ANY INTERRUPTION of democracy in Latin America is wrong, the more so when it involves the military. The region's history of military coups is too long and tragic, and the consolidation of democracy too recent, for any unconstitutional takeover to be condoned. But first facts from Venezuela suggest that the violation of democracy that led to the ouster of President Hugo Chavez Thursday night was initiated not by the army but by Mr. Chavez himself. Confronted by tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators protesting his increasingly destructive policies, Mr. Chavez forced television stations off the air and allegedly ordered snipers and other armed loyalists at the presidential palace to open fire. More than a dozen people were killed and scores wounded. It was only then that military commanders demanded the president's resignation; they would not, they said, tolerate his attempt to stop his opposition with bullets. Most Venezuelans may agree they took the right step. But even if that's so, military and civilian leaders must move quickly to restore full democracy and address the deep social problems that created Mr. Chavez's self-styled revolution.
There is no question that democracy brought Mr. Chavez to power three years ago. Disgusted with Venezuela's corrupt and ineffectual political parties, huge majorities of voters -- many of them desperately poor -- backed the former paratrooper as he first won a presidential election, then staged a series of referendums and new elections extending his term and concentrating power in his hands. Along the way, Mr. Chavez seriously compromised the integrity of democratic institutions such as Congress and the courts. And unfortunately for the poor, who make up 80 percent of the population of an oil-rich country, Mr. Chavez was a terrible leader. His senseless mix of populist and socialist decrees seriously damaged the economy and galvanized opposition from businesses, media and the middle class, while his courting of Fidel Castro, Colombia's Marxist guerrillas and Saddam Hussein made him a pariah both in Latin America and in Washington.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations chose to ignore most of Mr. Chavez's frequent provocations; there's been no suggestion that the United States had anything to do with this Latin American coup. Now, however, the administration's reengagement with Venezuela is essential -- together with the Organization of American States, it must push hard to bring back democratic rule as quickly as possible. Military leaders in Caracas yesterday announced a number of steps, including abolishing Congress and the Supreme Court and appointing civilian Pedro Carmona to head a transition government. Congressional elections are to be held by December, with constitutional reforms to follow; presidential elections are promised within a year. Though clearly intended to restore a legitimate democracy, the dangers of this transition plan are clear: Though Congress and the Supreme Court were packed with Chavez's supporters, their abolition means there will be no democratic checks on the interim government -- and no political representation for Mr. Chavez's still-substantial following -- for at least six months. Mr. Carmona, the head of the national business federation, is closely identified with the political and economic elite against which Mr. Chavez successfully rallied much of the country, yet he will serve a relatively long interim term. Other Latin American nations have ousted populists like Mr. Chavez only to see their followers and their agendas dominate and disrupt politics for years afterward. If Venezuela is to avoid a similar hangover, it must shape a transition that eases rather than accentuates the country's political polarization, and its next government must act aggressively against the poverty and inequality that Mr. Chavez exploited but failed to relieve.