Many Goals Still Unfulfilled : Latin Democratic Rebirth Is Slow, Painful Process

Times Staff Writers

When the people of Chile voted this month to reject an extension of rule by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, they chose an uncertain path leading back into the Latin American community of democracies.

It has not been an entirely comfortable community for the countries that preceded Chile. The region’s democratic renaissance, now nearly a decade old, is taking place slowly and painfully. Its elusive goals of economic well-being and political liberty are not likely to be fully realized at any time soon.

Early in the 1980s, as military dictatorship yielded to elected civilian government in country after country, democracy’s promise was bright and bold. Now, looking toward the 1990s, Latin Americans are recognizing that ballots alone do not end exploitation, poverty, foreign debt, inflation, inefficiency, corruption and armed rebellion.

So far, however, those enduring problems have not reversed the regional process of democratic consolidation. While Chile prepares to return to democracy, other Latin countries are reaffirming democratic principles by returning to the polls.


Within two years, a series of elections will have renewed the leadership in most of the region’s civilian governments. And in democracy’s periodic way, the flurry of balloting will offer respite from frustration over the failures of outgoing administrations. It will give rise to hopes that new administrations, having learned the lessons of previous errors, may do better. It also will provide an alternative to the military coup as a vehicle for government change.

An exception to the time-worn regional pattern of military competition for national leadership is Mexico, where a broad-based party emerged six decades ago as a “dictator” to consolidate basic changes in outmoded political and social systems begun by that country’s 1910 revolution.

After serious student disturbances in 1968, some halting steps were taken to relax the grip exercised by the Institutional Revolutionary Party on Mexico’s civic life. This year the PRI, as it is popularly called, was almost overwhelmed by a democratic renaissance.

The PRI is still in power after July’s elections confronted it with the most serious challenge of its history, but citizens at all points of the political compass agree that single-party dictatorship is at an end in Mexico.


Evolution Encouraged

The Reagan Administration has encouraged the evolution away from military regimes in Latin America and has claimed some of the credit for the shift toward democratic governments. But its spokesmen have acknowledged that most of the region’s democratic gains are “unconsolidated and in danger.”

Democracy’s fragility was demonstrated in Haiti, where a military coup overthrew the civilian government of President Leslie F. Manigat in June and where dissident military men toppled the June crowd in September. An election in January that put Manigat in office was tainted, but it was Haiti’s first electoral change of government since the late dictator Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier took power in 1957.

Haiti’s June coup was the first open military seizure of power from a civilian government in the region since 1980. But in some other countries, attempts at democracy have faltered without a coup.

The civilian government of Honduras is so dominated by the military that it cannot be called a full democracy. It is too early to tell whether elections in November, 1989, will strengthen the role of elected leadership. The vote would mark the third presidential contest since the armed forces gave nominal power to civilians in 1981.

Behind the Facade

At the southern edge of Central America, Panama has the closest thing to a traditional military dictatorship in that area. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega rules behind the facade of a civilian government, and if the past is a reliable guide, presidential elections next May are unlikely to restore full democracy.

In Nicaragua, the Marxist-oriented Sandinista government has cracked down on the opposition since peace talks with the Contras collapsed in June. The Sandinistas’ proclaimed commitment to free elections will be tested in November, 1990.


El Salvador and Guatemala are the best examples in Central America of transition from dictatorship to democracy, but the armed forces still exercise great power behind the scenes. Presidents Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador and Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo of Guatemala, both elected Christian Democrats, have struggled to forge a democratic center between the military and leftist guerrillas.

Cerezo is halfway through a five-year term as an elected civilian leader--rare in a modern history of mostly military presidents, elected and otherwise. He survived an attempted coup in May that underscored his need to treat Guatemala’s army tactfully. In El Salvador, the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance, commonly known as Arena, is favored to win scheduled presidential elections in March, raising a threat of further polarization in that violently divided country.

Durable Strongholds

Despite its general shakiness, democracy in Latin America has its durable strongholds. Costa Rica, Central America’s bastion of democracy, has registered 40 uninterrupted years of peaceful civilian rule. In the Caribbean region, the Dominican Republic has had elected civilian governments for more than two decades. And in northern South America, Colombia and Venezuela are the democratic pacesetters.

Colombia’s tradition of elected civilian governments dates from the middle of the last century, and in this century has been interrupted only once (1953-57) by military rule. With a relatively sound economy and controlled inflation, Colombian democracy endures in a hostile climate of political murders, guerrilla warfare and powerful drug-trafficking rings, although there is growing discontent over dominance by the country’s two main parties.

Venezuela, with an unrelieved history of military dictatorships until 1958, now has three decades of democracy behind it. But as it heads for presidential elections in December, its two-party system also is showing signs of strain. Political machines, rife with corruption and patronage, distribute the fruits of power. With disaffection widespread, social scientist Jose Antonio Gil Yepes said, “democracy has been losing legitimacy.”

Making Up Lost Time

In many newer Latin democracies, repeated coups and years of intermittent military rule have retarded the growth of stable democratic institutions. Elected governments have struggled to make up for lost time.


“We are in elementary school in terms of the level of political discussion,” said Mario Brodersohn, Argentina’s treasury minister. “Under military rule, we didn’t have much democratic discussion on the issues, and there was little chance to develop political leaders.”

Despite several outbursts of military unrest since the Argentine armed forces handed power to elected President Raul Alfonsin in December, 1983, few people now worry about a coup in Argentina anytime soon. The first normal transition from one elected leader to another in 60 years is expected after elections scheduled for next May.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, also will hold presidential elections in May. As elsewhere, economic problems are the central issue. President Victor Paz Estenssoro imposed a tough austerity program to halt hyper-inflation in 1985, but the social cost in both unemployment and shrunken wages has stirred worrisome social unrest.

Uruguay Making Strides

Quietly but steadily, tiny Uruguay has made strides toward economic and political stability since 12 years of military rule ended in March, 1985, with the inauguration of President Julio Sanguinetti. There is every likelihood of a smooth transition of power when Sanguinetti’s term ends in March, 1990.

South American democracy is under the greatest strain in Peru. Populist President Alan Garcia, elected with a strong majority in 1985, was obliged to deny last month that he will resign before his term ends in July, 1990. Coup rumors are strong.

Warfare with leftist guerrillas has left 12,000 Peruvians dead since the return of democratic rule in 1980 and has further weakened the central government’s always tenuous control over the Andean interior. Inflation surged to a monthly rate of 114% in September as Garcia adopted severe corrective measures.

Such political and economic nightmares were potent ammunition for Chile’s Pinochet in arguing that his nation should maintain the status quo. However, with his defeat in the Oct. 5 presidential plebiscite, Chile is scheduled to hold competitive presidential elections in late 1989, the first since 1970.

The Last Strongman

The election of a civilian in Chile would leave Paraguay’s Gen. Alfredo Stroessner as the last military strongman in South America. Stroessner won controlled presidential elections in February, and few believe that he will surrender the power he has held since 1954.

In the face of Latin America’s intractable problems, populism can become an attractive option. But Ecuador’s voters, in their third election since military rule ended in 1979, rejected a fiery populist whose proposals included a “shoe bank.” Conventional center-left candidate Rodrigo Borja easily defeated populist Abdala Bucaram in the May ballot. Borja’s inauguration in August became a kind of celebration by Latin America’s elected presidents of the region’s democratic advances over the last decade.

While Ecuador was the first South American country to switch from military rule to democracy in the last decade, Brazil is still in the process of switching. The armed forces turned power over to a civilian government in 1985, but presidential elections scheduled for November, 1989, will be Brazil’s first since 1960.

How democracy fares in South America’s biggest country will influence the future of freedom around the continent, said Helio Jaguaribe, a noted Brazilian sociologist. And Jaguaribe warned that if inflation is not brought under control there soon, it could generate “enormous social and economic chaos” and “put institutional stability at risk.”

Dramatic and painful economic programs adopted in Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and elsewhere may reflect a kind of third phase in the democratic evolution of the region. After the euphoria of unseating military governments and reclaiming political freedoms came widespread discontent when day-to-day life didn’t improve. Now, many countries share a recognition that to achieve economic well-being, sacrifices will have to be profound and prolonged.