5 Buck the System : A New Breed of Latin President

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The street sweepers had made scarcely a dent on the confettied aftermath of an election victory celebration one recent morning when Raul Alfonsin’s phone rang.

Belisario Betancur called from up in Bogota. Then Julio Sanguinetti called from over in Montevideo. They delivered identical messages of congratulation, easily summarized:

“Bien hecho, hermano, " his fellow presidents told Alfonsin. Well done, brother.

In a decade marked by a dramatic shift away from military rule, a brotherhood of new-breed democrats is etching a singular mark in Latin America today.


There is an audacious handful of them now, sturdy ground-breakers who daringly strive for needed but traumatic democratic change: Argentina’s Alfonsin, Colombia’s Betancur, Uruguay’s Sanguinetti, Peru’s Alan Garcia, El Salvador’s Jose Napoleon Duarte.

Long-Distance Union

It is a small club, but an elite one. Its members sometimes talk, but seldom meet. Their long-distance union is one of ideas. If they all lived in the same country, they probably would be fierce rivals for power.

Defying odds and history, all are embarked on risky initiatives to attack divisive, longstanding national problems. Success is a long shot, but the reformers’ fate is a weather vane for the democratic future in a region of the world where generals traditionally count for much more than voters. Everyone is watching. The failure of one would weigh on the prospects of all the others.


In their determination, the new democrats, all of them elected since 1982, reflect the reformist spirit that John F. Kennedy sought to nourish in Latin America more than two decades ago with the Alliance for Progress. Their particular burden is to have arrived at center stage at moments of national poverty, when U.S. policy focuses more on helping creditors collect than in bankrolling new dreams.

Duarte survives thanks to American assistance, but the others, wrestling variously with violence, poverty, and thwarted expectations, mostly feel American pressure: on debt, on drugs, and, in the case of Peru, on human rights.

4 Lawyers and an Engineer

Latin America’s new reformers--four lawyers and a Salvadoran civil engineer who range in age from 36 to 62--are as different as the countries they lead and the problems they face. War-ravaged El Salvador and debt-torn Argentina are as disparate as Lebanon and Italy.


In style, the quixotic dreamer Garcia is light years from the wily realist Sanguinetti. In substance, Latin America’s new democrats, though, are within a pace or two of the political center in the context of their own societies. They are yoked further by anti-Communist nationalism, by nascent or full-blown populism and by gritty resolve to defend tender, imperfect democratic forms in pluralistic societies.

When an army patrol hunting guerrillas massacred peasants in an Andean village, Garcia not only jailed the patrol leader but also fired his commanding general.

When bombings unsettled Argentina during a midterm election campaign, Alfonsin gambled his democratic credentials by imposing a state of siege to allow summary arrest of 12 right-wing zealots he claims were responsible.

When an opposition-controlled Congress threatened to censure his interior minister over a teapot tempest, Sanguinetti warned that he would exercise constitutional provisions to call new elections. Congress backed down.


What particularly distinguishes the new breed from other elected Latin American presidents of the 1980s is a commitment to structural change that invites confrontation from left and right. That is at once their strength and their weakness.

Who Hates Duarte More?

In the midst of civil war, Duarte seeks to end violence while solidifying through reform a democratic center he himself created. It is hard to know who hates Duarte more: the murderous Salvadoran right or the murderous Salvadoran left.

In Argentina, left and right alike portray Alfonsin’s tough anti-inflation policies as a sellout to international creditors. They revile his plan to reduce the size of an inept and featherbedded state by selling off government enterprises to the private sector. The powerful armed forces writhe in fury at his attempt to strengthen the rule of law through human rights proceedings against former military commanders, three of them ex-presidents.


In Colombia, Betancur’s stunning attempt to forge peace with old and deep-seated guerrilla movements is in shreds. Now, he wars simultaneously with Marxist guerrillas and fascist-minded cocaine barons whose corrupting industry represents an even greater threat to national institutions.

Frustrating Peace Search

In Peru, Maoist guerrillas assault Garcia, frustrating his search for peace and reoriented agriculture in the Andean highlands. So, verbally, does a private sector, discomfited by Garcia’s quest for reformist economic policies, and a somnolent state bureaucracy, threatened by his pledge of overhaul and honest government.

In Uruguay, Sanguinetti, who is more conservative than the others, does not seek reform of the system but changes within the system to make it work again after three decades of economic stagnation. If the others are audacious in their innovation, Sanguinetti is audacious in his pragmatism.


Interestingly--an implicit insight into their persistence, perhaps--all five of the bellwether democrats are veterans of mainline political parties that endured long out of power.

Garcia, 36, is the first president of Peru’s 60-year-old Apra Party. Duarte, 60, is El Salvador’s first Christian Democratic president. Alfonsin, 58, is the first Radical Party president since 1963. Betancur, 62, is the first Conservative Party president since 1970. Sanguinetti, 49, led his Colorado Party back to power this year after Uruguay’s first presidential elections since 1970.

All five were elected as minority presidents in multi-candidate races. Despite remarkable travail, all have substantially increased their popularity once in office, rising in the process above the parties that brought them to power.

High Approval Rating


Garcia, elected with just under half the votes in April, had an approval rating of over 90% after three months in office. Polls say that Alfonsin, after two tough years, has the approval of about 70% of his countrymen. His party gathered a winning 43% in the Nov. 3 midterm elections that prompted the congratulatory phone calls.

War and geography distance Duarte from the others. Garcia, too, stands alone--brash and as yet untempered by the sapping realities of government in the name of change. Some of the others, in fact, resent the strident newcomer’s drive for regional leadership.

Alfonsin, Sanguinetti and Betancur are three of a kind, though, even if Bogota is physically nearer to Washington than to either Buenos Aires or Montevideo.

The neighboring Argentine and Uruguayan presidents, by contrast, a half-hour’s flight apart, are not only friends but also frequent companions. En route to regional affairs of state, Tango 1, Alfonsin’s presidential jet, habitually stops in Montevideo to pick up Sanguinetti.


When Argentine and Uruguayan relief supplies lifted off for Colombian volcano victims last week, it was a token of international support but, also, of succor for a wounded brother democrat.

Encouraging Attention

Through their intentions and performance, Latin America’s new democrats encourage uncommon international attention.

Sanguinetti, who engineered an imperfect but effective end to more than a decade of military rule in Uruguay, was greeted by a standing ovation on a recent visit to the Spanish Parliament. Governments from Italy to India have rolled out the red carpet for Alfonsin. In Washington, he addressed a joint meeting of Congress, a signal honor for a foreign dignitary.


Betancur is the keystone of the stubborn Contadora search for peace in Central America. He and Garcia have become outspoken advocates of better international cocaine control, and Garcia ambitiously grasps for Third World leadership to press for a better deal from the First World.

At Garcia’s inauguration in Lima last July, the fiery young Peruvian said he would not deal with the International Monetary Fund and vowed to limit debt repayments to 10% of his country’s exports. In the audience was U.S. Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III.

Later that day, Alfonsin and Sanguinetti stressed to Baker--in conversation devoid of histrionics--how debt repayment undermined the ability of their countries to grow economically. That meeting is now cited as the intellectual birthplace of the Baker Plan, a proposal to stimulate growth by $20 billion in new lending to 15 debtor countries, 10 of them in Latin America.