STANFORD, CALIF. — Latin Americans can't seem to make democracy work. Ecuador now has its seventh president in nine years. Bolivian Indians recently overthrew their second president in less than two years. In 2001 the majority Indian population in Peru elected one of its own as president, after his predecessor had fled the country, but as The Economist of London reported last month, he has long been the region's most unpopular president.
And that's just the beginning. The decades-long guerrilla/drug war in Colombia rages on and the United Nations reports that drug production is rising in the Andes. President Hugo Chávez increasingly polarizes Venezuela and the region, and uses oil hand-outs to prop up Fidel Castro's decrepit authoritarian regime in Cuba. Costa Rica's long-admired democratic system is torn by presidential scandals, Nicaragua may soon elect a failed Sandinista from the past, and Haiti is a perpetual failure in every way.
Even Argentina, the market reform "model" in the 1990s, is on its sixth president in four years, five of them in a fortnight around New Year's Day, 2002. The economic collapse then devastated living standards for the majority and precipitated the largest debt default in world history, which was greeted with cheers in the national congress.
Polls show that democracy as a system is popular in the region, but also that most Latin Americans don't believe it works for them. Indeed, international agenciesreport that the region has long had the world's widest rich-poor gap and that living conditions and opportunities for bettering one's lot are few and in most places not increasing. And Latin America is falling ever farther behind the developing countries of Asia.
The problem of ineffective or downright failing democracies is far more basic to the region's thinking and governance than politicians in the Americas - including Washington - are aware of or willing to admit.
Perhaps the main reason is because most Latin leaders and their cronies don't want to change a system that serves their private interests. And most policymakers in Washington concentrate so narrowly on a few yardsticks like periodic votes and trade agreements that they don't see (or acknowledge) what is really happening to people and why.
Instability, which seems so destructive of progress, is nothing new. Thirty years ago it was guerrilla wars, astronomical inflation, military governments, and human rights violations. Five hundred years ago it was conquest, virtual slavery, and mass exploitation under the guise of Catholic paternalism.
But that's not the point: Perpetual surface instability is not what causes Latin America's cycles of failure. The real problem is the opposite: excessive stability - the enduring legacy of Iberian colonialism ever modified to serve a new generation of leadership cliques.
For more than five centuries ruling cliques that took office - whether by colonial appointment, swords, bullets, or ballots - justified and maintained power with a culture and institutions that treated people as groups and denied most individuals the skills and opportunities to improve their lives. One of the very few things an overwhelming majority of people in all countries agreed on in a 2004 regional poll was that despite elections, power is held by cliques pursuing mainly their own interests.
The centuries of failure in Latin America stand in bleak contrast to the development successes in many Asian countries since World War II - and, more recently, even in Spain itself. In Asia, the basic changes in some cases were begun by authoritarian governments that in time became more democratic, as also happened in Chile from 1973 to 1990, when the current foundations of Latin America's most viable state were laid.
But very few democrats or others have ever made major permanent changes to benefit the people, and the failures of much-touted reforms in the 1990s laid the groundwork for increasing frustration and demagoguery today. The next few years are not likely to bring a rash of military coups, but mainly more democratic formalities that don't really serve the interests of the people.
One of Chile's main Pinochet-era reformers, José Piñera, has remarked that a country doesn't need authoritarianism to undertake basic reforms. And Peruvian analyst Alvaro Vargas Llosa argues the same in a recent book.
In short, Latin leaders must want substantive change and understand that the impediments to democracy and development in the past have not been bad individual leaders and their foreign allies but the region's own institutions and their culture.
Polls show decisively that Latin Americans want better housing, food, education, opportunities, and democracy. And there are now some democratic and market-oriented leaders who know well what needs to be done. As Mr. Vargas Llosa says, "Reform ultimately involves undoing more than doing." Government must be small, less intrusive, more efficient, more honest. Entrenched and corrupt entitlement programs must be eliminated. There must be greatly improved education for everyone, better healthcare and environmental standards, and legal reforms that guarantee opportunity, property, and other rights to all people.
It's up to reform-minded leaders to consolidate popular support for lasting and beneficial changes that will overcome the barriers to democracy and development imbedded in major aspects of Iberian culture and institutions.
• William Ratliff is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He is the author of 'Doing It Wrong and Doing It Right: Education in Latin America and Asia.'