[INSIGHT]When freedom is not an option

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[INSIGHT]When freedom is not an option

Democratic countries limit their presidents to a single term or two consecutive terms to prevent the long-term seizure of power. However, barring a run for the presidency because the hopeful has already held the office for the legally accepted length of time may be unfair. If the person has been a very effective president, the term limit causes the nation to lose leadership talent. Is there any way to prevent a dictatorship while clinging to proven ability?

The constitution of Venezuela could solve this problem. It allows a person, who served as president more than 10 years ago, to run for president again. It is the law, but how many people really would remember what a president achieved 10 years ago? Nevertheless, there are two persons in Venezuela who fit this bill. Carlos Peres came into power again in the 1988 election, 10 years after he stepped down from the presidency. In 1993, Rafael Caldera took the helm of state affairs again, 25 years after he was fist elected. Some Koreans might feel chagrined they were not born in Venezuela. But the comeback of these two presidents did not turn out well. Peres was impeached for stealing public money, and Caldera had to seek aid from the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the voters' mind is as unpredictable as a former president's ambition. The juncture of unpredictability and strong desire is popularity, and the place where politicians' instigations and voters' enthusiasm meet is populism.

Popularity cannot ease people's hunger. So, populists promise radical reform. The target of reform is the haves. It stands to reason that the stronger the rhetoric on reform, the bigger the have-nots' applause. But if they try to take only the haves' share through reform, they will be confronted by a huge backlash and limits. Venezuela has a gift of nature called oil, and its reserves are the sixth largest in the world; its exports are the fourth largest. The material foothold for the success of populism is stronger in countries with an abundance of natural resources, but the results have been very bad. The petro-dollar, which accounted for 20 percent of GDP and 50 percent of the government's budget in Venezuela, was squandered on ostentatious projects and siphoned off by corruption. Endless gasoline price hikes, limiting automobile speed to 80 kilometers an hour and the reduction of gas station operations were belt-tightening measures in a country where oil was cheaper than water in the 1980s. This is real material for comedy.

The president, Hugo Chavez, who resigned his post because of military pressure and then returned after 51 hours, is a missionary for the faith of populism.

He gave a lengthy rose-colored speech through the state-owned television broadcaster during a disastrous demonstration protesting economic misgovernment. At least 16 persons died and 300 were injured. In 1992, Chavez, a lieutenant colonel in the airborne troops, failed to overthrow the regime of Mr. Peres. But in the presidential election in 1998, he gained an easy victory, suggesting the failed coup d'etat and imprisonment for two years appealed to the electorate. Just as the final phase of populism can be characterized, he too may be conceited and arrogant. For instance, he argued enthusiastically, "What the dissident group couldn't see is the fact that Hugo Chavez is not a Chavez but the people of Venezuela." Denouncing the state-owned oil company, PdVSA, which tried to get out from under political pressure, he cast it as "a luxurious villa where people drink whisky and go on a spree." He forced the appointment of former public officials to important posts in the company. He also hurled a storm of curses at priests, saying "You didn't walk on the path of Christ." This in a country where 96 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. It looks like he is an outcast even in the world of the dead, as well as in this world. But that is nothing. He committed a felony. He made friends with the "root of evil," like Fidel Castro in Cuba, Moammar Qadhafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Mohammad Khatami in Iran. He also teased the United States, saying the war after the Sept. 11 attacks was "a war against terror through terror." He's gone stone crazy!

Chavez's radical populism, which divided the people into supporters and dissidents and made trade unions the enemy, provoked counterattacks. It seems like the rumor that "the United States State Department and Pentagon were maneuvering behind the three-day coup d'etat" could be substantiated. Richard Lapper observed in the Financial Times on Feb. 21 that disappointed by the results of two decades of liberal reform, many Latin American citizens are once again embracing the politics of populism and authoritarianism. Does their anguish show us that "new freedom" and populism is no longer an option?


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The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Joseph W. Chung

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