Oh, for the good (?) old dictator days!
LATIN AMERICAN 'NOSTALGIA'
Do authoritarian regimes do economics better? The question is surfacing across Latin America as countries place tough financial decisions in the hands of newly empowered democratic players.Skip to next paragraph
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Critics of democracy often point to Chile, Latin America's "economic miracle," saying its foundation was built during a 17-year military dictatorship.
Even many Chilean supporters of Augusto Pinochet's military regime argue that it doesn't take guns and dictators to reform economies - and that reform by democratic debate, even if untidy, can in the long run end up stronger.
But a nostalgia for simpler days of centralized and unchallenged decisionmaking rises in some political and economic sectors from Chile to Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico.
The region shows varied signs of what might be called authoritarian nostalgia.
&#149;In Mexico, the country's first opposition-led Congress spent nine months of rancorous debate, name-calling, and stalemate before approving earlier this month a $67 billion bank bailout plan proposed in March by President Ernesto Zedillo. Some congressional critics point to the "chaos" and conclude Mexico was better off in what has been called the "perfect dictatorship" when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - with one of its own as president - ruled the country. Some analysts see a "nostalgia" for those days as a factor in what C&eacute;sar Morones of Guadalajara's Center for Opinion Studies calls a "re-PRI-ization" of Mexico.
&#149;In Venezuela, the leader of a failed 1992 military coup, Hugo Ch&aacute;vez, won this month's presidential election with populist promises to play hardball with the country's political class and write a new constitution. Affectionately called "Comandante" by supporters, Mr. Ch&aacute;vez says he needs a new constitution to rebuild Venezuela's disastrous economy.
&#149;In Brazil, the wild card in President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's game plan to pull the South American giant back from the brink of financial collapse is the Congress, which has already held up key pieces of financial reform legislation. As with many Latin presidencies, Mr. Cardoso still holds tremendous powers, especially after his reelection this year, but a balking Congress could spoil his plans and spread the economic difficulties Brazil anticipates in 1999 around the region.
In Chile, the economic legacy of General Pinochet's regime has been a controversial issue ever since former President Patricio Aylwin said last year that Pinochet should not be given credit for Chile's economic success, which has been held up as a model for Latin America. Mr. Aylwin was the first democratically elected president to follow Pinochet in 1990.
"If Aylwin doesn't want to give the credit to Pinochet, who does he give it to?" responds retired Gen. Jorge Ballerino, who was the Pinochet regime's secretary-general of the presidency (somewhat akin to chief of staff) from 1987 to 1990. "The reality is [Pinochet] succeeded in a revolution that allowed Chile to prosper."
Even many of the former dictator's strongest critics "credit" him with Chile's economic turnabout in the mid-1970s, though it is more with the idea of burying than praising Pinochet.
Latin America's 'jaguar'
"Oh yes, thanks to the dictatorship, Chile is Latin America's 'jaguar,' " says Maria Luz Trautmann, an economist and consultant with Santiago's Taller Piret, a network of workers' and women's organizations. "But there's no getting around the fact that it's a malnourished jaguar."
Critics like Ms. Trautmann say that behind the "miracle" hides one of Latin America's worst rich-poor gaps and an overworked labor force with few labor-law protections.
Patricio Garcia, a historian at the University of Chile in Santiago, says it was completely out of character for a Latin military regime to go against the region's centralized and statist economies in favor of the free-market model, and he says it was Pinochet who made that economic choice.
Dominique Hachette, an economist at Santiago's Catholic University who was teaching at the time of the 1973 military coup, agrees.
"I was in my office when the generals called [the economics department] looking for someone to handle things for them," recalls Mr. Hachette. "They didn't know what to do."