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Where have all Latin America's dictators gone?

Latin America's transition to democracy seems well established, with credible elections this year throughout the region. The recent Ecuador uprising underscores how dangers remain.

By Staff writer / October 22, 2010



Mexico City

On the afternoon of Sept. 30, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa found himself in a most undemocratic situation: holed up in a hospital, locked in by angry police officers revolting against proposed cuts to their bonuses.

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"Kill me!" the fiery president dared his foes.

Mr. Correa was rescued 12 hours later by the military, but he claimed that a coup attempt had been averted. Latin American leaders, on alert after Manuel Zelaya was ousted from the presidency of Honduras in his pajamas last summer, rushed to the Andean leader's defense.

Others doubt his claim of a coup but say the events of Sept. 30 equally underline threats to democracy in Ecuador. Correa, they say, is a president with too much consolidated power, so much that citizens feel street protests are the only viable way to try to resolve their disputes.

As Ecuador sorts out what really happened last month, Latin America is taking stock of where its democracy stands today. In some countries, it is robust. Although still vulnerable to strongman presidents, democracy has widely taken root across Latin America, the United Nations said in report this month.

The claim of a coup in Ecuador came just as Brazilians went to the polls to vote in a new leader, since it is time for the wildly popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to step down. A quiet first round of voting heads into a runoff Oct. 31 between Mr. da Silva's handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and centrist opposition challenger Jose Serra.

Some leaders inflate power

Brazil's voters and those across the region are showing a maturity in selecting leaders, demanding economic stability and responsible social inclusion, regardless of ideology. And yet in other countries around the region, leaders have inflated executive power at the expense of other institutions, reversing gains made in the past 20 years across the region.

"For the vast majority of cases, you have normal, pro-democratic politics," says Dexter Boniface, an expert on Latin America democracy at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. "And in some cases, you have this weakness of institutions, where the political party system is not well institutionalized.… You have these twin dynamics under way."

In many countries in Latin America, the transformation from military rule and dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and '90s has sealed a democratic tradition. The expectation of free and fair elections and that the democratically elected leader finish his or her term is resounding across the region.

That is one reason – geopolitics aside – that there was such an international outcry when Mr. Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was jostled from his bed in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, at gunpoint in June 2009 and forced into exile in neighboring Costa Rica.

Transformative elections

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