Venezuela's political crisis, already the most volatile in the hemisphere, grows deeper by the day as protests mount and opposing forces battle for control of the capital's police force. The polarization between the government of Hugo Chavez and opposition elements has brought the country to the edge of paralysis, chaos and, conceivably, civil war.
It is essential, for Venezuela and other countries in the region, including the United States, to prevent such a dire scenario. Indeed, at a time when war threatens in the Middle East, what is happening within the world's fourth-largest oil producer is a matter of utmost international concern.
Chavez and his political opposition are deadlocked. The polarization is not only political but also social. The opposition, representing the middle class and almost all civic organizations -- labor unions, the church and business associations -- sees Chavez as an authoritarian extremist and wants him out of power as soon as possible. Chavez, who retains the support of about 25 percent of Venezuelans, most of them among the country's poor, refuses to relinquish power.
Because both sides now favor a constitutional solution, the debate has centered on whether agreement can be reached on a referendum regarding Chavez's continuance in power. The opposition is pressing for an early, nonbinding "consultative" referendum, believing that if it wins, Chavez will be forced to resign. Chavez has argued that to be constitutional, a referendum must be held halfway through his term, in August 2003. For the opposition, August seems an eternity away. Opponents are convinced that Chavez would use the delay to consolidate his dictatorial powers, and they have no confidence that he would abide even then by such a vote. The longer this deadlock continues, the more inflamed it becomes. Recent confrontations illustrate the fact that the violence could escalate and easily get out of control.
The international community has not moved much further than to call for reconciliation and dialogue. The United States, after being burned by its clumsy response to a botched coup attempt in Venezuela last April, has urged compromise. Cesar Gaviria, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), has recently undertaken a serious effort to broker just such a solution. Gaviria is now the only channel of communication between the two sides and represents the best bet for a peaceful outcome.
Yet however skilled and determined he is, Gaviria may have trouble succeeding without help. A solution rests not so much on the outlines of a formula as on convincing each side that failure to compromise would be seriously deleterious to its interests. Gaviria's capacity to succeed in such a critical situation, in other words, rests on both sides understanding that he represents not just himself but the power and suasion of the entire hemisphere. In keeping with the Inter-American Democratic Charter, unanimously approved by all of the hemisphere's elected governments last year, a vigorous response to Venezuela's explosive conditions is more than justified.
This is the moment for member governments of the OAS to ratchet up the pressure on both sides to strike an agreement. If they do not make it clear -- through public statements and more subtle diplomatic pressures -- that Gaviria represents the member governments and that Chavez and the opposition have to compromise on a reasonable plan, Gaviria could well be left out on a limb.
While other Latin American governments -- Brazil is especially influential -- must deal with the Venezuelan situation with greater urgency than they have so far, the role of the United States is vital. The United States needs to catalyze and mobilize the support of other governments and exercise its weight to create conditions for a democratic solution to the crisis. After the April embarrassment, it has been loath to get more involved and has hoped that somehow things would work themselves out.
That is wishful thinking. If the United States and other nations in the region do not act more assertively and constructively, then Venezuela could continue moving toward confrontation or Chavez could consolidate a more authoritarian regime. Either scenario would be disastrous.
The writer is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.