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Latin America's Destiny: Forever Linked to Despots?

February 12, 1989|Cecilia Rodriguez | Cecilia Rodriguez is a correspondent for El Tiempo of Bogota

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — In his inaugural address, George Bush spoke of a new breeze blowing freedom through countries around the world. If the new President believes the breeze is sweeping south of the border, he'd better have his windsock adjusted. Once again, in a cycle that seems as eternal as the weather, Latin America is under siege.

The winds of change have dislodged two dictators from power: Gen. Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay in a bloody coup, the same way he came to the palace 34 years ago, and Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile's iron man who surprised the world by vowing to abide by the people's will as expressed in last fall's elections.

But as in so many aspects of Latin life, things are not what they seem. The economic crises gripping virtually every Latin nation devour governments like a cancer, and none are in poorer health than the fragile and fledgling democracies. Coups d'etat, populists and leftist parties appear as alternatives to disillusioned peoples.

The ghost of tyranny, an ancient inhabitant, hangs over the continent. As Stroessner and Pinochet fade from sight, the phantom smiles, for he knows there are others waiting in the wings.

Although dictatorships have blossomed throughout time and continents, Latin America is unique. Here, despotism seems to be inseparable from destiny.

This tendency finds its source in the Latin "race," an unlikely mixed breed. We are the descendants of the Spanish buscadores de oro, seekers of gold, men more interested in greed and adventure than in respect for law, order and good governance.

Yet we are also the descendants of Indians who had the misfortune to mistake those gold-starved adventurers as the gods for whom they had waited for generations. The Indians often welcomed the conquistadores , who promptly took advantage of the natives' passivity to ravage their lands and civilization.

Finally, we are descendants also of African blacks, ripped by force from their continent and transplanted to a New World just as their culture was maturing.

Our legacy also includes a fading social structure that was sweeping Spain at the time--one that was passed intact to its latest conquest.

Out of such an explosive mixture surged leaders ready to accede to the temptation of autocracy, and a people ready to accept the extraordinary notion that a single individual could shape the destiny of millions through the sheer force of his will.

But while they form a species without parallel in Western civilization, all Latin tyrants are not alike. There are, for example, the hundreds of second-class dictators whose names died with them, men who were links in a chain that formed the institution of dictatorship in any given country.

Then there are the others, the ones for whom the expression Latin dictator was truly created--men like Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic in the 1930s, the Duvaliers of Haiti and the Somozas of Nicaragua through the 1980s. Those surrealistic personalities, with their abuses and extravagances, are interchangeable with the mythical protagonists of Latin novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Autumn of the Patriarch."

A real dictator fulfills his imagined destiny by believing he holds absolute power. He is omnipotent, protected by supernatural forces. His power, he believes, grants him divinity.

From any normal person, rantings of omnipotence would guarantee institutionalization. In these men, megalomania is a character strength.

"God put me on the top," Pinochet once said. "There is not a single leaf in this country that I do not move."

Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, El Salvador's ruler in the 1930s, once told the country's archbishop, as the cleric pleaded for an end to the massacre of rebel peasants, that he and he alone was El Salvador's God.

In his autobiography, Trujillo told his readers that he had the power to stop hurricanes. In the high Andes of Bolivia, Mariano Melgarejo told his people that "God chose me to walkamong mortals, but to be more lasting than time."

Viewing themselves as divine envoys, these dictators never make mistakes. "Me or chaos," Pinochet was fond of repeating. In a campaign pamphlet before last fall's election, he asked: "Which way are you going?" It was illustrated by two paths. One, to Pinochet's reelection, led through verdant countryside, past a lake to a sunny rainbow. The other, to his defeat, pictured a bleak desert full of snakes, serpents, bats and snarling skeletons.

The conviction of their own perfection among these men authorizes them to do what they like, to do what is necessary to maintain power. Ecuador's Gabriel Garcia Moreno began his reign in the 1860s with a simple declaration: "My enemies must murder me. So instead, I will exterminate them all."

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