Latins lose faith in democracy

Economic woes have Latin Americans preferring autocrats,says a new UN survey.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Here in Peru, the president is polling in single digits, and some want to bring back a former strongman.

Just across the border in Bolivia, the government had to fend off rumors last week that the military was planning a coup.

Next door, indigenous politicians in Ecuador called for a general uprising to force the president out of office.

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In Venezuela, the electoral board set a tentative date for a recall vote on its left-wing leader.

And to the north, in Colombia, the president is pushing a plan to change the country's Constitution so he can run for a second term.

It was a wild week in the Andean region, which has been riding a political seesaw of late. And voters don't like what they see.

According to a new United Nations study, people here are losing faith in democracy - even as the region's economy grows. Political freedoms have not brought financial gain to the masses, half of whom say they would support an authoritarian regime if it resolved economic problems.

"Electoral democracy is fine, and free and fair elections are held, but that is not enough. People do not feel that democracy has improved their economic situation or made them safer," says Dante Caputo, a former Argentine foreign minister and lead author of the UN report.

In the Andean nations, which account for one-third of South America's population, only 37.3 percent of the people polled for the report said they were democrats; the rest were either ambivalent to democracy or openly opposed to it.

The Andes represent a general trend in Latin America, where 54.7 people say they would support an authoritarian government if it helped them financially. More than 60 percent cited unemployment, low wages, and poverty as the region's main problems. "There is less support for democracy here than in any other region in the world," says Mr. Caputo. "Democracy in Latin America is at risk. Intuition indicates that there are dangers, and our data confirms it."

This may explain why Alberto Fujimori, Peru's former hard-line president, is leading polls in a crowded field of potential candidates. And more than 60 percent of Colombians support President Alvaro Uribe - who has taken tough tactics against the country's guerrillas - and his push to change the Constitution so he can run for a second term.

Still, strongmen don't necessarily bring economic improvement. In Venezuela, opponents have been trying for years to unseat what they see as an autocrat in President Hugo Chávez, who has rewritten the Constitution to cultivate more power - while the economy founders.

The perception that democracy does not translate into better standards of living comes at a time when most countries in the Andes, and Latin America in general, are recuperating from years of stagnation. The World Bank says that Latin American economies should expand by an average of 4 percent this year.

Peru is expected to do even better. It has enjoyed one of its longest growth spurts - 32 months - during the Toledo administration, and economic indicators are good across the board. Gross domestic product is expected to grow by more than 5 percent his year, inflation is low, and exports are on track to top $10 billion, the first time they will hit double digits. Polls, however, show that more than half of Peru's 27 million people believe their economic situation will be the same or worse this year.

UN Development Program Administrator Mark Mallock Brown says the rosy numbers can actually be a problem in a country like Peru, which has been unable to bring poverty below 54 percent.

"Where you have a situation of perceived inequality, growth is as dangerous as nongrowth, because it feeds the view that growth is being disproportionately enjoyed by the rich [and] increases the sense of political grievance and frustration with the system," he says.

The problem in Peru and in other Andean countries is that growth is being led by high international prices for raw materials like gold, copper, and hydrocarbons - industries that employ few people but boost export earnings and tax receipts. Peru's economic recuperation is a jobless recovery, with the country registering a net loss of 40,000 workers last year.

For Jorge Leon, a political scientist and researcher with an Ecuadorean think tank, there has been a backlash against traditional political parties and the choice of "outsiders" as presidents. Three of the region's five president - Venezuela's Mr. Chávez, Ecuador's Lucio Gutierrez, and Peru's Alejandro Toledo - never held political office before becoming president. Chávez and Mr. Gutierrez were vaulted to the presidency after leading coups, while Toledo gained fame in a tenacious fight to unseat Mr. Fujimori.

Bolivia's Carlos Mesa, who also never held elected office, became president in October 2003 after street protests forced President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to flee to the United States. Mr. Mesa is now facing pressure of his own, with a wave of strikes by university students and transportation unions leading to rumors that the military was planning to depose him.

Only Colombia's Mr. Uribe had experience as a former mayor, governor, and senator before winning the presidency. He did, however, buck the country's traditional two-party system and became the first president elected as an independent there.

All this political inexperience adds up to disillusioned populations.

"Voters have punished traditional political parties, many of which are corrupt, by choosing candidates from outside the system. The common denominator of these governments is the lack of a plan to run the government. Experience has shown that improvising in politics is dangerous," Mr. Leon says. "What you have in the Andes are unprepared presidents who know how to campaign but not govern. They continue to campaign as presidents and do not govern."

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