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Latin America Losing Faith in Democracy

Times Staff Writer

Frustrated by a lack of economic progress under the democratic regimes that rule them, a majority of Latin Americans would support an authoritarian government if it bettered their lives, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday.

The study by the United Nations Development Program also found that most government leaders in the region felt they were slowly losing the ability to shape policy in their own countries because of the increasing influence of the United States and international lending institutions.

The three-year study was based on a survey of 18,600 people and interviews with political leaders in 18 countries, including most of the current and former presidents.

The survey found support for authoritarian rule strongest among the poor -- a troubling finding, given that a majority of people in the region live in poverty. About 55% of those polled said they would support an authoritarian government if it resolved their economic problems, while 56% said economic development was more important than democracy.

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“The solution to Latin America’s ills does not lie in a return to authoritarianism,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a videotaped message responding to the report’s findings, which were released in Lima, Peru. “It lies in a stronger and deeper-rooted democracy.”

Of the 18 countries surveyed -- which include all the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of the region except Cuba -- only three were democracies 25 years ago. Back then, most were ruled by military officers who had deposed weak, democratically elected leaders in the name of order and progress.

Today, the survey found, basic democratic practices and rights are firmly established in the region. Most Latin Americans are registered to vote, and a vast majority cast ballots in local and national elections.

Of 70 national elections between 1990 and 2002, there were charges of vote-rigging and other irregularities in 13. Only in two did the international community question the outcome -- in the Dominican Republic in 1994 and Peru in 2000.

But the relative health of the formal institutions of democracy belies an underlying malaise, the report said.

Across the region, 7% of Latin Americans surveyed said they had been “pressured” to vote for a certain candidate or had in effect sold their votes in the most recent presidential election in their country. The highest degree of such electoral fraud was in Brazil (13%), followed by Venezuela and Mexico (12%).

And 31% of those polled said they knew of someone who had received “privileges” -- typically a government job or handout -- thanks to connections with the political party in power.

“Political institutions which have lost credibility, and the persistence of poverty and discrimination together have created a situation which makes these democracies vulnerable,” the report said.

Across Latin America, corruption, poverty and economic crises have fed social unrest.

Militant Aymara and Quechua Indians, the impoverished majority in Bolivia, in recent months took over police stations in dozens of villages, chasing out local officials. In recent days, rumors of a military coup have swept through the country.

In Argentina, the federal government this month removed the democratically elected governor of Santiago del Estero province in the wake of a murder scandal that exposed what federal officials said was the “systematic violation” of the rule of law by local officials there.

In the Dominican Republic, a banking scandal and economic crisis set off violent protests in January in which several people were killed. President Hipolito Mejia has come under fire from members of his party who say his victory in the primary election was tainted by fraud.

Elsewhere, national leaders elected amid great hopes of reform and social change have become widely unpopular.

In Peru, the government of President Alejandro Toledo -- who replaced the authoritarian Alberto Fujimori in 2001-- has struggled to remain in power. Some recent surveys put Toledo’s approval rating at 8%.

Since 2000, protests have forced four presidents in the 18 countries surveyed to resign before the end of their terms.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is facing a massive recall effort organized largely by the middle class and unions, which charge him with bending the country’s democratic institutions -- including the Supreme Court -- to his will.

Most of the respondents in the survey said they were willing to put up with some corruption in exchange for economic growth. But, for the most part, democratic government has not brought about the greater affluence and social mobility Latin Americans hoped for, the report said.

About half of the leaders interviewed for the study said the pressure of the United States, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other institutions kept them from addressing the needs of the poor.

As the “lender of last resort” to the developing world, the IMF is especially influential.

IMF officials oblige Latin American governments to adopt fiscal austerity plans and often require countries to pass laws to improve the business climate, a model developed a generation ago by conservative U.S. thinkers.

“Economic policy is not determined democratically,” said a leader quoted anonymously in the report. “There is a set of rules everyone in the region must follow.... If you don’t, you do so at your own peril.”


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