ONE of Latin America's most prosperous and consistently democratic countries has just experienced its second coup attempt this year. This time, greater numbers of civilians cheered on the soldiers and pilots trying to drive an elected president from office, indicating that popular discontent is growing and perhaps encouraging future plotters.
Will Venezuela be the "domino" that topples other Latin countries striving toward free-market reform? The precipitating cause now is not communist insurgency, as in the past, but the social distress caused by restructuring programs that wipe out the subsidies and government control that traditionally have underpinned the region's economies.
But the loss of government-subsidized services and employment is only part of the picture in Venezuela. The country is in the grip of economic decline caused by dropping world oil prices. This has forced the government of President Carlos Andres Perez to cut services even more sharply than its restructuring program alone would have dictated.
The Venezuelan people had been used to much better. As one expert put it, the country is experiencing "a revolution of declining expectations."
Will this "revolution" overthrow the democratic order? While the military coup leaders got some cheers, they did not generate the massive street marches they called for. Average Venezuelans express little faith in the military's ability to improve things, and they don't want dictatorship.
Mr. Perez, for his part, has to do a better job of explaining why the austerity program is needed. The president, an outspoken champion of democracy in other parts of the hemisphere, has not adequately tended his own political base.
If he is to remain in office, he must intensify efforts to root out the graft that causes most of the public disgust with his administration. For many Venezuelans, honesty in government has become a contradiction.
Meanwhile, the United States and other interested observers should reaffirm their support for democratic processes and their abhorrence of military interlopers.