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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Betraying Latin America

Had the armed forces and its allies succeeded in forcing Venezuela's democratically elected president and legislature out of office this past week, Latin America would have experienced its first outright military coup in 26 years, with the notable exception of the overthrow of Haiti's first-ever elected president in 1991.

The collapse of democracy in Venezuela would have exacerbated the sharp social tensions in a bitterly divided country that is the United States' third-largest source of imported oil. It also would have seriously undermined hemispheric efforts championed by three previous U.S. presidents to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and put an end to military in politics.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration did not seem to understand what was at stake in Venezuela. Deviating sharply from the policies of its predecessors, and confusing the understandable dislike of a particular leader and his policies with the importance of supporting democracy, it publicly countenanced the military action. The administration was visibly out of step with other hemispheric leaders who condemned the military coup.

As a result, the United States now risks losing much of the considerable moral and political leadership it had rightly won over the past decade as the nations of the Americas sought to establish the fundamental principle that the problems of democracy are solved in democracy, not through resorting to unconstitutional means.

Rather than categorically condemn the military coup in Venezuela, official White House and State Department statements appeared to justify military intervention by arguing that people were killed in anti-Chavez demonstrations, that the president had ordered the closing of television broadcasts and had been acting in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Nor did the administration's spokesmen encourage the armed forces to avoid a disruption of the constitutional order or call for the restoration of Venezuela's elected authorities. Instead, they accepted at face value Chavez's purported resignation and did not question the legitimacy of the ad hoc "provisional government" blessed by the high command. The silence of President Bush regarding events in Venezuela was particularly jarring.

There is no doubt that Hugo Chavez's actions and rhetoric have contributed to aggravating the severe crisis of Venezuelan democracy. But whether we like it or not, Chavez is also a democratically elected leader who governed with an elected legislature and, for all of his antics, generally abided by the strictures of the institutional order.

If he violated his oath of office or the law of the land, the proper course is impeachment, not a military coup. If he did resign his office, it should have been up to the legislature, not an unrepresentative body appointed by the high command, to determine his successor.

The Bush administration should resist further temptations to demonize the mercurial Chavez and look for ways to work with the other countries of the hemisphere to support a constructive dialogue between his government and the opposition.

It is also time for the U.S. government to move beyond the rhetoric of making democracy, trade and security its top priorities in the hemisphere by addressing the severe problems of a region where democracy is in genuine peril. In a world fraught with uncertainties and risks, legitimate and stable democracies in the Western Hemisphere are fundamental to the national interest of the United States. It should not take the United States' hemispheric neighbors to remind it of that fact.

Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American Studies in the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, contributed this comment to The Washington Post.