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Democracy Not Providing Quick Fix for Latin Woes

Times Staff Writer

The unions are hostile, the military is suspicious and the Congress is divided. The press is partisan, business is broke, the economy is flat and inflation is rising. The International Monetary Fund watches with a jaundiced eye.

Three months after democracy jubilantly replaced military dictatorship in Uruguay, the fruits are mostly ephemeral. The popular expectation that a civilian government would somehow quickly attenuate the old problems has proved short-lived.

Talking recently with ranchers and farmers who told him they needed immediate economic help, President Julio Sanguinetti could offer only five years of “sacrifice and difficulties” to overcome what he called “the worst crisis in this continent in this century.”

In March, Uruguay, the smallest of the South American republics, became the eighth Latin American country since 1979 to peacefully restore elected government.

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A few weeks later came heartbreak in Brazil, where Tancredo Neves, a popular civilian chosen in indirect elections to end two decades of military rule, fell ill on the eve of his inauguration and eventually died .

Today, Uruguay’s transition hangover reflects the kind of travail that has befallen more than one born-again democracy. From Peru and Ecuador to Panama and Honduras, the lesson is clear: It is hard work making democracy succeed.

Elected civilian governments offer no quick fix--for economic distress, for social disparity or for national trauma. Sometimes, they fall so far short of their own aspirations that they generate the greatest disillusionment among the poor people they have sought most to help.

“We have tried hard not to awaken hopes we cannot fulfill, but people imagine that democracy means solutions tomorrow, immediate liberation from all their problems,” Carlos Manini Rios, Uruguay’s new interior minister and a key Sanguinetti adviser, said in an interview at his office here.

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Vexing Problems

Indeed, if restored democracy in Latin America means the celebration of basic freedoms that North Americans take for granted, the very tolerance that is fundamental to democracy invites problems more vexing to elected governments than to their military predecessors. And those problems are challenging stability at a time when the young democracies are least able to confront instability.

Although few in egalitarian Montevideo today would swap Uruguay’s free-swinging democratic melee for a well-ordered dictatorship, the newly awakened Uruguayan effervescence is a textbook example of what happens in Latin America when the military lid comes off.

During the armed forces’ 12-year rule in Uruguay, dissent was routinely suppressed. Demonstrations and strikes were banned. Political opponents fled or went to jail under harsh sentences imposed by military courts in the name of national security.

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There being no legislature--just as there is none today in hard-line Chile--laws from economic controls to parking restrictions were issued by decree. There was no place for political commentary in the muzzled newspapers.

Military Unpopular

Unpopular, aware that they had no mandate, the Uruguayan generals agreed in mid-1984 to leave office. The pragmatic Sanguinetti, head of the centrist Colorado Party, won the presidential election in November with 40% of the vote.

Like all the other presidents chosen since Ecuador began the Latin American swing back to democracy six years ago, Sanguinetti inherited an economy in shambles.

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Democracy’s timing could not have been worse. For Latin America, this is the cruelest decade in memory. In virtually every country, amid lingering fallout from an international recession that began in 1980, people are worse off than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

In Uruguay, where economic lethargy has eroded living standards for 30 years, personal income in 1983 was $2,100 per capita, compared with $1,748 in 1961, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. In 1961, a worker in Uruguay was paid 30% as much as a worker in West Europe. Today the Uruguayan makes 20% as much.

Complicating recovery efforts is inflation. All six of South America’s new democracies had an inflation rate above 40% last year, and Bolivia and Argentina may surpass 1,000% this year.

With the sapping inflation comes a huge, unpayable foreign debt--more than $5 billion in the case of Uruguay, nearly $50 billion for Argentina and more than $100 billion for Brazil. For Uruguay, the figure represents nearly $2,000 per capita--a year’s pay.

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The International Monetary Fund, as the lender of last resort, stands ready to help, but resists throwing good money after bad. The IMF seeks responsible, pay-as-you-go government. It encourages belt-tightening austerity of the sort that produces or worsens recession and thereby fuels social unrest.

“The IMF message is plainly writ: ‘Democracy is nice, but balanced books are better,’ ” an Argentine official, who asked not to be quoted by name, commented acidly.

The IMF would quarrel with the assessment, but the Argentine’s disgust is echoed in virtually all of the new, hard-pressed democracies.

It is left to new-generation democrats like Raul Alfonsin in Argentina, Julio Sanguinetti in Uruguay and President-elect Alan Garcia in Peru to simultaneously advertise the charms of democracy while explaining that life must get even tougher before it can get better.

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This is not a message that endears leaders to millions of Latin Americans more concerned about whether there is something for the kids’ dinner than whether poets may write freely.

Since Sanguinetti took office three months ago, there have been more than 100 strikes for higher pay in this nation of 3 million people. Many of the strikes have been small, but one shut down the important textile industry, and another closed the courts for six weeks.

Labor unrest is also bedeviling Brazil’s new civilian government, and Peru and Bolivia have both endured prolonged work stoppages this year. In Argentina recently, Peronist-controlled unions carried out their second nationwide general strike against the troubled, 18-month-old Alfonsin government. In Argentina and Uruguay, unions are threatening general strikes for later this month.

In Latin America’s young democracies, the West’s concept of the loyal political opposition does not prosper among parties frustrated by election defeat. In Argentina, for example, Peronists stung by their first-ever defeat at the polls have proved more adept at internecine warfare than at forging a constructive opposition to Alfonsin.

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Here in Uruguay, Sanguinetti launched his presidency in March with a call for a national front government to help consolidate democracy. He offered Cabinet posts to the opposition National Party on the center-left and to the Frente Amplio, whose support extends leftward from the Christian Democrats to Marxist parties that had been proscribed by the generals.

The opposition parties refused the offer, fearing that direct participation in the government would undermine their prospects in the next presidential election four years hence.

Opposition parties control both houses of the new Uruguayan Congress, and they quickly approved a law, opposed by Sanguinetti, that provides for the immediate release of the remaining 61 political prisoners--former members of the Tupamaro urban terrorist group jailed for acts of violence.

Sanguinetti continues to have good relations with opposition leaders, but the Congress is potentially troublesome in a part of the world where immature parliaments have been historically a price paid for democracy rather than effective lawmaking bodies. In Ecuador, conservative President Leon Febres Cordero has been at loggerheads with a hostile Parliament from the instant he took office last August.

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Fernando Belaunde Terry, Peru’s outgoing president, quipped in a recent interview: “I have governed with a parliamentary majority and with a parliamentary minority. I don’t know which is worse.”

Ultimately, perhaps the greatest threat to Latin America’s new democracies comes from extremists of both the left and right who believe that such admittedly flawed experiments in popular government are weak-spined, pernicious and a dangerous waste of time--"pornographic democracy,” in the words of a retired Argentine general.

Former guerrillas walk the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and Marxist legislators sit respectably in the Peruvian and Uruguayan legislatures. Marxist doctrine, though, calls for the destruction of bourgeois democracy, and Marxist guerrillas war against popularly elected civilian presidents in El Salvador and Peru.

Also menacing the chances for young democracies is the threat from the right in a region where conservative military establishments have historically wielded the balance of political power.

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Argentina’s armed forces abandoned power in disgrace, in December, 1983, after sponsoring state terrorism and losing a senseless war with Britain over the Falklands. The others, though, all consider that they retired honorably--mission accomplished in the unending task of nation-saving.

Democratic Disorder

Everywhere, the generals view with mistrust the disorder of democracy and what they view as its attendant moral decline. And everywhere, too, the soldiers still have their guns.

Alfonsin cut the military budget in the first blush of Argentine democracy. Sanguinetti is encountering opposition to his attempt to save $5 million a year by abolishing the post of military attache at Uruguayan embassies abroad.

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Peru’s President-elect Garcia must tread warily; in his bankrupt country, the armed forces jealously protect the 30% of the national budget earmarked for defense.

Already, in his first 100 days, Sanguinetti has survived two embarrassing incidents with the armed forces. In one, junior officers alerted troops without advising their superiors.

In Argentina, the armed forces are openly restive, and coup rumors swirl around Alfonsin.

For every Latin American who laments that “we are not ready for democracy” there is another who will argue that there is no other political ideal worth pursuing. Men like Sanguinetti, Alfonsin, Belaunde and El Salvador’s President Jose Napoleon Duarte have put their reputations, and their lives, on the line for a demanding, imperfect and often frustrating taskmaster.

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Voters Defy Guerrillas

In El Salvador, millions of people have repeatedly braved guerrilla threats to vote. Last April’s presidential election in Peru is particularly heartening to the hemisphere’s democrats: At a time of unparalleled national crisis, one of the first of the Latin American states to restore democracy in the last half-dozen years renewed it in a model election won by the opposition cleanly and convincingly, and accepted by all but a relative handful of Maoist guerrillas.

“Democracy is a bit like that old Spanish story of a boy and his grandfather walking home with their burro on a hot afternoon,” Manini Rios, the Uruguayan interior minister, mused. “The grandfather rides until a passer-by scolds him for abusing the child. Then the child rides until somebody complains he is not showing respect for his grandfather. So they both ride, until another busybody asks how they could be so cruel to the burro. Somehow, they get home.

“Democracy never pleases everybody. But nobody has yet come up with a better recipe for governing free men.”

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