Politics Still Counts - Democratic Reforms Clearly Work but Take Far Longer Than Anyone Likes

Article excerpt

Many U.S. policymakers see an economic miracle in Latin America's future. The region's technocratic reformers, such as former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the current Brazilian president, tend to agree. There are good reasons for their predictions. Economic reforms and trade liberalization policy have framed Latin America's core dynamic for most of the past decade, such as in Chile and Mexico.

Some politically correct constituencies view Chile's quarter-century record with unease. Nonetheless, the country has achieved the most transparent process in the region, usually ranking as the least corrupt politico-legal environment, on par with some European and industrialized nations.

Mexico is in a different category but is significant for its recent transformation. The recent election of Vicente Fox suggests dramatic sociocultural change in political attitudes, credibility of leaders and institutions, and working transparency of the electoral system. Nonetheless, the jury is still out, and corruption and old patronage- style politics still dominate the local level of Mexico's federal structure in many areas. The continuing problem of narcotics trafficking adds to the challenge.

Argentina's difficult transition to democracy since the mid-1980s illustrates important new trends in civil-military relations, with civilian-led institutions now dominating. Though much less institutionalized, civilian leadership is on the increase in Central America, notably in El Salvador and Guatemala. Current developments in post-Fujimori Peru and the growing militarization in Venezuela and Colombia indicate extreme fragility in the democratization process.

The collapse of the Soviet threat in the 1990s took away an international network of mischief. This ideological framework dated back to the 1930s and had permeated the region's intellectual outlook. It had undermined U.S. interests in Latin America and created political havoc with an assortment of left-wing insurgencies, populist political movements, and radical causes.

The best examples include the FMLN insurgency in El Salvador (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front); the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, now the principal opposition and poised for a comeback in the country's late 2001 presidential elections; and the URNG in Guatemala (National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity), which since the 1996 peace process has transformed itself (like the FMLN and Sandinistas) into a political party operating more or less in the open. All these groups have a Cuba- related history and during the Cold War were tied into an international network leading back to the Soviet bloc. Peru's Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, both tending toward extreme violence, were operating as part of an underground network of international terrorists by the early 1990s.

With no persuasive ideology to contend with, more pragmatic considerations driven by economic forces have captured Latin America's attention.

This development has had two salutary effects on the region. First, the focus on economic factors has led to necessary structural reforms of the bloated and costly functions of government. Likewise, it has inspired more effective and equitable fiscal policies. Second, the economic focus has fueled efforts to capitalize on comparative national advantages.

Not every country is a Mexico or a Brazil, but integration into a modern, competitive environment has forced the region to jettison protectionism and isolationist, if not nationalistic, policies. As external tariffs are streamlined and bureaucratic commercial barriers lowered, a remarkable upward and optimistic blend of regional trade relations is being generated. The fact that a portion of Ecuador's dysfunctional political debate now hinges on implementation of a plan that replaces the national currency with the almighty U.S. dollar suggests how far the intellectual and conceptual climate has evolved. …