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Messy Fight for Democracy

July 04, 2003

Argentines, Peruvians, Guatemalans and Colombians, the polls show, have grown weary of free-market economics and democracy. Indeed, across Latin America, the consensus seems to be that our neighbors think they're chasing an impossible dream -- societies with American freedom and prosperity and European social consciousness, with egalitarianism and concern for the poor.

What disheartens so many after decades of progress? After tossing away dictators, juntas and single-party rule starting in the 1970s, Latin Americans in the '80s embraced democracy. Then they learned they also had to swallow bitter economic reform. In the '90s, they imposed fiscal discipline on their governments, tried to fix their tax systems, privatized state enterprises and adopted free trade practices. Despite this progressive and unevenly applied zeal, the reformers from Mexico south couldn't instantly reverse history or quell rising expectations. And now, many Latins blame "neo-liberalism" for failing to bring them justice, equity and more economic and social development.

Corruption, crime and poverty also take their toll. In 2001, 90% of those polled in Latin America said they considered corruption widespread and growing. A year later, 80% of those asked called it rampant and said neither democratic rule nor free market economies could get rid of it.

Meantime, with the global economy in the doldrums, especially in the U.S. and Asia, Latin America's development has been stymied. This has swelled the formidable ranks of the Latin poor. It also caused social order to decay. In Caracas, San Salvador, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Bogota and Buenos Aires, officials can't stop criminal organizations that rob, kidnap, injure and kill their citizens. Crime creates such havoc that 50% of those in one poll said they would prefer an authoritarian regime to democracy, if a strongman could curb street violence and boost the economy.

As Americans today mark more than two centuries of independence and a challenging and progressive democracy, it's unfair for Latin Americans to simply look north with beseeching envy or despair. The hemispheric experience shows democracy is messy and is best when home-grown. It requires diligence, vigilance and hard work. And if Latin America needs reminding -- besides from El Norte -- that it works, consider Chile.

Chileans have stayed the dual course, pursuing economic and democratic reform. They have attained strong growth, while also putting in place sound social programs. This has slashed their poverty rate by half in just 11 years. Chileans also have bettered their health, nutrition and education. They have more people working and they're making more; women have vastly improved their lot. Such achievements are worth a redoubled effort to replicate them across the Americas.

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