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Venezuela's lesson: Corruption menaces liberty

No South American nation seemed less likely than Venezuela to suffer a coup. Other democracies in the region have faced threats from leftist guerrillas, drug lords, restless right-wing army officers, and deep poverty. But Venezuela, a democracy since 1958, was somehow different.

That such apparent stability was an illusion was made clear by the unsuccessful coup of a few days ago, when rebel troops tried to kill President Carlos Andres Perez and take over the government. The incident is a reminder that democracy remains fragile in the region _ but not only for the traditional reasons.

Historically, the main enemies of Latin democracy have been extremists on the left or on the right. In Nicaragua, the rightist Somoza dictatorship brought on the leftist Sandinista dictatorship. In Argentina, a freely elected government unable to control leftist terrorists was "saved" by rightist terrorists. In all cases, it was always an extremist reaction to an extremist provocation.

Venezuela seemed to be beyond that. Guerrillas were defeated in the early 1970s; drugs were never a problem; the army stayed out of politics; and oil riches gave the people the highest per capita income in the continent.

Lately, inflation wiped out benefits from the oil boom. That's why there were riots in poor neighborhoods and college campuses. Still, democracy seemed entrenched in Venezuela. If it wasn't safe there, it wasn't safe anywhere in South America.

Now we know it is safe nowhere in the continent, even with ideological extremism in its dying days. Rebel officers explained why. Instead of issuing the usual bombastic proclamation that "we have come to rescue the fatherland from lawlessness and anarchy blah blah blah," the Venezuelan officers told the world the fatherland had to be rescued from bureaucrats.

Bureaucrats?

Yes. It was corruption in government, not guerrillas in the mountains, that gave soldiers the excuse to leave the barracks.

A friend of mine, a former Venezuelan student leader who left the country in disgust a couple of years ago, saw it coming. Corruption was so endemic, he said, that it was impossible to buy a car, or get a job, or go to college, or even get a passing grade without bribing somebody.

What happened in Venezuela is a harbinger of what will happen in other Latin American countries unless there is a serious crackdown on corruption. Democracy is on the move throughout the Latin world. Even in war-torn El Salvador, the right-wing government and the left-wing guerrillas signed a peace plan. That leaves Cuba as the only incontestably non-democratic regime in the Spanish-speaking world. But as other Latin democracies become as well entrenched as Venezuela's, the biggest danger to their stability will have its roots not in the discredited extremes of right and left, but in the way democracy is conducted.

The survival of democratic regimes in Latin America is of utmost importance to the United States. "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States" is a Mexican political saying. Well, the same could be said in reverse. For better or for worse, the United States shares the hemisphere with Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations. As Europe unites across the Atlantic, and the Japanese dominate the far side of the Pacific, Latin America becomes the United States' natural ally. But an alliance with corrupt democracies won't be much good, to say nothing of an alliance with military dictators.

Are those the only two options? Perhaps the coup will force Perez to make an attack on corruption the No.

1 priority of his administration. Closer to home, Mexico seems to be moving in the right direction.

Just days before the coup, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari "invited" yet another elected politician from his own party to step down amid charges of vote fraud. This time it was Gov. Salvador Neme Castillo, of Tabasco. But Salinas did not make the move until thousands of Tabascans marched to Mexico City to protest.

That's not enough. Latin America's political culture must change in such a way that corruption is seen as intolerable, not merely as something that is remedied here and there, when and if people protest.

What if politicians continue with Band-Aid solutions? A coup in Mexico is inconceivable. But then again, last week I would have said the same of Venezuela.

Roger E. Hernandez is an adjunct member of the journalism faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Born in Cuba, he came to the United States in 1965 when his parents were exiled by Fidel Castro.

1992 King Features Syndicate Inc.

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