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Venezuela's Uncertain Course

The political upheaval under way in Venezuela sends ripples across the hemisphere. Is Latin American democracy, recently resurgent, headed for yet another decline?

The turmoil embodied by Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez is of a different order than the old military coup model. Mr. Chvez, a former paratroop commander, had his fling with that more than a decade ago. Now he operates through the system.

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To be more exact, he operates within the system to utterly remake the system. But in whose image? Chvez's political philosophy swings between neo-fascism and Fidel Castro's socialism, touching on most everything in between.

His deconstruction has included the elimination of the country's supreme court and congress, and the redesign of the latter as a unicameral body. All this has been done under a new Constitution pushed through by Chvez that also enhances the power of the presidency.

He just won a six-year term, and under the new rules could hold office for the next 13 years.

The parallels to Peru, another center of political turmoil in the region, are clear, if imperfect. President Alberto Fujimori is further along in the process, struggling to hold onto a mandate weakened by allegations of electoral fraud. He faces a vocal opposition that has taken to the streets and violently clashed with police.

The prospect of unrest and uncertainty undermines critically needed economic progress. Investors shy away. Chvez's populist rants resonate with the poor (more than 80 percent of Venezuelans). But they scatter the small middle class, many of whom are leaving the country and heading for Florida.

Both Chvez and Fujimori came to office after years of mismanagement and corruption. The idea of a strong hand at the helm had appeal. But the gravitation toward authoritarianism, Latin America's bane, is all too clear.

Their problem? Not entirely. For one thing, Venezuela is the single biggest supplier of oil to the US. What happens there matters greatly.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society