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World View : Poverty's Shadow Haunting New Democracies : * Can you be too poor to be free? Recent data says yes. And the West may lack resources to keep freedom's torch burning.

February 25, 1992|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After 40 years of vigorously championing democracy with overt policy and covert action, the United States may soon face a tragic irony of history: At the very moment in 1992 that more than half the world's countries are considered democratic--a historic first--America and its Western allies do not have the resources that many observers believe will be needed to keep those democracies alive into the next century.

As a result, the trend toward democracy not only may have peaked but may soon be in for major setbacks.

"Will this wave continue? I tend to think that it's losing its force. I expect reversals, particularly among poorer countries," predicted Samuel P. Huntington, director of Harvard's Institute for Strategic Studies, in an interview.

Although some countries can prosper economically without democracy, democracy usually can't prosper, and therefore survive, without economic health, according to many U.S. analysts.

Poverty is "probably the principal obstacle to democratic development. The future of democracy depends on the future of economic development," Huntington claims in his recent book, "The Third Wave," which traces the patterns of democratic change.

The correlation between poverty and democracy is at least partially substantiated by recent global surveys. Among the 42 countries classified as poor by the World Bank in 1989, only two--India and Sri Lanka--were democracies. Conversely, of the 24 countries classified as high-income, all but three were democracies. The exceptions--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates--are all oil-rich welfare states.

The economic threat to poor democracies was visible in Venezuela's crisis earlier this month.

Since it ended military rule in 1958, Venezuela has become one of Latin America's oldest and most stable democracies. But its economy has deteriorated rapidly over the past three years, largely because of the plummeting price of oil, from which Caracas earns more than 80% of both its tax revenues and its foreign exchange. Over that period, middle-class income is estimated to have dropped by 30%. And the government recently acknowledged that more than 40% of the 20 million inhabitants can now afford only one meal a day.

The setbacks have forced President Carlos Andres Perez to introduce austerity measures, including an end to food subsidies. The first steps in 1989 triggered food riots, in which 300 people were killed. At the end of 1991, growing public frustration triggered a three-month wave of protests, labor unrest and violent strikes, in which 10 died and more than 100 were injured, as well as the cancellation of the school year.

The crisis reached the breaking point on Feb. 4, when a band of military officers surrounded the presidential palace in Caracas and tried to seize government facilities in several major cities. Col. Francisco Arias, one of the coup leaders, announced that the rebels were seeking to install "a junta of national reconstruction" to deal with Venezuela's escalating economic crisis and the growing disparity between rich and poor.

The coup failed. But the attempt left 70 dead and a nation shaken. Within hours, Venezuela's Congress voted to temporarily suspend constitutional guarantees and later introduced press censorship. Subsequent informal polls have indicated significant public support for the attempted coup's goals.

Yet, in economic terms, Venezuela is still one of the more prosperous developing countries. Dozens of democratizing nations face graver challenges.

"Despite the vast opportunities created by the technological revolutions of the 20th Century, more than 1 billion people, one-fifth of the world's population, live on less than one dollar a day--a standard of living that Western Europe and the United States attained 200 years ago," the World Bank has reported.

And for many new democracies or societies now aspiring to democratic change, the World Bank prognosis for the future is far from promising. "For many of the world's poorest countries, decades of rapid growth will be needed to make inroads on poverty," it has said.

Further exacerbating economic problems is the high birthrate in many new democracies--adding demands for education, health and social services, and housing that impoverished nations are unable to provide their current populations.

The World Bank also predicts that almost 95% of the increase in the world's labor force over the next 25 years will occur in the developing world, which lacks the jobs to employ the new workers. The result is likely to be widespread discontent and social unrest.

Meanwhile, the United States, the world's largest debtor nation with its own recession problems, has limited resources with which to assist the new democracies it helped promote in the former East Bloc, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Western Europe is hard pressed to find sufficient funds just to bail out Eastern Europe. And Japan, now the world's largest aid donor, is a small country.

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