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The Flip Side of Democracy : Twice in a Month, Latins Vote No on Pet U.S. Proposals

May 03, 1987|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda, a graduate professor of political science at the National University of Mexico, is currently a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington

The main effect of the popular response to the rumblings of military unrest in Argentina was to drastically reduce the possibilities of a coup. But there are many other less visible, more profound consequences emerging from the ongoing process of democratization in Latin America. One of the least-expected is the growing firmness on the part of those new governments in their dealings with the United States. Two incidents--perhaps confrontations is not too strong a word--in recent weeks were notable in demonstrating that democracy in Latin America and Administration policy in Washington do not mix.

The first Latin rejection of U.S. entreaties, pressure and heavy-handedness came over a traditionally contentious issue in hemispheric affairs: Cuba.

Every year the United Nations Commission on Human Rights meets in Geneva. With regard to Latin America, the commission has traditionally condemned those regimes infamous for their massive violations of human rights--in recent years, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua before the fall of Somoza, and so on. After the United States' persistent complaints that only pro-American regimes were criticized, the commission took up the situation in Afghanistan, and after receiving a detailed report on flagrant human-rights violations in that country, voted a severe and well-deserved condemnation of its government.

But the ideologues in the U.S. delegation to the United Nations and in the human-rights section of the State Department were not satisfied. And so this year they decided to make an example of Cuba, where, according to them, there are widespread and constant violations of human rights. Gen. Vernon Walters, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, took the Administration's case to Geneva himself; the NATO allies were asked for support, and the Latin American members were subjected to diverse and intense means of persuasion.

Of the eight Latin countries on the commission, six--Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela--voted against taking up the issue of human-rights violations in Cuba; one--Brazil--abstained, and only one--Costa Rica--voted with the United States. The resolution was procedurally defeated by only one vote, since all the Western European nations sided with the Reagan Administration. But the political defeat that the United States suffered was of far greater import: On a distinctly hemispheric matter, the United States could not garner the support of a single major Latin nation. The days when the Colossus of the North was able to convince every Latin government but one to break diplomatic relations with Cuba seemed farther removed than ever in Geneva a month ago.

So did classical Latin American submission to the United States' wishes on regional economic matters. In early April, after a lengthy and fruitless search for a compromise, the four most important Latin economies rejected a not entirely honorable American proposal to change the Inter-American Development Bank's voting procedures.

That institution has been lending money to every Latin American country in moderate amounts and under flexible conditions for nearly 30 years. More important, it has always been a truly Latin agency, run by Latin Americans for Latin Americans. As might have been expected, the Reagan Administration set out to change this state of affairs.

The bank's decisions are taken by majority vote. The United States and Canada together control 35% of the votes, the largest voting bloc, but not enough to veto major decisions. Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III, thinking that the dollar still goes a long way, at least south of the Rio Grande, proposed that in exchange for a $9.1-billion U.S. contribution to the bank's capital replenishment over four years, the bank's decisions should require a two-thirds majority--which would give the United States a veto or "blocking third."

The offer was tempting. It would have effectively doubled the development bank's lending level to nearly $6 billion per year. But the intentions behind the offer were less than altruistic: The Reagan Administration wants the bank to begin attaching more severe and "structural" conditionality to its loans, in a fashion similar to World Bank policy.

The Latin nations saw Baker's offer as a mordida, or bribe, and rejected it in a decision that surprised many observers and perhaps a few of the Latin American financial officials themselves. They opted for "keeping a small bank which is ours instead of a large one which is run by the United States," even if it meant putting the replenishment of loan capital in danger.

Conservative Reaganite officials have often said that the democratization of many Latin American nations enhances relations with the United States--and presumably with this Administration. But many Latin American analysts have long believed that the more democratic a nation is, the stronger its resolve in resisting U.S. pressures and intimidation. The proof, in the form of two rebuffs to Washington within one month, should demonstrate that the United States' misconceptions about its neighbors to the south are as skewed as ever.

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