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Why Latin Democracies Are Waning

February 07, 1988|Charles William Maynes | Charles William Maynes is editor of Foreign Policy

WASHINGTON — Democracy in Latin America is again in trouble. In Haiti the army has slaughtered civilians attempting to exercise their right to vote. In Panama, Brig. Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, who heads a corrupt regime, has been indicted in U.S. courts on drug-dealing and racketeering charges.

In Honduras, right-wing death squads have renewed their activities. In El Salvador, the government has seized on provisions of the Arias plan to halt efforts to bring to justice army officers charged with participation in the murder, torture and kidnaping of government opponents.

Nor is the news better further south. In Argentina, the military launches repeated challenges against the civilian government of Raul Alfonsin, who survives but at the cost of crippling concessions. Last summer he was forced to grant amnesty to all but 50 officers charged with participating in the "dirty war" to eliminate all those sullying Argentine political purity as interpreted by the generals. Next door in Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet seems to be succeeding in his effort to outmaneuver the democratic opposition and preserve his repressive regime. In Ecuador in 1986, air force officers kidnaped the president to free a jailed colleague--who is now running for president.

Everywhere the grim effects of the debt crisis reduce prospects for democracy. In Mexico, the fiscal situation is so dire, even after the most recent rescue, that seasoned observers are beginning to worry that the vaunted Mexican arrangement for picking presidents may for the first time produce a winner unable to govern.

Collectively these developments are a stunning setback for the Reagan Administration, which felt so confident of the democratic trends in the Western Hemisphere that it proclaimed, in a major policy statement last March, that the recent democratic advances "could mark a watershed between a past of instability and authoritarianism and a future of greater freedom." The new optimism was critical to the Administration's effort to garner support for the President's overall foreign policy, the Reagan Doctrine. In the words of the 1987 report, "Support for democracy, the very essence of American society, is becoming the new organizing principle for American foreign policy." In his State of the Union speech President Reagan returned to this theme.

Why such a reversal in only a few months?

The main reason seems to be that the trend toward democratization was never as strong as the Administration contended. To be sure, a number of civilian governments did formally replace military dictatorships throughout the hemisphere. In 1976, roughly 75% of the people in the hemisphere outside Canada and the United States lived under military governments. By 1987, more than 90% lived under civilian governments.

But much of the transformation took place at the surface. What Americans saw as democracy was democratic formalism. Elections were held but some were fraudulent; when elections were fair, the individuals who won often did not have real power, which the military retained.

The problem is better understood by looking at Central America. The Administration correctly called attention to the anti-democratic character of Nicaragua's Sandinista leadership. But in its effort to isolate Managua, the Administration decided to try to prove Nicaragua's anti-democratic character was a regional aberration. It began to argue that democracy had taken root everywhere in Central America--except Nicaragua. It cited as evidence the election to office of relatively decent men in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

But essentially free elections, as important as they are, do not alone enable a country to become democratic. Those who win office by elections must then be given real power. And in all three countries this transfer of power never took place.

In El Salvador, Jose Napoleon Duarte, presumably out of fear, was forced to violate his pledge to his electors that he would name a commission to look into the death squads that had slaughtered tens of thousands of his countrymen. In Guatemala, Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo was compelled to violate a similar promise. He did not dare bring to justice officers who murdered tens of thousands of Indian peasants because those officers held the real political power. Now in Honduras a similar miscarriage of justice is taking place, if on a smaller scale. The government is blocking efforts to bring to justice military officers who helped plan the murder of the country's leading human-rights activist.

Yet North Americans should hesitate before criticizing Central American leaders. After all, consider the history of this country. How many in the South had the courage to speak out against the Klu Klux Klan when the law seemed powerless and the klan was able to control the politics of an entire region through lynchings and terror? It was only when principled individuals knew that the federal government would defend them against intimidation that they started to speak out.

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