By John Lancaster
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2000; Page A21
For much of Latin America, the story of the past decade has been the
story of democratization. But recent developments--this month's
semi-coup in Ecuador, the 1998 election of an authoritarian leader in
Venezuela, escalating guerrilla warfare in Colombia--are causing concern
in Washington that the momentum may be shifting.
Popular fury over Ecuador's disastrous economic policies culminated
earlier this month in the decidedly undemocratic ouster of the country's
elected president, Jamil Mahuad, who ceded power to his vice president
after Indian protesters backed by the military briefly occupied the
Mahuad's ouster highlights the depth of popular frustration in Latin
America toward elected governments under siege from corruption, income
inequality and narcotics trafficking. Failure to bring these problems under
control, U.S. officials fear, could discredit Washington's efforts to promote
democracy and free trade in a region that until recently had little experience
"It doesn't take a clairvoyant to predict that democracy will wane in the
face of economic privation," Peter F. Romero, acting assistant secretary of
state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told an audience in Miami last
month. "The region's outstanding record of democratization since the apex
of military rule some 20 years ago cannot be taken for granted."
Already there are signs of a backlash. Little more than a year ago, for
example, Venezuelans elected as president Hugo Chavez, a left-leaning
populist and former army colonel who was jailed for leading an
unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992. Chavez recently persuaded voters to
approve a new constitution that concentrates power in the executive and
increases state control of the economy.
In Paraguay, meanwhile, gunmen believed to be associated with a
renegade ex-general and onetime coup plotter last March assassinated the
country's vice president; a senior administration official recently said he
"would not be surprised" if Paraguay's fragile democracy succumbs to the
same kind of unrest that unseated Mahuad.
"What you have is growing popular discontent, massive social or popular
movements that just have become so dissatisfied that they threaten or
challenge the civilian authorities," said Eric Olson, of the nonprofit
Washington Office on Latin America. "The risk here is that by merely
reestablishing a constitutional order and not dealing with the underlying
problems that brought about this crisis, democracy is under threat in Latin
Few predict a return to the military dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s.
And administration officials say they regard Ecuador as something of an
anomaly: In contrast to many of its neighbors, the country has failed to
embrace structural economic reforms, creating conditions so dire that
Mahuad recently proposed replacing Ecuador's inflation-ravaged currency
with the U.S. dollar.
"It was such a basket case," said a senior official who closely follows
region. "What happened in Ecuador will not happen in Argentina, or
Colombia for that matter."
The official added, "There is a danger that if people don't see the fruits
free trade and economic reform . . . the free trade economic model will be
discredited. But so far what's surprising is that people are maintaining the
As evidence, the official pointed to Chile, where former dissident Ricardo
Lagos earlier this month was elected president on a center-left platform in
the midst of the country's worst recession since the return of democracy in
1990. "They didn't go for the Communist Party, nor did they go for the
reassuring right-wing populist," the official said. "Those who say are we
seeing a trend toward the populism of Chavez, toward authoritarianism--it
really hasn't been proven to be the case."
As administration officials are fond of pointing out, all 35 members of
Organization of American States (OAS) except one--Cuba, whose
government has been excluded from OAS participation since 1962--are
now governed by elected leaders. "The ballot box, and not the bullet, is
now the accepted path to office," then-U.S. envoy Victor Marrero said in
a speech to the organization last year.
The U.S.-promoted doctrine of free trade and free markets has also
brought undeniable benefits. Chile, for example, was one of the first in its
neighborhood to restructure its economy, slashing tariffs and selling off
inefficient state industries. The result, at least until the latest recession, was
15 years of sustained economic growth and a sharp drop in poverty rates.
Hyperinflation has largely been purged from the region.
But the benefits of economic reform have been unevenly distributed at
best. As Romero noted in a speech last year, Latin America's population
"has the most unequal distribution of income in the world," with the top 10
percent receiving 40 percent of total income while the bottom 30 percent
gets 7.5 percent.
Democratic governments from Venezuela to Argentina to Paraguay,
meanwhile, have been tainted by their failure to build strong civic
institutions and vanquish rampant corruption, fueled in some cases by drug
trafficking. According to Larry Birns, of the Washington-based Council on
Hemispheric Affairs, most countries in the region are governed by "faux
democracies" where military officers continue to wield power behind the
scenes. "Even though the era of military rule is behind us, it doesn't mean
the era of military supremacy is," Birns said.
Administration officials take a somewhat rosier view, in part because of
OAS, whose Latin American members have collectively pledged to
maintain a united front against authoritarian threats to democracy.
"In the same way that it would be impossible for the European community
to think of Spain under a military dictatorship," one official predicted, any
Latin American government that came to power illegally "would be
It was fear of ostracism that prompted Ecuador's armed forces chief, Gen.
Carlos Mendoza, to dissolve on Jan. 22 the junta that had toppled
Mahuad only three hours earlier and hand power to Vice President
Gustavo Noboa. "What we were trying to do was prevent the international
isolation of Ecuador," Mendoza said.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company