LATIN AMERICA : The Little War That Imperils a Hemisphere

Michael Shifter is program director for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue and an adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University

The "spirit of Miami" has been dampened. It has given way to the "spirit of Tiwinza."

The spirit of Miami was born two months ago, when Ecuadoran President Sixto Duran Ballen and Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori joined the hemisphere's 32 other elected leaders in Miami for the Summit of the Americas, the first meeting of its kind in a generation. It was a celebration of sorts. Free trade, economic integration, democratic values and peaceful cooperation were enthusiastically embraced by all. The hemisphere had come a long way.

Six weeks later, Duran Ballen and Fujimori were ordering their armies into battle at a border conflict along the Condor mountain range. Tiwinza was the fiercely contested military post both countries claimed. It turned into the Dodge City of the Amazon River basin.

Three weeks after the fighting broke out, it is still unclear which side started it all, and for what reasons. Speculation about possible motives--political gain, national pride--abounds. It is tempting to treat the conflict frivolously, to joke about its many surreal aspects.

But this is no laughing matter. At least 50 Ecuadorans and Peruvians have been killed, more than 100 wounded. Thousands of civilians in the frontier have been displaced. Analysts estimate that each country paid millions of dollars a day for the war effort. Neither country could afford such an enormous cost.

This sort of conflict was not supposed to happen. It was senseless and retrogressive, conjuring up images of what many thought was a bygone era. Perhaps more troubling, however, was the inability of the four guarantor countries of the Rio Protocol of 1942 (which the two sides signed after their 1941 war)--the United States, Brazil, Argentina and Chile--and the Organization of American States to find a swift and peaceful resolution of the conflict. It took the guarantor states more than three weeks to get a settlement.

What is puzzling is that in the face of endless recriminations, continued skirmishes and mounting casualties, the inter-American community's response was slow, bordering on indifference. The conflict raised the fundamental principle of collective security--the keystone of the inter-American system. Yet, the system failed to deal with the fighting with sufficient vigor and sense of urgency.

The Ecuador-Peru conflict was overshadowed by the Mexico peso crisis, which erupted a week after the Miami summit. But its long-term consequences for regional integration and harmony may prove just as serious. It's a safe bet that militaries in other countries have been following developments along the Peru-Ecuador border--and the sluggish regional response--with great interest. For an institution like the military, which has been searching for a new raison d'etre in the context of Latin America's trend toward democratization and political cooperation, the Ecuador-Peru conflict could resuscitate its sagging fortunes and justify higher budgets.

This does not mean there will be a return to military governments in the region. What it does mean, however, is that in the delicate and often strained balance between civilian authorities and military officials, this will favor the latter. It will quiet the many democratic voices in Latin America who support a sharply reduced role for the military--appropriate for a new, post-Cold War era. It is a setback for the struggle to empower civilians and bring the military under their control.

Indeed, the senseless conflict underlines how fragile democratic institutions are in both countries. Ecuador (in 1979) and Peru (in 1980) were among the first in the region to move from military to civilian constitutional government.

Since this happy transition period began, there have been only two reversals in the hemisphere: Haiti, in September, 1991, and Peru, in April, 1992--when Fujimori closed down Congress and suspended the constitution. Lacking a party or movement, Fujimori has relied on the military for political support. Although Peru has had three elections since the "self-coup"--the fourth is the presidential contest scheduled for April 9--democratic institutions are shaky at best.

The political system in Ecuador has also been under severe strain. Many Ecuadorans have become disenchanted with a government that has promised much but delivered little. Political participation is limited, especially for indigenous groups, which, in Peru, make up roughly 40% of the country's population. Grumblings from the military have also been reported. That civilians remain in control should not be interpreted as unwavering military support for democratic rule. Conditions in both countries are not conducive to a peaceful settlement of disputes and misunderstandings.

Coming on the heels of the Mexico crisis, the Ecuador-Peru conflict contributes to a perception of Latin America in turmoil. It erodes investor confidence in the region. In 1994, Peru's growth rate was 12%, highest in the world. Foreign investment was also impressive. But the fighting created uncertainty and put the country's economic performance at some risk. Recently, for example, Southern Peru Copper Corp. had to withdraw a $215 million public offering because of a lack of interest. The conflict is also likely to put a chill on the Andean Pact, a trade group including Peru and Ecuador.

The fighting between Peru and Ecuador has tarnished democratic progress and economic advances the region has made in the past year. Vigorous leadership from the inter-American community was lacking. Until that is found, the glow of the Summit of the Americas will grow dimmer and dimmer.

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