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Regional Outlook : Forget Communism; Now, Corruption 'Excuses' Coups : In Latin America, the current mania for reform is a sign of democracy--and a threat to it.


CARACAS, Venezuela — It used to be the threat of communism that provided the cover for Latin American coups and dictatorships. If some army officer or civilian plutocrat could label opponents as Marxist-Leninist it justified almost anything, including the overthrow of elected governments.

Now, there's a new label, a new justification for attacking government institutions, even democratic ones. From Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande, for good and bad, the watchword is now corruption.

Sitting and former presidents have been thrown out of office or stand accused of corruption in Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Panama and Bolivia. In Guatemala and Peru, leaders have justified the suspension of democratic institutions in the name of combatting corruption.

The growing attention focused on official conduct is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, long-dominated or timid legislatures are showing independence and accountability, while courts and public officials are beginning to act on behalf of the law and the citizenry.

On the other, the demagogic use of corruption charges by ambitious politicians, would-be despotic presidents and entrenched business interests threatens to create instability and actually thwart the will of the electorate.

There can be no questioning that corruption has mocked and retarded Latin American democracy. Nor can there be any question that the current wave of anti-corruption efforts has major, positive elements in strengthening democracy and its institutions.

So it sounds good--fighting corruption in a region of the world marked throughout its history by some of the sorriest examples of government and ruling class thievery and abuse of power.

"There is a general approval of the idea of cleaning up politics," Alexandre Barros, a Brazilian political expert, said in a telephone interview. "I think the overall mood is, 'Gee, we are getting back to law and order.' "

For Richard Millet, a scholar at the University of Miami's North-South Center, the anti-corruption movement is the sign of a maturing democratic commitment and the end of an era of centralized, presidential rule.

"Finally, we are getting elected congresses acting as a limit to presidential abuse," he said. "It also shows a surprising degree of judicial independence . . . and the reversal of the attitude whereby no one ever questioned the right of a president to steal."

Yet, as in the fight against communism, the flag of corruption is increasingly being waved as an excuse to weaken, even destroy, the very system the reformers are supposed to be protecting.

"When Congress and the courts don't cooperate," Millet said, "it is obvious that some people will use corruption as an excuse for doing away with democracy.

"There is no question that anti-corruption can backfire against democracy."

That is exactly what happened last week when the elected president of Guatemala, Jorge Serrano, suspended the constitution, dissolved Congress, closed the courts, imposed media censorship, ordered the house arrests of political foes and began ruling by decree--all in the name of fighting corruption.

He acted, Serrano said in a nationwide television address, "to purge the state of all its forms of corruption with which you and I are totally fed up."

He spoke particularly about legislative and judicial corruption impeding the ability of his government and military and security forces to fight drug trafficking.

"That is particularly ironic," said a European diplomat who recently served in Guatemala, "since the centers of corruption, particularly drug corruption, are the military and security forces."

Another strange twist in the Guatemala situation is the charge by Serrano's opponents that his real motive for taking dictatorial power was to offset impending congressional charges of his own "scandalous illicit enrichment."

Serrano, a right-wing businessman with strong ties to Guatemala's brutal and politicized military, followed the model built in April, 1992, in Peru by Alberto Fujimori.

After winning election as president, Fujimori charged a recalcitrant Congress and judiciary with corruption and obstructionism. With military support, Fujimori shut down Peru's democratic institutions.

In an interview with The Times two months before Guatemala's strikingly similar autogolpe, as Latin Americans call the assumption of autocratic power by a president, Fujimori speculated that other countries would follow his lead.

"There are three evils that affect many countries in the world, that affect the people directly," he said. "They are corruption, violence and inefficiency of the state apparatus.. . .

"And these evils, paradoxically, are covered up by what is called democracy. Today I believe that wherever that kind of problem may exist, options that are not the traditional ones can happen."

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