The Precarious Nature of Latin Democracies

The New York Times (Editorial) -- 27 February 2000

by Tina Rosenberg

In August 1962 the National Observer newspaper carried a report from South America with the headline, "Democracy Dies in Peru, but Few Seem to Mourn Its Passing." The story described the indifference of Peruvians to a military coup that had just installed a junta in power. The young reporter was Hunter Thompson, who later became famous for a different style of journalism. As for Peru, much the same article could be published today.

Democracy swells and recedes in Latin America. In recent decades the trend was favorable - military rulers fell, leaving Cuba as the only outright dictatorship. But as in the 1960's and early 1970's, democratic rule is now being nibbled away in several countries, among them Peru.

The threat today is not from classic military dictatorship, but more subtle forms of autocracy - often endorsed by a public angry at the corruption and ineptitude of its democratic political system. In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori will stand for a third term in April. He could do so only after sacking judges who ruled that a third term was unconstitutional and he has rigged the campaign in his favor. In Ecuador last month, soldiers claiming to represent ordinary citizens against the political elite toppled the president and installed the vice president. In Venezuela, voters have granted sweeping powers to President Hugo Chávez, an army colonel who in 1992 attempted a military coup.

The history of democracy in Latin America is one of advances and setbacks. In 1960, for example, virtually every nation in South America had an elected civilian leader. By 1976, all but a few countries in Central and South America were dictatorships.

The climate for democracy in Latin America today is in many ways the best it has ever been, largely due to the end of the cold war. Washington is no longer helping to overthrow elected left-wing governments. The end of the cold war has also led to the abandonment of armed struggle by Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador, Guatemala and other nations. Peace is good for democracy. In those two countries, it has allowed civilians to assert greater control over the military, and peace agreements have helped make shallow democracies deeper and more inclusive.

Latin American nations are under political and economic pressure - including from one another - to keep the dictators out. In Chile, for example, when the nation's civilian leaders have attempted to prosecute military officers for Pinochet-era offenses, soldiers have responded with shows of insubordination. But this has not led Chile's upper class, the military's traditional backer, to call for a coup, in part because Chile's wealthy fear a reaction from the country's trading partners.

But the world is not as willing to focus critical attention on political systems that fall short of outright dictatorship. More important, voters will grant their leaders autocratic powers when they do not believe democracy has helped them. Democratic governments are currently unable to contain a crime wave in several nation that is persuading some Latin Americans to support undemocratic measures or strongman rule. As has often been the case, people in Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru have turned against the traditional party system because they see it as protecting the privileged. Globalization has increased inequality in much of Latin America and made the poor feel more neglected.

Dictatorship is no solution. Alongside their brutality, the continent's strongmen have brought even more theft and mismanagement - which is usually why they have fallen. Although Gen. Augusto Pinochet gained worldwide praise for his economic reforms in Chile, he is an exception among Latin dictators.

Once in office, autocratic presidents can use their powers to grab far more than the usual advantages of incumbency. Peru used to have relatively clean elections, but few believe that Mr. Fujimori's electoral test in April will be a fair one. He has shut down virtually all critical television news and effectively controls the agencies that will oversee the election. Opposition politicians have been harassed, their campaign events are often sabotaged, and their paid commercials have been rejected by Lima's television networks.

Elected autocrats like Mr. Fujimori deserve scrutiny, just as outright dictators do. While the Clinton administration has been a consistent critic of rights violations in Peru, it must speak out more forcefully on flaws in the upcoming election. The most important lesson from the past, however, is for Latin America's democrats. If they cannot control corruption and make government work for the poor, they risk not only their hold on power but democracy itself.