Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Urge to drop democracy grows in Latin America

Unresponsive governments throughout the region that have failedto deliver on promises of economic growth face growing dangers

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Ilave, Peru

Local peasants in Ilave, Peru, walk across a 100-year-old bridge. The bridge collapsed in 2001 due to floods and heavy rains. In April, people in Ilave burst into a town council meeting, grabbed their mayor, dragged him through the streets and lynched him.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

On a morning in April, people in this normally placid spot in Peru's southeastern highlands burst into a Town Council meeting, grabbed their mayor, dragged him through the streets and lynched him. The killers, convinced the mayor was on the take and angry that he had neglected pledges to pave a highway and build a market for vendors, also badly beat four councilmen.

The beating death of the mayor may seem like an isolated incident in an isolated Peruvian town but it is in fact a specter haunting elected officials across Latin America. A kind of toxic impatience with democratic process has seeped into the region's political discourse, even a thirst for mob rule that has put leaders on notice.

In the last few years, six elected heads of state have been ousted in the face of violent unrest, something nearly unheard of in the previous decade. A widely noted UN survey of 19,000 Latin Americans in 18 countries in April produced a startling result: A majority would choose a dictator over an elected leader if that provided economic benefits.

Analysts say that the main source of the discontent is corruption and the widespread feeling that elected governments have done little or nothing to help the 220 million people in the region who still live in poverty, about 43 percent of the population.

"Latin America is paying the price for centuries of inequality and injustice, and the United States really doesn't have a clue about what is happening in the region," said Riordan Roett, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.

"These are very, very fragile regimes," he added. "Increasingly, there's frustration and resentment. The rate of voting is going down. Blank ballots are increasing. The average Latin American would prefer a very strong government that produces a physical security and economic security, and no government has been able to do that."

These at-risk governments stretch thousands of miles from the Caribbean and Central America through the spine of the Andes to the continent's southern cone, and increasingly the problems associated with weak governments are spilling beyond Latin America itself and affecting US interests in the region.

"We're confronted with large increase in illegal migration," Roett said, "more drugs pouring into the American market to meet an insatiable demand, and the potential for regime failure that could spread in the region and bring serious threats to our security position in the hemisphere."

Among the weakest states is Guatemala, which continues to struggle with paramilitary groups, youth gangs and judicial impunity and has become a crossroads for the smuggling of people and drugs north to the US.

Several other governments are fragile at best and susceptible to popular unrest that could further weaken and even topple them. These include the interim administration of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue in Haiti, which took power after a popular revolt this year, as President Carlos Mesa in Bolivia, who took power after such a revolt last year.

Andes region most unstable

The most unpredictable and volatile region is the Andes.

In the north, Venezuela remains deeply polarized, as foes of President Hugo Chavez plot to oust him while he continues with what he has called a "peaceful revolution" that includes a radical redistribution of the nation's oil wealth. Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, meanwhile, are all buffeted by nearly continuous protests from indigenous groups and other once-forgotten classes that are demanding to be heard.

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