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Mary McGrory

Democracy Takes a Hit

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, April 28, 2002; Page B07

It is easy to understand why it all happened in Venezuela, although the how is not entirely clear.

You can understand, for instance, how tempted the Bush administration was to give the old heave-ho to Hugo Chavez, a motor-mouth "revolutionary" Latin American president who bragged about his friendships with Fidel, Saddam and other U.S. nemeses.

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You can understand, too, the appeal of his short-term replacement, one Pedro Carmona, friend of oligarchs and captains of an oil industry that is the third-largest supplier to the United States.

But the coup didn't work in Venezuela. Democracy prevailed. The man the White House sees as a pluperfect pain in the neck, Chavez, got his job back in 48 hours. The coup collapsed after the two-day president, Carmona, declared he would cancel Congress and fire the Supreme Court. The most conspicuous casualty? America's reputation for promoting democracy, one of the stated goals of our currently confused foreign policy.

The Bush White House insists it had nothing to do with the whole affair, which some considered almost inevitable in view of the recent appointment of Otto Reich to be the State Department's leader on Latin America. Reich is an anti-Castro zealot, and this intrigue on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs offered a peerless opportunity to get even. The presence of Elliott Abrams on the Bush national security team was considered a factor -- he used to lecture on patriotism to legislators protesting death squads.

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer denied all U.S. complicity in the events of April 12, but our failure to deplore the coup was suspicious and reminiscent of the bad old days of knocking over Latin American governments that displeased us -- à la Kissinger and Nixon in Chile. The Organization of American States, which happened to be meeting in Costa Rica on that same weekend, issued a resounding denunciation of anti-democratic activity.

Fleischer readily admitted that Chavez's opponents had been cordially received at the White House and the State Department. Recent accounts of the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy, which happened to sponsor a union demonstration hostile to Chavez, added to the speculation. Spokesman Chris Sabatini says that no endowment funds were "used to support the coup."

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) was frankly skeptical at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He says U.S. officials failed to ask obvious questions: How could anyone believe that Hugo Chavez signed "resignation" papers when his hands were manacled? How come we were so misinformed about popular support for Carmona? When the short-term president proclaimed the shutdown of democracy, the poor people of Caracas -- 80 percent of Venezuelans live in poverty despite its oil riches -- poured into the streets to protest and restore Chavez. When he came back from the Mideast, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a strong statement to the OAS reaffirming our preference for democracy.

Democracy is taking a hit on another continent, too. The president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, is going forward with plans for a referendum on his record -- not exactly a substitute for the election he promised his people.

We are entirely beholden to Pakistan's military dictator, who seized power in a coup 2 1/2 years ago. His cooperation in the war against terrorism is indispensable. As Afghanistan's closest neighbor, he has played a key role in our successes in those inhospitable mountains. His program to crack down on domestic terrorists and Muslim extremists was much appreciated, and it was easy to close our eyes to Pakistan's terrorist activity in Kashmir. In any case, we have had no comment on his plan to hold the referendum, which would prolong his term in office by three years.

The State Department has contented itself with stating that the Pakistani courts will determine the constitutionality of the referendum. It is being conducted without pretense of basic democratic practices. Gen. Musharraf has closed the country's borders to two exiled rivals. He has forbidden anti-referendum demonstrations and rallies.

The Indian government, needless to say, has issued a stinging statement. Its foreign ministry has called the referendum "constitutionally suspect" and a plan for "fictional democracy with all powers and control vested in the army."

The general faces growing resistance to the referendum from intellectuals and professionals who, despite misgivings about his access to power, had supported his anti-extremism campaign. There is a lawyers' strike in progress. It contributed to a suspension of the trial of suspects in the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company