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Gaps in Latin America's Boom

By Peter Hakim / July 31, 1997



For most of Latin America, 1997 has been a good year. Recent midterm elections represented a decisive step toward democracy in Mexico. The Mexican and Argentine economies have largely recovered from reversals two years ago and are growing rapidly. Brazil is showing remarkable political and economic stability - and, with several other countries, is attracting large flows of foreign investment. Chile's economy and democratic institutions remain vigorous. In Guatemala, a peace agreement ended 36 years of civil war.

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But the news isn't all good. Several nations have fallen into crisis - and some may end up as failed states. Not since the debt-ridden 1980s have so many countries of the region found themselves in such dire straits. Two of these problem-ridden nations - Nicaragua and Haiti - have, within the past decade, been sites of US military interventions, either directly or by proxy. Both had appeared to be emerging from long histories of repression, violence, and economic failure.

Although it has held democratic elections twice since 1990 and has enjoyed two peaceful transfers of power, Nicaragua has never overcome the polarization that has split the country in two. Through strikes and street demonstrations, the Sandinista opposition has paralyzed government operations and has upset a feeble economic recovery. Intransigence on both sides blocks the compromises needed to end the impasse. The US can't contribute much to a solution, but it should remove itself from Nicaragua's conflict over property claims - a highly charged issue that US involvement only complicates.

Haiti's brief, three-year experiment with democracy is in trouble. Facing strident opposition from former President Aristide, current President Ren Prval has barely been able to govern in the past few months. While international donors and foreign investors are frustrated by the absence of coherent policy initiatives, the economy remains stagnant, the situation of most Haitians is worsening, and popular alienation grows. Despite the presence of United Nations troops, criminal violence is increasing and security is precarious.

The problems are mainly for the Haitians to resolve, but the US could help by ending its partisan squabbling over whether, as the administration claims, Haiti is a great success of US policy or whether, as congressional Republicans insist, it is a dismal failure. It is neither. Instead of trading charges, the two sides should come up with a bipartisan policy that might provide some useful answers.

The US has played a far smaller role in two other crisis-ridden Latin American countries - Peru and Colombia.

President Fujimori and his security advisers are largely responsible for Peru's crisis. Until recently, Fujimori had an extraordinary record of success. He brought inflation under control, restarted economic growth, and ended a terrorist threat. He easily won a second term after gaining approval for a constitutional amendment allowing him to run. Most Peruvians were prepared to overlook his autocratic methods when the nation faced hyperinflation and guerrilla war, but now have begun to reject his authoritarian rule and manipulation of national institutions. Questions about whether he was born in Peru and therefore is a legal candidate for president have made the situation more volatile. The US can help by opposing further violations of democratic process and the rule of law in Peru - and seeking to mobilize other countries to this position.

Colombia's situation may be the most serious. Despite its history of democratic politics and sound economic management, Colombia is besieged by violence and corruption. Drug money pervades its politics and has perverted much of its police and judicial systems. It fuels the region's most dangerous guerrilla movement, which occupies huge expanses of Colombian territory, dominates the military in many places, and threatens oil production, the country's main legal export. Paramilitary forces add to the violence and human rights abuses.

Colombia's deterioration began years ago with the massive expansion of drug trafficking, but its acceleration coincides with the US decision to "decertify" the country as an unreliable ally in the drug war, and many Colombians blame the US for the current crisis. While it won't help Colombia, which has to solve its own problems, the US should end its unilateral certification process, which is largely self-defeating.

It may be just coincidental that four countries have fallen into crisis in Latin America and that several others - including Ecuador, El Salvador, and Honduras - are increasingly troubled. But it is worrisome. Applause for Latin America's democratic progress and economic advance has to be tempered by a concern about the nations that are being left behind.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.