WASHINGTON — When the members of the Inter-American Dialogue gathered recently, the discussion covered a broad range of issues, but the real focus was politics. On specific questions, members often disagreed; consensus, a time-honored objective of Dialogue deliberations, was elusive. There was accord, however, that quality of politics and political leadership - not economic policy, not social demands, not US policy - is what will most determine Latin America's future.
Members of the Dialogue - 100 distinguished citizens from throughout the Americas, including former presidents and business and academic leaders - were distressed by recent setbacks to democratic politics in the region.
Most considered last month's elections in Peru so fundamentally flawed that the government of Alberto Fujimori could no longer claim democratic legitimacy.
The most optimistic analysis - of Ecuador, which in January suffered South America's first successful military coup in 24 years - suggested the unprecedented depth of that nation's crisis was forcing otherwise reckless politicians to behave responsibly.
There was little disagreement that the Colombian government is increasingly losing control and desperately needs outside support.
There was debate about whether democratic practice and rule of law will ultimately prevail in Venezuela; but to most participants, the government of President Hugo Chavez looks less and less like a conventional democracy.
No one argued that events in Peru and other Andean countries were mere "bumps in the road." Indeed, they expressed concern the Andean problems might have an antidemocratic effect on the rest of Latin America.
On this score, there was a measure of optimism. In some nations, democratic politics seem secure, even robust, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica. And in those countries where democracy was less vigorous, it hardly seemed in grave danger. Mexico's prospects, for the first genuinely free and competitive presidential contest for the presidency in 70 years, was a cause for hope (a hope fulfilled Sunday when the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party - PRI - was deposed by voters in presidential elections).
But short-term survival of democracy was not a major concern for Dialogue members, it was instead the performance of political institutions and quality of governance in the region. In the majority of Latin American countries, crucial institutions of democracy are not performing satisfactorily, and opinion polls have consistently recorded the unhappiness of most citizens with their institutions.
National parliaments, for example, mostly take a back seat to the executive branch; more often than not, they serve either as rubber stamps to a powerful president, or as fractious roadblocks to good policy. Few countries have courts or police forces that deliver justice in a timely, fair, or effective manner.
Of greatest concern for participants was the sharply diminished role of political parties in the region and their virtual collapse in some places, which many saw as the direct cause of democratic reversals in Peru, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Perhaps most disturbing was the absence of ideas for repairing these damaged institutions.
The defects of Latin America's politics and institutions are producing harsh consequences. Nearly every government in the region is committed to carrying out disciplined market-oriented economic policies and trying hard to implement them. Economic mishaps are today rarely the result of bad policy; instead, they're likely to reflect political failings.
Dialogue members recognized the enormous advances Latin America has made in establishing democratic rule and respect for human rights. But they were less optimistic than at any time in the recent past that those gains could soon be consolidated and transformed into enduring institutions and lasting social and economic progress.
*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society