IN most of Latin America's new democracies the relationship remains tenuous between the new civilian leaders and the armed forces that traditionally have been the strongest political power. Events in Ecuador illustrate this fragility, which in several nations finds the military quietly assessing the actions of civilian governments to determine whether to mount an eventual challenge. For the moment the tension in Ecuador appears to have ebbed, now that President Le'on Febres-Cordero Ribadeneyra has lifted the state of emergency imposed on two provinces after putting down the revolt of Air Force Gen. Frank Vargas Pazzos.
However, it is unsettling that the incident followed a pattern all too frequent in Ecuador and much of Latin America: After a period of civilian rule -- seven years, in this case -- a military leader in effect accused the government of ineptitude and tried to seize control.
Civilian governments throughout the hemisphere are stretched to meet economic and humanitarian needs and to be corruption free -- no small feats. Yet one of the most important challenges confronting today's Latin American civilian presidents remains gaining control of the military so that future disaffection with governments can be settled at the ballot box, not by coup d'etat. In the long run, this may be the most difficult task of all.