After years of authoritarian rule, Brazil and Argentina have embraced democracy. This is part of a trend away from military dictatorship in the South American continent. But the concept of democracy is still fragile. One of the keys to its survival lies in improving the region's struggling economies.
The current trend that has moved six South American countries in as many years from military dictatorship to democracy is inspiring hope that enduring political change can come to the continent.
This trend is seen -- inside and outside of South America -- as a pragmatic and deliberate step, rather than the kind of erratic swing of the political pendulum that has previously been a feature of these Latin countries.
``Latin Americans tend to fall in love with big ideas,'' says Richard Morse, secretary of the Wilson Center Latin American program in Washington. He says that the progress now being made in these countries, including movement toward democracy, should not be seen as part of a cycle. ``It's better to think of a spiral, in which the movement is from an ideological to a pragmatic phase.''
Heavy Latin American foreign debt incurred by military governments has generally left these countries with enormous inflation rates and high unemployment. Payment of the principal and interest on the debt has left the countries with no money to invest in economic development. That, in turn, exacerbates inflation and unemployment.
The weak economic situation, which the military failed to control, helped to usher in democracy, because the military finally reached the point at which it no longer had solutions to the economic problems. The poor economy is considered the biggest threat to the new democratic systems, because it is unclear how stable the new civilian governments can be in the face of potential social unrest over economic problems.
In Brazil and Argentina, the two major democratic powers in South America, democracy appears fragile and very much dependent on maintaining the confidence of the electorate. In the past, the electorate has readily supported efforts by the military to restore order when things didn't run smoothly. But it is generally agreed that a return of the military to the political leadership in Argentina is no longer an option. The military appears to have been thoroughly discredited as a ruling power, because of negative public perception of its conduct during the 1982 Falklands war and because of the sentencing of some of the former ruling generals for human rights abuses.
Surviving to pass the banner to a democratically elected successor is the top priority of the administrations of Brazilian President Jos'e Sarney and Argentine President Ra'ul Alfons'in, their officials stress.
``The whole definition of democracy is up for grabs. The big thing is accountability of government and the continuity of that accountability,'' says Dr. Morse.
Argentine and Brazilian officials argue that it is not appropriate to measure their governments against North American expectations of democracy -- especially because these nations must educate their populations on such issues as separation of powers and the individual's responsibility in a democracy.
For example, a Brazilian fisherman told the Monitor he doesn't vote now because it doesn't pay -- literally. In the past, he was paid to go to the polls.
The democratic tradition isn't necessarily a requirement for success, says Guillermo O'Donnell, an associate of a Sao Paulo research institution and academic director of the Kellogg Institute at Notre Dame University. ``If this were so,'' he says, ``then no democracy would ever be born in the world.''