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Venezuela's Choice

The evolution of Latin American democracy has taken an intriguing new turn with the election of Hugo Chvez as president of Venezuela. Mr. Chvez comes to office as a former coup-plotter and a champion of the country's numerous poor.

Venezuela claims one of the continent's longer experiences with democracy, with elected governments for the past 40 years. But those governments have shifted between two major parties that have come to be viewed by many average Venezuelans as vehicles of privilege - and, most emphatically, corruption.

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In recent years, as the country's abundant oil wealth failed to trickle down to the 80 percent of citizens who live in poverty, that impression solidified.

Chvez, a onetime paratroop officer with a gift for populist oratory, has ridden the tide of popular discontent. After his failed coup attempt in 1992, he spent two years in jail, honing his political message and growing in popularity. He was later pardoned out of concern imprisonment was only enhancing his martyr image.

Now he has to transform himself from popular hero to capable leader, and his challenges are legion. Venezuela's currency is badly overvalued, but Chvez has vowed not to devalue it. Oil prices are still sliding, shrinking the country's income. Yet Chvez is expected to push for greater social spending. He prefers investments in education and health care to further investments in the huge national oil company. He's inclined toward intervention in key economic sectors like agriculture. But he has gone out of his way to reassure foreigners their investments will be welcome and that the nation's huge fiscal deficit will be cut.

A fundamental question is whether Chvez will work within Venezuela's democratic structures for reform - or draw power unto himself. The tradition of strong-man rule runs deep in Latin America. It's latest manifestation is elected rulers with near dictatorial authority - e.g., President Alberto Fujimori of Peru. We urge Chvez not to take the strongman route, but to use his great popular support to bring constructive change. His calls for greater economic equity and clean government are admirable.

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