the helm of power, and the military has returned to its barracks. But there are many grieving Venezuelans who aren't quite at peace. Their loved ones were gunned down, first by sympathizers of Mr. Chavez and subsequently by supporters of the short-lived interim government.

Mr. Chavez was ousted in a military coup on April 12 after 17 persons were killed during an anti-Chavez protest, apparently by sharpshooters faithful to the president. Pedro Carmona, a powerful businessman, stepped into power on Friday but was forced to resign the next day. Following the coup, 40 persons, mostly Chavez supporters, were killed while protesting.

A probe of what transpired should be in the offing. Mr. Chavez has placed his cronies in every democratic institution, from congress to the courts, and is expected to prevent any honest inquiry. So far, Mr. Chavez appears complicit in the initial wave of killings. According to taped radio conversations broadcast yesterday in Venezuela on radio and television, Mr. Chavez ordered tanks and troops to surround the presidential palace, as unarmed civilian protesters marched against him on April 11. The Chavez administration said it ordered the deployment to "prevent public order disturbances." Given the death toll, Mr. Chavez's claims seem rather flimsy.

This is most unfortunate. Venezuela is this hemisphere's second-oldest democracy. At a time when democracy is losing currency in many countries, particularly Argentina, coups could be potentially destabilizing to the region. "We are happy to collectively have overcome the era of coup d'etats in the region, and when events in Venezuela took on the appearance of a military coup there was a reaction by everyone," said Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Mr. Cardoso's concerns are quite valid, but he has downplayed some of Mr. Chavez's more alarming faults.

The Venezuelan leader has struck friendships with Cuban, Libyan and Iraqi leaders with great fanfare, and his open defiance of U.S. interests has wooed Venezuelans wary of U.S. power. Indeed, after all the muscle-flexing, Mr. Chavez has little to offer the Venezuelan people. He has choked off foreign investment by doubling the royalty payments oil companies must pay to the government and by restricting corporate ownership on some oil projects to 49 percent. He has also alienated workers at his country's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, by replacing long-serving professionals with his supporters. In fact, Mr. Chavez consolidated his power by rewriting the country's constitution in 1999.

Interestingly, Mr. Chavez initially rose to power in the 1990s because of the discontent with former President Carlos Andres Perez, who had ordered the military to shoot at crowds in 1989. And, while only time will tell if he would voluntarily give up power when his term in 2006, one thing is certain: A serious investigation of the massacre of April 2002 is certainly called for.

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