DEMOCRATIC notions are swaying Latin America. This past week Uruguay joined a growing list of hemisphere countries that have sent the military back to the barracks and installed civilian leadership. Next week it will be Brazil's turn. Only a scant handful of Latin American countries now remain under military domination -- the outstanding example being Chile, where Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte is firmly entrenched. Elsewhere control has steadily returned to democracy and the civilians. After 12 years of sometimes brutal, frequently repressive military rule Uruguayans are naturally buoyant about the return of democracy. But they will need patience as their new leaders, headed by President Julio Mar'ia Sanguinetti, tackle a host of problems. Uruguay is in its worst economic crisis in decades. Inflation soars at 66 percent a year. Foreign debt totals $5 billion; but with declining markets for wool and meat, the country's main exports, Uruguay is hard put to pay even the interest on the debt. President Sanguinetti promises to do ``all that I can to boost exports and foster economic growth.'' He has his work cut out for him.
Moreover, President Sanguinetti could face fresh challenges from the military. The generals relinquished power reluctantly. Some are unhappy about the return to the barracks and are watching for any misstep by the civilian leaders. But President Sanguinetti says his nation is finished ``forever'' with military rule. Whether that is too optimistic a view remains to be seen.
In Brazil, Latin America's biggest nation, the military are a bit more enthusiastic about returning to the barracks after 21 years of rule. That will help President-elect Tancredo de Almeida Neves when he takes over March 15. But his problems are much greater than those facing Uruguay's new leadership. While Brazil is beginning to emerge from a deep three-year recession, inflation soars at more than 200 percent a year, the foreign debt will rise to $104 billion this year, and unemployment of 20 percent and more is causing social stress. If progressive steps do not quickly gain on the problems, unrest could erupt.
For now, however, there is enthusiasm and optimism in Brazil and Uruguay over their redemocratization. These two nations join the swelling ranks of new democracies. Whether this trend eventually has an effect on General Pinochet's dictatorial rule in Chile remains a big question. It can be hoped that it will.