The Miami Herald
February 7, 2000
Wild 100 years lead region toward future

 Associated Press

 CARACAS -- Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Evita. The Bay of Pigs, the Cuban
 Missile Crisis, the Mexican Revolution. Dirty wars, debt crises, dictators.

 Latin Americans had a tumultuous 20th Century. They are in a new century now --
 but still struggling to overcome the problems that gripped the region in 1900:
 mass poverty, corrupt governments, social injustice and authoritarian rule.

 ``In Latin America the entire 19th Century and a great part of the 20th Century
 was a battle between dictatorships and democracies,'' says Venezuelan historian
 Guillermo Moron.

 In Venezuela, one of the top suppliers of oil to the United States, this struggle is
 being played out dramatically. A former military coup leader has risen to the
 presidency pledging to address the ills that have troubled the South American
 country for years.

 Critics say President Hugo Chavez may represent a return to the days of the
 strongman, like his idol and 19th Century independence hero Simon Bolivar,
 promising to ride in on a white horse and single-handedly resolve the country's


 Chavez's self-styled ``peaceful revolution'' closed out a century that began with a
 Latin American revolt that reverberated far beyond the region. The 1910 Mexican
 Revolution led by Francisco Madero was the 20th Century's first great uprising of
 the poor masses, preceding the Russian Revolution by seven years and the
 Communist victory in China by nearly four decades.

 By 1917 the Mexican rebels produced a constitution that ``was absolutely
 unprecedented for its time,'' says Mary Roldan, a professor at Cornell University.
 It promised land reform, free education, the right to unionize, even maternity leave.

 ``It held out this kind of beacon of hope, that there was this possibility for national
 transformation,'' Roldan says.

 The revolution never fulfilled its promise, though, and many of Mexico's problems
 persist. In 1994, a new group of rebels taking the name Zapatistas -- after the
 revolutionary fighter Emiliano Zapata -- rose up against the Mexican government in
 the name of social justice.


 Halfway through the 20th Century, another beacon of hope sprang up in Latin
 America, this time in Argentina. Juan Peron and his wife, Eva, popularly known as
 ``Evita,'' gave the downtrodden a sense of power.

 Building a power base among formerly oppressed unions, Juan Peron gave
 workers unheard-of benefits and Evita personally handed out clothes, money and

 Even today ``if you talk to someone who was the child of a factory worker who
 became a Peronist and as a result of that had holiday vacations or free dental
 care, Peron was a god and Evita was a saint, and Argentina has been going
 downhill ever since,'' Roldan says.

 But the Perons also polarized Argentina, with the middle class and rich saying
 they destroyed the economy and led the country into fascist rule. In 1976,
 Peron's widow -- his third wife, Isabel -- was overthrown as president in a coup
 that ushered in a military dictatorship and an infamous Dirty War against
 suspected leftists.

 The other great turning point for the region came in 1959, when Fidel Castro
 overthrew Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. Among Castro's companions was
 an Argentine doctor named Ernesto ``Che'' Guevara, who became a worldwide
 symbol of the struggle for justice.

 Castro quickly clashed with the United States, leading to the failed Bay of Pigs
 invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis the next year. This face-off took the
 planet to the edge of nuclear war, until the Soviet Union agreed to remove
 missiles it had put in Cuba.

 Castro embraced communism and built health and education systems that
 became models for Third World countries. But the island needed huge subsidies
 from the Soviet Union, and plunged into economic crisis after European
 communism fell in 1989 and Cuba's trade with Soviet bloc nations plummeted.

 Yet Castro remains in power. His survival ``speaks of a process with deep roots in
 the Cuban society that no one can deny,'' says Teodoro Petkoff, a former 1960s
 guerrilla leader in Venezuela who became sharply critical of communism.


 Recent years saw Latin America shed centuries of dictatorship. Civil wars in
 Central America and military dictatorships in countries like Argentina and Chile
 gave way to democratically elected governments. Decades of statist economics
 were jettisoned in favor of free market economies.

 But a heavy debt load run up in the 1980s has held back economic development,
 and free market policies produced disappointing growth in the 1990s, says
 Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

 Most Latin Americans are poorer now than they were in 1980, Shifter says. The
 World Bank says a fourth of Latin Americans live on a dollar a day or less, while
 the United Nations calculates that 40 percent of the population can't meet basic

 A mass exodus from the countryside and a population explosion from 70 million
 people a century ago to nearly 500 million people today has turned once tranquil
 cities into teeming, filthy and dangerous places. In much of the region public
 schools remain poor, justice systems are racked with corruption, and
 governments are bloated and inefficient.

 And now leaders promising to look for new solutions are rising to the forefront.
 Chavez, a former paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup, then was elected
 president in December 1998, is wildly popular among Venezuela's poor, while he
 stokes fear in the wealthy elite.

 He says he is searching for a ``third way'' between communism and the ``savage
 capitalism'' of the new globalized economy.

 His detractors fear Chavez, along with Peru's Alberto Fujimori, may be at the
 forefront of a new wave of leaders going back to strongman rule -- who spout
 populist rhetoric but fail to deepen democracy.

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald