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Democracies in Latin America

April 20, 1987

Mario Vargas Llosa is to be credited for his optimistic and thorough review of the emerging democracies in Latin America (Opinion, March 31), "The Latin Rhythms of Democracy." The only caution I must add is that "democracy," as most North Americans envision it, is very different from the democracy currently in power in Latin America.

Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines democracy as "a rule of the majority," and an "absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges." North Americans may be in general accord, and recognize these characteristics in their own government; however, Latin American "democracies" by no means incorporate these principles.

The "majority" in most Latin American countries is the working class or peasant, and I dare say that even in the most developed Latin American democracies, this sector of the population does not rule; and certainly the class distinctions are as marked as ever.

It is important to recognize, also, that Latin American "democracies" have failed the people repeatedly. The Christian Democrat government of Eduardo Frei in Chile (1964-1970) is a good example. At the end of its term, it emerged as a lukewarm, stagnant and cowardly reign. It kept the peasant population in poverty while implementing token and ineffective agrarian reform and industry nationalization. To flee from the Frei government, the Chilean people voluntarily voted in a Marxist president (Salvadore Allende). Latin American democracy has most often surfaced as a lukewarm route and simply a more palatable alternative to military dictatorship.

It is dangerous to think that reform is unnecessary in Latin America and dismiss reports of extreme poverty and political repression as exaggerations. Political reform is needed badly in these countries--even those calling themselves democratic. The ever-present revolutionary uprisings attest to this; insurgencies are a symptom of dissatisfaction with these pseudo-democracies and evidence of their ineffectiveness. Revolution is not less popular in Latin America today, as Vargas Llosa asserts. On the contrary, given the tepidity of the ruling democracies and the continued injustice of the military dictatorships, it is inevitable and justified.

CAROLINE ABDALA

Hacienda Heights

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