The Latin Rhythms of Democracy : The novelist who wrote 'The War of the End of the World' finds a continent of hope.

Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist and social commentator. This article is adapted from his speech last weekend to the Trilateral Commission.

I represent no government and no institution. I am an independent writer convinced that the reforms Latin America requires to achieve development and social justice must be carried out within the framework of the rule of law and freedom and that only democracy can guarantee these things.

Seen this way, the Latin America of today justifies our cautious optimism. Never before in the history of our nations--that is, since we became independent from Spain and Portugal--has our part of the world had as many governments created by free (more or less) elections. Put another way, never before have there been so few authoritarian regimes as there are at present. Bloody tyrannies in Argentina and Uruguay have yielded to civilian government--the same is true in Brazil--as has the shameful anachronism until recently embodied by "Baby Doc" Duvalier, former "perpetual president" of Haiti.

Countries where, until 25 years ago, no elected president could finish out his term--Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, for example--are today models of pluralism, where antagonistic political parties are voted in and out of power and where the extreme right and the extreme left receive fewer and fewer votes in each succeeding election. Even in Central America, traditionally the most politically oppressed region, we have begun to see military regimes resign themselves--not always willingly, of course--to holding elections and yielding power to civilian leaders.

But it isn't only military dictatorships that have diminished in number--to the point that the regimes of Gens. Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay and Augusto Pinochet in Chile are now among the few surviving examples. The Cuban model of violent revolution is also less popular, especially compared with what it was just a few years ago, when Latin American guerrilla groups operating in a dozen countries were trying to turn Che Guevara's maxim, "Create in our continent, two, three Vietnams," into a reality. There are exceptions, of course: El Salvador, although even there guerrilla activities have lessened; Peru, where the apocalyptic fanaticism of the Shining Path continues to destroy lives and property even though it does not at this point constitute a real threat to the government, and Colombia, where political violence is often mixed up with the purely criminal violence of drug traffic. In the rest of Latin America the myth of armed revolution as a cure-all for our problems has ceased to convince the people.

But it would be unjust to celebrate this process in statistical terms. Of much greater importance is the way democratization is taking place. If we compare it, for example, with the period following World War II, when a democratic wave ran through the continent, we see that the current situation is not the result of external pressures or the work of local elites. This time, the decisive--in many cases the only--reason why governments based on legality, freedom and popular consent have replaced the arbitrary exercise of force or personal power has been the humble, nameless men and women, the usually poor, impoverished, often illiterate, people of our countries. It's true that in nations like Haiti and El Salvador it was essential for the United States to withdraw support or exert pressure to bring about the change, but even in these cases that external pressure would have come to nothing without the people. In the case of El Salvador, I can personally attest to the courage and self-sacrifice of the ordinary Salvadoran in the electoral campaign of 1984, turning out to vote in the face of intimidation and bullets.

This fact seems extraordinarily important. For the first time, democracy or incipient democratic forms of government are being established in our countries, with clear popular support and with an equally clear rejection of Marxist revolution or military dictatorship. Today anti-democratic alternatives are running against the will of the people, supported only by economic or intellectual elites. In my own country, Peru, extremists tried to sabotage the 1985 elections by unleashing a terror campaign to keep people away from the polls; but only 7% of the registered voters stayed home, a real record compared with voter apathy in the more advanced democracies.

It would be naive to think that the ordinary men and women of Latin America have chosen democracy because of some ideological or intellectual conversion. What has spurred huge numbers of people to turn to this option has been the terrible violence--of which they have been the victims. This violence, the result of intolerance, fanaticism and dogma, has been practiced both by revolutionary terrorists and political or military counterterrorists. It littered our continent with the dead, the tortured, the kidnaped, the disappeared--and these people, in vast majority, have been the poor. Ordinary people have opted for democracy to find an escape from this nightmare reality of civil war, terror, indiscriminate repression, torture. People decided to support that system which, intuitively and instinctively, they thought would be able to defend human rights best--or oppress them least.

This undocumented fact of Latin American life--a democratizing process that originates in the people themselves--has presented us with a unique opportunity. We now have the chance to eliminate forever the vicious cycle of revolutions and military coups, to fight for development by linking our destiny with something we have always, in fact, been a part of: the liberal, democratic West.

Naturally, this will not be easy. The democratization of Latin America, even with its new unprecedented base in our societies, is very fragile. To maintain and extend this popular base, governments will have to prove to their citizens that democracy means not only the end of political brutality but concrete progress in areas such as public health and education, where so much remains to be done. But, given the economic crisis Latin America is suffering today, those governments have virtually no alternative but to deceive the citizens--especially the poor--demanding ever greater sacrifices.

I am not one who believes that the problem of foreign debt should be met with demagogic gestures or a declaration of war against the international financial system. If such a war were to break out, Western banks might be affected, but our countries would be even worse off because one of the first victims of hostilities would be the democratic system.

The industrialized nations--their governments and banks--should face up to this matter realistically. They must understand what will happen if they demand that our democracies pay the service on their debts by implementing policies that have an exaggeratedly high social cost. We have already seen explosions of rage and despair in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Brazil when the fabric of society is stretched too thin. The result could be the collapse of democracy and the return of dictatorships.

A realistic and ethically sound approach by creditors would demand that each debtor nation pay what it can without placing the stability of the system in jeopardy. At the same time, creditors should provide both the stimulus and the aid necessary to reactivate the economies of the debtor nations.

I am not trying to insinuate that the future of our democracies depends on you North Americans. We and we alone are responsible for our future. Moreover, I am convinced--although I'm not sure whether to be happy or sad about it--that when a Latin American nation chooses democracy it not only chooses freedom and the rule of law but the most extreme form of independence as well. This is because no other type of government receives less support from the West--or seems to have less "sex appeal" as far as the West's communications media and intellectual elites are concerned--than those regimes in the Third World that try to live by the ideals of freedom and pluralism which are the West's greatest contribution to the world. On the contrary, when it doesn't inspire indifference, that struggle for democracy in the poor countries usually inspires skepticism and disdain from those who should be its most enthusiastic supporters. But perhaps this isn't such a bad thing after all. Because if we Latin Americans do win the battle for freedom we can say we won it ourselves--against our enemies and despite our friends.

If we want democracy to take hold, our most urgent task is to widen it, give it substance and truth. Democracy is fragile because in so many countries it is superficial, a mere political framework in which institutions and political parties go about their business in traditionally arbitrary, bully-like ways.

Differences in degrees of democracy vary from country to country; it is impossible to generalize. An abyss separates Costa Rica's exemplary democracy from, for example, Mexico's doubtful one-party democracy with its institutionalized corruption, or Panama's democracy, where civilian authorities govern but the National Guard rules. In Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, democratic tendencies have permeated the armed forces as well as the extreme right and left, drawing these elements into the political process. In Guatemala, Uruguay and Ecuador, by contrast, the military still exercises a kind of guardianship or an aloof autonomy that limits the actions of the civilian government.

The separation of powers is in many cases a myth, like equality of opportunity. The fact that huge sectors of the economy are nationalized--and almost always deficit-producing--is a constant source of inflation, corruption and discrimination. And democratic governments are neither more nor less to blame than dictatorships for promoting demagogic nationalism, the major obstacle to regional integration and the reason for the senseless waste of money in weapons purchases. Freedom of the press usually degenerates into irresponsible defamation, the right to criticize into libel and insult.

I could go on and on with the catalogue of deficiencies, but what really matters is that our democracies not only survive but that they also criticize themselves and better themselves. Otherwise they will perish. No democracy is born perfect or ever gets to be perfect. Democracy's superiority over authoritarian regimes is that, unlike them, it is perfectible. And unlike dictatorships which simply weaken if they try to reform, democracies get stronger--they can change and regenerate.

Perhaps our hardest struggle will be against ourselves. Centuries of intolerance, of absolute truths, of despotic governments weigh us down. The tradition of absolute power began with our pre-Columbian empires. The tradition that "might makes right," brought by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers, was continued by our own caudillos and oligarchies, often with the blessing or direct intervention of foreign powers.

The belief that violence is the answer is not new, much less revolutionary, in Latin America--contrary to our messianic ideologues. What is truly original, truly revolutionary for Latin America is the other option. The one that gives a long overdue lesson to Latin America's privileged classes--for whom military dictatorships represent a guarantee of order--and to intellectual elites, who keep the myth of Marxist revolution alive even after history has shown its promises to be a lie.

The other option is the one the innumerable victims and the poor have spontaneously chosen and are defending. After traveling the hard road of suffering violence, these people have reached the conclusion that all other systems are worse; they cling to the democratic alternative as if it were a life-preserver in a storm.

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