The alternative is what has been occurring in Mexico, where outgoing President Vicente Fox has triggered a violent crisis by ordering riot police to dislodge peaceful, indigenous protesters in the state of Oaxaca.
In contrast, Chávez has improved the material conditions of millions of shantytown residents, but urban street violence and class polarization have skyrocketed. Both Chávez and his opponents have exercised power in blatantly nondemocratic ways, from media manipulation to the subversion of public and private institutions. Ironically, this has put economic and social inequality in the limelight for the first time in decades.
To engender further positive reform in Venezuela and across Latin America, the private sector must recognize the need for reform and participate in the political negotiations that craft it. US government and business leaders can facilitate such openness by making clear their support for initiatives that improve people's daily lives in enduring ways.
Latin America's economies are sound. There is virtually no terrorism, ethnic killing, or antimodern religious fundamentalism in the region. Latin Americans want decent living conditions in secular democracies, and despite concerns about American power and intervention, they want economic and cultural ties to the US and free movement for immigrants and visitors.
In this context, a thriving left in Latin America represents a historic opportunity. The US can further its goals of sustainable trade, democratic well-being, and a reliable investment climate in Latin America without heavy-handed intervention. Most of the Latin American left supports just these ends.
But Americans have to recognize that the struggle to achieve more-equitable and inclusive societies in Latin America will involve fierce political battles and painful bargains – just as they did in the US and Europe. At times, powerful elites have to be challenged or frightened to give ground on key issues, as America's own New Deal and civil rights movement made clear.