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Latin American Decade: Debt, Drugs And Democracy

August 30, 1987|William D. Montalbano | William D. Montalbano has completed three years as The Times bureau chief in Buenos Aires and is now bureau chief in Rome

BUENOS AIRES — Carlina Sosa's dream house in the raw workers' suburb of Moreno, overflowing one recent Sunday afternoon with relatives celebrating a family birthday, has two rooms and a new fence to keep the thieves out and the chickens in. Water comes from a hand pump, but there is electricity for a color television that dominates the postage-stamp bedroom.

For more than 20 years Carlina Sosa worked as a cook in a rich man's house here in the Argentine capital. Alone, she raised a daughter, the product of teen-age indiscretion, in her tiny room behind the kitchen. Savings, accumulated a few pesos at a time, allowed the purchase of a narrow strip of land along a dirt track in what had been a pasture. Then, on a historic weekend years later, came the prefabricated wooden house.

"Next we will build another room at the front. One step at a time," she said over an oven warm with crisp meat pies.

Carlina Sosa is making it. There are uncounted millions like her in the South American vastness today.

Their triumph, and their tragedy, is that they must swim against the tide in nations that seem as mired as ever in backwardness and instability. In one country after another, minor-chord achievements are drowned out by national economic and social cacophony that threaten important political gains.

For South America, this has been the Decade of Democracy. From the Andes to the Pampas, South American nations have exchanged dictatorship for elected government. That much of the continent's long-standing but elusive dream of joining the First World has been achieved--at least momentarily. Only two dictatorships survive among the continent's 10 Latin republics.

Despite the political gains, however, First World economic aspirations are undercut by crushing Third World realities. The realities are as old as societies of authoritarian tradition built on unequal, inefficient social and economic structures. They are as relatively new as the bloated populations and the pell-mell urbanization that has stalked virtually every major city since World War II.

To such daunting impediments to modernization, add a 1980s' agenda of fresh crises in the form of unpayable foreign debt and corrupting drugs. Their sum, stoked by boundless popular expectation amid savagely finite resources, bedevils forward-looking civilian governments today in one country after another.

South Americans are often bemused when strangers dwell on their countries' "rich potential."

As seen from the hot seats of power, the problems threatening to unravel hard-won progress seem even richer. It would take a rare optimist to imagine that South America's climb from poverty to suburban sufficiency would be as successful as Carlina Sosa's.

Perilous paradox swims in the democratic tide: In almost every country, the majority is relatively poorer precisely at the moment when it is also freer than at any time in a generation.

Middle-class countries like Argentina and Uruguay battle legacies of stagnation, inflation and inept government to climb back to income levels first reached two or three decades ago.

Politically progressive and economically diverse Colombia reels from simultaneous challenges: abject poverty, the continent's largest, most tenacious guerrilla movements and rampant drug barons. Venezuela glumly recognizes that oil wealth is not enough to bridge a sapping gap between rich and poor.

In Ecuador and Chile, untrammeled free market economics have helped fuel political polarization without, critics insist, easing conditions for the poor majority. In Paraguay, bust has followed boom without shaking the grip of the hemisphere's most enduring dictator.

Bolivia, poorest of the South American republics, staggers from crisis to crisis despite painful but astonishing progress in controlling inflation. Peru increasingly looks ungovernable; endemic social hardships are compounded by an ominous Maoist insurgency thus far impervious to counterattack by an impetuous young populist president, Alan Garcia.

Mighty Brazil, certainly the continent's best next-century hope of a developed nation governing itself democratically, is today, as scholars like to note, really many different countries. South-Central Brazil, around the dynamic magnet of Sao Paulo, is like Belgium. The cruel Brazilian Northeast, rife with squalor and despair, is like India.

Almost everywhere, democracy is still on trial. Entrenched Paraguayan and Chilean strongmen routinely clobber democratic foes.

An extraordinary harvest of elected civilians announce political values that North Americans enjoy themselves and wish for others. Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela are led by civilians who espouse social reforms of the sort that John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress once sought to promote.

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