WASHINGTON — Argentina's former president, Carlos Menem, has shown an extraordinary ability to shock and surprise. That talent was in plain view last month when he married a Chilean beauty queen half his age, the former Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco. The following week produced an even greater shock: Mr. Menem was arrested, accused of involvement in illegal arms deals with Ecuador and Croatia while in office.
Menem's detention took place days before Peruvians elected Alejandro Toledo as their next president, rewarding him for his stubborn, seemingly quixotic, battle to keep Alberto Fujimori from serving a third term. Indicted last year on a range of charges, including murder, Mr. Fujimori avoided arrest by fleeing to Japan.
Menem and Fujimori ruled their countries for nearly all of the '90s, and were Latin America's most dominant politicians of the period. While there are striking parallels between their governments, the differences are just as important. Menem ruled autocratically at times, running roughshod over the judiciary and legislature. But Fujimori rejected all constitutional limits. He closed Congress and the courts in 1992, then reshaped both institutions and put them firmly under his control. He stifled political parties, muzzled the press, and manipulated the country's electoral commission.
The Argentine president pressed too hard and too long for the right to try for a third term, but finally desisted. Under similar circumstances, Fujimori simply got rid of the judges blocking his way, and went on to win a fraud-ridden election. While Fujimori relied heavily on the Army and intelligence services to keep power, Menem slashed the size, budgets, and political influence of the armed forces.
Neither man is an isolated case. Latin America has clearly made extraordinary progress toward democracy since the days that military strongmen and personalist dictatorships ruled in most countries of the region. Now, elections are the only accepted way to gain political power. In many other critical areas - human rights, freedom of expression, and citizen participation, for instance - the change is stark. Yet, throughout Latin America, unsavory patterns of government continue to prevail and violate democratic practice. In many countries, high officials, from presidents on down, regularly disregard legal and constitutional constraints. In too few places are there effective checks and balances on executive power.
To be sure, the arrest of Menem and the indictment of Fujimori are encouraging. That legal action is proceeding against two of Latin America's most powerful leaders ever is one more signal of the region's declining tolerance for official misconduct. It may also reflect growing public expectations about the quality and integrity of government.
Any celebration of these trends, however, should be tempered by the fact that the abuses of both presidents, or at least some of them, were well known for several years - and mostly overlooked or ignored while Fujimori and Menem appeared to be governing successfully. The downfalls of both men were preceded by long economic slumps. Indeed, across Latin America, corruption charges tend to grab public attention only when economies turn sour.
Another disturbing factor is that the United States strongly supported both presidents until the bitter end; no other country seemed to care much.
Despite its lack of democratic credentials and overt criminal activity, the Fujimori regime, including its just-captured intelligence chief, Vladimir Montesinos, was continually rewarded and defended by Washington for its energetic antidrug campaign. Menem's Argentina was considered the closest ally of the US in South America for its pro-free trade, market-oriented economic policies, and virtually unwavering support for US positions in international forums. Neither of these experiences has done much to enhance the credibility of the US in Latin America. Peru was particularly damaging.
For ordinary Latin Americans, the lesson of these episodes is ambiguous. On the one hand, the undoing of two such potent figures could show that governments are expected to serve honestly and that they no longer enjoy impunity from the law. On the other, the lesson may be that no one in government can be trusted, a toxic attitude for democracy.
Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor