Democracy in Latin America

With the exception of Fidel Castro's Cuba, today the Western Hemisphere proudly claims democracy as its lone form of government. Although Latin America is basking in this historic rejection of military dictatorship, it is a mistake to consider democracy a done deal.

I am a firm believer in free trade and hope to see the proposed “Free Trade Area of the Americas” established, as scheduled, in 2005. Still, I find it disconcerting that economic issues have eclipsed discussion about how to strengthen and consolidate democracy and human development in Latin America. Much remains to be done in these areas. If neglected, poverty and poor governance will begin to overshadow any success we have in promoting economic growth. In an area where 12% of adults are illiterate and more than a fifth of the population lacks safe drinking water, focusing exclusively on economics is simply not enough.

In the Central American countries torn by war in the 1970s and 80s, peace agreements have been signed and democratic institutions are in place. Yet, the weapons from those wars remain in the hands of former soldiers and rebels and are often sold on the street. These weapons of wars past contribute to levels of violent crime so atrocious that many Central Americans feel greater fear for their safety today than they did during the years of civil war and rebellion.

But the ghosts of past violence are not confined to Central America. Caudillismo has been a bane throughout Latin America's history, and its shadow remains because many democratically elected governments have still not fully subordinated their militaries to civilian authority. So, although we have not seen outright coup attempts of late, we still see levels of threat and rebellious behavior on the part some Latin American militaries that are unacceptable in mature democracies.

One example is the pressure placed on Chile's President Ricardo Lagos to spend outrageous sums of money on sophisticated fighter jets to "modernize" Chile's Air Force. As long as military chiefs continue to hold undue power within their governments, spending priorities will be out of step with the needs of ordinary people, and democracy will remain threatened by the Damoclean Sword of a potential coup.

Like Caudillismo , another old ghost continues to haunt the continent - poverty. Although Africa and South Asia suffer much higher rates of poverty, Latin America has the ignoble distinction of incorporating the greatest economic and social inequality within its societies. Instead of finding ways to remedy this, we continue to condemn our children to poverty by failing to provide them a decent education.

Many countries went too far in fiscal reform programs during the 1980s and 90s, slashing not only wasteful public spending, but essential spending on health and education. Without these basic building blocks, it will be impossible to ensure that the benefits of growth are widely shared.

Wealthy Latin Americans are not doing their part. While European countries such as Sweden and France collect more than 45% of their gross domestic product in taxes, Guatemala collects a mere 9%. The democratic principle of equality has a long way to go in order to deepen its roots here. Elitism, on the other hand, remains deeply entrenched in our institutions and our cultures. Perhaps not all culture is worth saving.

One reason for this lack of progress may be public apathy. Very high voter turnouts usually occur in countries that recently struggled for and achieved democracy. Soon after, however, voter turnout and enthusiasm decline as democracy becomes rooted. Sadly, in Latin America, we are seeing a rapid loss of confidence in even new and hard�won democracies.

Opinion polls show that many voters believe their elections to be a choice between two evils, and that political leaders are generally corrupt. Corruption, indeed, remains a disastrous force in our democracies, chasing away both foreign and domestic investment and, more ominously, people's trust in democracy as a valid form of government.

A lack of democratic tradition also shows itself in the strong�arming and legislative standoffs that often keep governments from producing results. If democratic governments fail to “deliver the goods” by providing for basic human needs and promoting the stability and well�being of their societies we will all pay the price. Such pseudo�democracies will be forcefully rejected in favor of new incarnations of the old totalitarian regimes of right and left. For the seeds of these dictatorships lie dormant in Latin American soil. They await only the irrigation of widespread discontent with today's elected governments.

Lest I am accused of undue pessimism, let me point out that not all the news is bad. Nascent civil society organizations, which clamor for transparency and accountability from their governments, are beginning to have an impact. While judicial systems remain suspect, the “bad apples” are finding it more difficult to intimidate those judges who uphold honor and the rule of law.

Recognition of human rights, too, is gradually becoming more widespread, and some of those responsible for truly heinous crimes in our inglorious past are being brought to justice. Leaders who confuse immunity with impunity are increasingly being held accountable, although there remains much more to be done. A relatively free press and global flows of information are having a positive impact on our social conscience. An integral part of democracy, there can be no turning back from this. If we get our priorities straight and invest heavily in education, our children will show us the way to the strong, open, and prosperous societies that we hope for in Latin America.