DEC. 15 WAS a day of portent for Venezuela. Its electorate overwhelmingly approved a new constitution bestowing new central powers on onetime coup organizer Hugo Chavez, now the elected president. And the greatest storm known for a half-century or more devastated the country's Caribbean coast north of Caracas, posing to President Chavez the opportunity for an immediate test of the new presidential powers.

At the moment, Venezuelans are still digging out from under the mud slides on the hills where the poor throw up their hovels. That makes it a typical Third World "natural" disaster. President Chavez swiftly assigned the armed forces to locate the estimated thousands, perhaps ten thousands, of dead, to provide emergency services and to start relocating survivors. He seems aware that in these terrible tragedies the response of the government often becomes the people's measure of the government's whole competence and devotion to duty.

Even before the torrential rains, Venezuela was suffering its deepest recession on record, notwithstanding high oil revenues. President Chavez had recognized the crisis by offering broad new social security guarantees. But whence will come the funds to cover these and other ambitious social expenditures? If there is a hint of a silver lining in the cloud over Venezuela, it is that its misery is not due so much to classical resource poverty as to relatively correctable corruption and mismanagement. Changes in public policy by President Chavez will be crucial to the regeneration required in Venezuela.

The country also requires more help from its friends than it seems to be getting. American emergency aid is so far no match for the scale of the catastrophe. Venezuela is a friend and neighbor in dire distress. That calls for a generous hand.