Equality, Poverty, Democracy

By Crawley, Andrew | The World Today, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Equality, Poverty, Democracy


Crawley, Andrew, The World Today


In the opening months of the new century, the political news from Latin America has been disheartening. This has spurred another outbreak of that 'whither democracy?' media commentary that seems to favour stark pessimism over bland optimism, on the assumption that the former might sound like realism while the latter can appear to be naivete. Latin America is not a country. Its republics differ in the strength of their traditional political parties, the coherence of their civil societies, the degree to which the state is present throughout the national territory, their ethnic composition, economic potential, geostrategic significance, history of guerrilla struggle and experience of military intervention. The weight of their individual histories, as well as geography, economic performance and above all population, will shape the future of democracy in each.

'Democracy is dead'.

So said Alejandro Toledo, the candidate defeated by Peru's incumbent President Alberto Fujimori in May following the second round of a presidential election beset by irregularities. Fujimori was seeking a constitutionally dubious third consecutive term and seems to be assured of it. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, unequivocally populist leader of a failed military coup, was voted into the presidency last year by an electorate that overwhelmingly backed his plans for a radical transformation of the country's political system. He will almost certainly be re-elected this month under a new constitution.

In neighbouring Colombia, the elected government of Andres Pastrana is simultaneously fighting and negotiating with two guerrilla movements that his army seems incapable of defeating. One of them has been officially granted control over a part of the national territory the size of Switzerland. In Ecuador, massive popular protests against institutionalised corruption and economic mismanagement have brought down two democratically elected governments in less than three years.

In Paraguay in May, a group of soldiers and civilians seized the Asuncion headquarters of the First Cavalry Division, the most heavily armed unit in the Paraguayan army as well as the National Police command centre. The parliament building was fired on by rebel tanks. This was the second military coup attempt since 1996.

In neighbouring Brazil in the same month, there was a wave of violent protests by landless peasants as members of the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) clashed with police and invaded public buildings and farms in sixteen states. The MST was demanding that the government find land for one hundred thousand families and more than six billion dollars worth of credits for poor rural workers.

In Bolivia a month earlier, a nation-wide social crisis marked by widespread popular protest - the most serious since the early lg8os - worsened when a group of military officers announced that they would mutiny unless their demands for salary increases were met. The government's decision to declare a three-month state of emergency led to violent clashes in which nine people died.

Beyond this worrying list, broad themes offer a guide to how governability might evolve regionally From that perspective, is the current pessimism justified? Have the dangers to Latin America's democracies suddenly become more threatening? Many of the answers lie outside politics, in the areas of poverty and social exclusion, demographic trends and urban growth.

POOR AND UNEQUAL

It seems likely that the long-term consolidation of democracy in Latin America will depend to a large extent on providing an adequate quality of life for most voters. The majority would then have some stake in the continuation of a democratic political order. It is a fair assumption that they will be less inclined to support military intervention or guerrilla insurgency, and less disposed to opt for authoritarian or populist alternatives that promise short-term socio-economic relief at the cost of pluralist democratic principles. …

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