Halting the Reversal Of Democracy

DEMOCRACY begins with free, fair, and plural elections. It embodies division, checking, and balancing of powers. Even the existence of these formal prerequisites, however, has not ensured the consolidation of the recently inaugurated democracies of Latin America. Democracy requires tolerance and dialogue, the promotion of individual human rights and freedoms. It needs peaceful participation by the people in all political, economic, and social processes.

Economic growth without social justice can never promote and preserve democracy. Without strong civilian leadership, pluralism cannot endure. Hence it is not surprising that the democratic opening that generated so many hopes and expectations in Latin America has proven to be reversible. Recent riots and demonstrations, and the growing social and political unrest in the region, are striking indicators that poverty, corruption, and mismanagement have reached intolerable levels. Pauperized and frustrated, the peoples of Latin America are tired of unfulfilled promises offered by politicians and businessmen alike. Our leaders still have to learn from John F. Kennedy that they should tell the people what they need to know, not what they want to hear.

As long as militarism exists and politicians exert their power to benefit themselves and their cliques, civilian institutions will always be fragile structures at the threshold of dictatorship.

Recent events in Haiti, Venezuela, Peru, Panama, and Brazil serve as a warning. The efforts undertaken by the Organization of American States (OAS) in the Haitian and Peruvian crises are an expression of Latin American awareness of the need to protect imperiled democratic regimes. I can only welcome the OAS's decision to overlook issues traditionally linked to sovereignty when human rights and democratic rule are at risk. The regional organization has been unable, however, to define democracy as a genera l principle and translate it into clear and specific goals, with collective enforcement mechanisms.

Fledgling democracies in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and other regions of the world are being unfairly singled out for rigid structural-adjustment programs by the international financial institutions. This calls to mind a remark by Jose Figueres, the Costa Rican president who abolished our Army more than 40 years ago. He used to say that those lending organizations are as capable of overthrowing democratic governments as the military.

It is not true that most Latin Americans are unwilling to engage in the modernization of our societies. It is false that we refuse to reach the levels of efficiency needed to join the increasingly global economy. We are restructuring our fiscal, monetary, and exchange-rate policies and reducing public expenditure at a significant social cost.

Paradoxically, while we are opening our markets, 20 of the 24 industrialized countries are now more protectionist than they were a decade ago. Unequal partnerships and trade restrictions cost the developing countries $500 billion a year - 10 times what they receive in foreign assistance. While both rich nations and international financial institutions give Russia "shock therapy" with economic support, they apply to Latin America and other regions in the third world a "shock without therapy."

Wealthier peoples must realize that poverty, like a plague, needs no passport to travel. Not even by building colossal walls can industrial countries - especially the United States - protect their borders from immigrants fleeing from poverty and despair. I am convinced that democracy in the Americas is reversible as long as our countries continue to be besieged by one of the most brutal products of our societies: poverty.

The war against poverty cannot be fought with isolation and indifference. It will not be won by a single country or a small coalition. It demands a concerted effort by both rich and poor nations. Once and for all, we should learn how to live together in an ever more interdependent world. We must create just opportunities for every man and woman throughout the world. The time has come to allow human progress and democracy - not poverty and unrest - to travel freely.

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