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

March 29, 1987|Mario Vargas Llosa | Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist and social commentator. This article is adapted from his speech last weekend to the Trilateral Commission.

MUSTIQUE, WINDWARD ISLANDS — 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.

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