- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

The Bush administration backtracked and explained away its seeming willingness even its secret desire to accept the coup against Venezuela's democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. In this mini-drama, the administration is cast as the bad guy hypocrite, proclaiming U.S. support for democracy but dropping that support when it doesn't like the results.
The flap over the administration's actions, however, should not obscure the fact that this is not a simple case. It is true that the advance of democracy in this hemisphere owes a great deal to the commitments that governments have taken to defend democracy against coups. The Inter-American Democracy Charter that Colin Powell signed for the United States on September 11 is one of a number of new international instruments giving democratic standards real teeth as a tool to combat dictatorship. Even before the charter, the earlier 1991 Santiago Declaration obligated member governments of the Organization of American States (OAS) to consult on actions to reverse or punish coups against democratically elected governments. This declaration made possible OAS and U.N. support for U.S. military action to restore coup victim Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. Actions taken under the declaration helped abort coups in Peru, Ecuador and now in Venezuela. From this perspective, the failure of the coup is unequivocally welcome.
However, while what happened in Venezuela points to the importance of internationally accepted democratic standards as an effective basis for action, it also points out their inadequacies. Mr. Chavez's restoration was by no means an unalloyed victory for democracy. He may be a democratically elected president, but Mr. Chavez squandered much of his democratic legitimacy at a number of key junctures. For example, he asked voters in a 2000 referendum to suspend the constitutional rights of union leaders (violating international covenants), restricted freedom of association for judges, and embedded threats to press freedoms in his tailor-made 1999 constitution.
If the Americas are not again to be put in a position of having to restore in democracy's name a leader who in many ways has worked against democracy, the charter's standards should be refined and expanded beyond the mere focus on elections. There is a good reason why the charter focuses on elections. There is a consensus on what constitutes a free and fair election so that standards can be relatively precise and evenly applied. But standards for free and fair elections are not the last word. There are other norms and standards that could be similarly developed that would strengthen democratic practice and could be formulated with precision. Mr. Chavez used the device of a referendum to extend his term of office and also to lift the ban on Venezuela's presidents holding consecutive terms of office. The possibility of a creeping "auto-coup," as employed by Alberto Fujimori in Peru 10 years ago, was evident. It should be unacceptable, as a general norm, for constitutional or electoral changes to directly benefit the incumbent in this way. To give the incumbent such an advantage is self-dealing, subverting the rule of law and the guarantees and expectations that are at the heart of the democratic bargain between the electors and the elected. Such referenda cannot meet the standards for a free and fair election. It would have been a violation of democratic norms (as well as a violation of the U.S. Constitution) had President Clinton, or Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower, proposed a constitutional amendment to lift the two-term limit on U.S. presidents so that they could stay in office. Globally, the growing phenomena of leaders, whether democratically elected or not (as in Pakistan), extending their terms of office through referenda has a stultifying effect on democratic development because it is, in essence, undemocratic.
The regional and international pressure that played a large role in the restoration of Mr. Chavez should also be mobilized against other categories of action that subvert democracy such as phony legitimization by referenda. Such actions can be triggers for the same kind of sanctions suspension from regional organizations, for example that are triggered by coups or, as in Zimbabwe, fraudulent elections. The outcome in Venezuela may have been the best possible given the circumstances. Democrats should think hard, however, on how to avoid such "best" outcomes in the future.

Elizabeth Spiro Clark is an associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and memer of the Executive Advisory Committee of the Democratization Policy Institute.

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