Latin America's Complex Dance with Democracy; Distrust Seen as Impediment

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 15, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Latin America's Complex Dance with Democracy; Distrust Seen as Impediment

Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Latin America's passionate embrace of democracy and free enterprise, which transformed the region 30 years ago, has settled into a much more complicated - and at times conflicted - long-term relationship.

But when discussing regional attitudes on government, popular sovereignty and free-market economics, Chilean pollster Marta Lagos said the biggest outlier in the data has nothing to do with conventional politics.

"The biggest difference is trust. Latin Americans are more distrustful of others, even today, than any other region," she told a small Capitol Hill briefing last week on her latest survey.

"It remains a major cultural hindrance for Latin America, because it makes democratic reforms that much harder," said Mrs. Lagos, the founding director of Latinobarometro, a comprehensive annual survey of popular sentiment in 18 Latin American countries.

In East Asia, for example, just 42 percent of those polled agreed with the statement: "You can never be too careful when dealing with others."

The percentage of the skeptical rose to 51 percent in Africa and 56 percent in the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe.

By contrast, three decades after countries across Latin America began dumping dictatorships and military juntas for elected governments, fully 75 percent of those polled said that most people can not be trusted.

That, in turn, leads to some ambivalent popular attitudes about democratic rule, Mrs. Lagos said.

In 12 years of polling data from 1995 to 2007, between 55 percent and 60 percent of Latin Americans say they support democracy as the most preferable form of government.

At the same time, just under 40 percent say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in their particular country, a low figure unaffected by the surging economic growth across the hemisphere since 2003.

Mixed on markets

In a similar vein, the Latinobarometro data show highly mixed attitudes toward the other revolutions of the recent past - the move by country after country to a more free-market economic system.

"People do not see a relation between democratic government and a good economy," Mrs. Lagos said, "while those without money or access to state services tend to have a low opinion of democracy as well."

In 2005, some 64 percent of those polled said they favored a free market-based economic system. By 2007, despite strong growth, the figure fell to 54 percent.

Although the gains of the past 30 years have not been rolled back, "democratization in the region has been slow and heterogeneous," Mrs. Lagos said. "Although people see some positive changes, so far these have been insufficient to achieve the kind of transformation in governance or social and economic structures that would help consolidate democracy."

Such conflicted attitudes could pose a challenge to the next U.S. president, who will have to chart a course in a region where President Bush shares the bottom rungs of Latin American popularity polls with ailing leftist icon Fidel Castro of Cuba and Venezuela's fiercely anti-American populist president, Hugo Chavez.

The next president faces a challenge in revitalizing broader U.S. ties in the region, while dealing with rising powers such as Brazil and the ambitions of Mr. Chavez.

"Political relations between the United States and South America vary sharply from country to country, but for the most part are not robust, especially compared with a dozen years ago," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, said in an interview earlier this month with Bolivia's La Prensa newspaper.

No left turn

But Mark Feierstein, a partner with the Washington polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and a former Clinton administration official, said fears of an anti-U.

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Latin America's Complex Dance with Democracy; Distrust Seen as Impediment


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