The tinkling of brass that President Clinton heard while in
South America last weekend came from former military leaders
returning to power.
That tinkling may become a clanging.
As he sat down with 33 other heads of state here over the
weekend for the second Summit of the Americas, Mr. Clinton met only
one former military leader in the group: President Hugo Banzer of
Bolivia, a former general and a 1970s military dictator.
But that club of one may be expanding soon. In two other South
American countries - Colombia and Venezuela - former military
leaders are running for president in elections this year. In other
countries members of past military juntas are running for
congressional seats. And in Chile, where Clinton spoke to Congress
Friday on a theme of strengthening democracy's return in the
region, former military dictator Augusto Pinochet is a lifelong
senator - as stipulated in the Constitution he created.
On Friday, Paraguay's Supreme Court declared a general who was a
clear favorite to win the country's presidency in May ineligible to
run. The court ruled that Gen. Lino Oviedo, who attempted a coup in
1996, was ineligible as a result of his "insubordination."
Yet despite the saber-rattling and authoritarianism that
military leadership usually suggests, the rise of former military
leaders in Latin America is not necessarily a worrisome trend,
regional analysts say. More important, they add, is what the trend
says about a continent-wide clamoring for stability, security, and
progress toward social and economic justice.
The return of military leaders "signifies that the region's
democratic transition is taking root, and distinct political forces
are emerging," says Francisco Rojas Aravena, a military-political
specialist at Santiago's Faculty of Latin American Social Sciences.
"This is as valid for ex-military leaders as it is for liberals,
conservatives, even communists. But I don't think it signifies a
return to the old authoritarianism."
Adds Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and
Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami,
"This is basically healthy, provided that if they are elected to
office they don't violate the constitutions that allowed them to
In one sense, it shouldn't surprise anyone that former military
leaders are finding their way back to power within electoral
politics. South America has a long tradition of military
leadership, which remains associated with establishing order.
In Chile, for example, a vocal minority may despise the 17-year
Pinochet regime for its flagrant human rights violations. But
another sizable group associates the dictatorship with a return of
order and prosperity after the chaotic years of the Salvador
Allende presidency, which ended with Pinochet's coup in 1973.
Still, not all former military leaders can be neatly filed away
under "dictators and antidemocrats." "It would be easy to
generalize and say all these guys are part of a worrisome general
trend, but they're not the same," says Mr. …