THE CONSTITUTIONAL crisis in Venezuela involves no threat of a military takeover. This confirms a heartening trend across Latin America: Despite drugs, insurgencies and hard economic times, civilian control of politics has held. But the crisis does show there are more threats to Latin American stability than military juntas.
Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president, led an old-fashioned coup attempt as a paratrooper seven years ago. This time Mr. Chavez is organizing a more modern, democratic coup. His allies in a newly elected constituent assembly recently seized the powers of Venezuela's Congress and declared a "judicial emergency" allowing them to dismiss judges. There is hope that they may soon relent, but the episode has exposed Mr. Chavez's autocratic side. In a radio address Mr. Chavez proclaimed, "Order has arrived in Venezuela."
Both Mr. Chavez and the assembly enjoy recent popular mandates, while the congress is stuffed with the corrupt elites that have wrecked Venezuela's oil-rich economy. Still, Mr. Chavez should not trample pluralism. The Peruvian precedent of 1992 was rationalized as a temporary interlude to combat Marxist insurgents. Seven years on, however, the guerrillas have been cowed, but President Alberto Fujimori's highhandedness has not been.
The Peruvian experience suggests that America and other countries in the region should try to restrain Mr. Chavez. But that is not all they should do. The popular support for Mr. Chavez, and indeed for President Fujimori when he first shut down Peru's congress, shows that Latin America's democratic institutions do need reform if they are to enjoy legitimacy. If nothing is done to make voting booths and courts more meaningful to the poor, there will be more coups in the region -- and it won't matter much whether the coup makers are in uniform or in mufti.