The Western Hemisphere has searched for freedom and democracy for the past two centuries. The record, unfortunately, is less than perfect.
During the last two decades, democracy and economic freedom made clear but gradual inroads across Latin America, bringing relative stability and growing prosperity to our southern neighbors. Today, however, there are growing signs of political disillusionment and unrest across the region.
Recent polling data show that the popularity of political leaders, parties, and institutions is at an all-time low. More troubling, political protest and even political violence appear to be on the rise, as citizens seek to challenge the status quo in their countries.
Latin America and the Caribbean have suffered mightily from the murderous and cowardly terrorists attacks of September 11 in New York City and Washington, D.C. Although no Latin American capital was targeted, the attacks have exacerbated a growing economic recession in the region and have brought to light the fragile and weakened state of its nascent democratic institutions.
The recent Argentine political and economic collapse demonstrates that even those countries that were considered to have fairly mature and advanced democratic systems remain at risk. With much attention being paid to such perennial trouble spots as Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua, most of the larger democracies are largely ignored. This oversight, combined with the Clinton administration's general neglect of the region, could very well threaten stability and prosperity in the hemisphere.
Over the next year or so, as many as 10 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean will elect new presidents and national assemblies. In some of these countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador, populist or leftist forces could emerge that might severely complicate the Bush administration's goal of creating a hemisphere-wide trade bloc, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Furthermore, a continued meltdown in Colombia and Venezuela or the collapse of yet another government in Argentina could open the doors for political chaos and possible military intervention.
A bad case of political disillusionment
A 2001 poll by the respected Chilean organization Latinobarometro measured a dramatic decline in support for democracy in Latin America's most populous countries, with the exception of Mexico. In Brazil, the percentage of respondents who said that democracy was preferable to any other form of government fell from 50 percent in 1997 to 30 percent in 2001. Support fell from 75 to 58 percent in Argentina (and is almost certainly lower today). In Colombia, where terrorism, war, and drug trafficking rage, the percentages plummeted from 69 to 36 percent. Even in Mexico, 35 percent of the respondents said that in certain circumstances, an authoritarian government could be preferable to a democratic one.
The survey also revealed that four out of five Latin Americans believe that corruption, organized crime, and drug trafficking have "increased a lot" in their countries over the past few years. In addition, it found a growing sense of economic crisis and distrust in most of those countries where polling was conducted. Many respondents blamed free-market reforms for what they perceived as a decline in their living standards.
The discontent has a great deal to do with the economic malaise that has spread to much of the hemisphere and the world. To compound matters, Latin America is only recently emerging from its last recession of 1998--99. Across Latin America, up to 60 percent of those polled say that their countries' economic situation is "bad" or "very bad."
All of this suggests that Latin America's relatively young and fragile democracies have yet to prove themselves in the eyes of their people. Said Marta Lagos, the director of Latinobarometro: "In stable, industrialized democracies, no matter how badly a government does, democracy is never punished. …