Democracy: a luxury for rich countries?

THE killings at Lima's Lurigancho prison last June, where more than 100 inmates were shot, confirms once more that democracy alone is no guarantee of peace and order. This tragic event was repeated in several Peruvian jails during the terrorist rebellion of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path); in all, more than 300 prisoners were killed. The Lurigancho event -- with no survivors -- differs from others in that rebels were killed after they surrendered.

The order to quell the rebellion came directly from constitutionally elected President Alan Garc'ia himself, but the hatred accumulated over years of terror and subversion twisted the presidential command, and the ``guardians of order'' once again applied the rule of ``an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.'' Sendero Luminoso's revenge came quickly. A powerful blast blew up a tourist train running from Cuzco to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, leaving eight dead and 44 injured. Waves of terrorist attacks and mutinies in jails upset the proceedings of the 17th International Socialist Congress held in Lima -- the first such gathering in Latin America. Under this pressure the Congress came to a premature end.

These facts seriously upset the political, social, and economic climate of Peru and show that there is little or nothing a democratic government can do when its only legacy is violence: violence from both sides -- the old violence of the military and oligarchic powers, and the new and just as senseless violence of the subversive groups.

During the 1960s, when subversion was starting to develop in South America, the leaders of the industrialized Western countries regarded the dissidents that struggled against the old oligarchic dictatorships with some sympathy. Maybe, they thought, this subversion was a genuine grass-roots freedom movement; but the reality was entirely different. The struggle against these dictatorships was a smoke screen to justify the violence and, after victory, the final institution of a new and antidemocratic order.

This misconception among outsiders resulted from a lack of understanding of South America's problems and those of the third world in general, and it has been a constant through the years since the splendor of the British Empire faded. England was the only modern colonial power that understood the essence of the countries under its influence. This invaluable faculty, more than anything else, was the cornerstone of its grandeur -- as much as the lack of it in modern superpowers is the leading cause of our present state of confusion.

The democracy that the West tries to export is of no value without a proper framework. Within our Western economic system, a poverty-stricken democracy can hardly survive. Democracy is a luxury of rich countries. There is no lasting democracy in nations facing hunger; and under the heavy yoke of their external debt few, if any, Latin American countries will be able to preserve their freedom.

The paradox is that the enormous debt that these fledgling democracies will be forced to pay is the result of the loans so ``generously'' granted to the former autocratic dictatorships by those bankers now assiduously seeking payment. In those days of slack purse strings and pockets full of oil sales money, when the loans were granted, it may have mattered little to the bankers if the recipient of the loan was a dictator, an oligarch, a torturer, or a pirate. Not enough attention was given the prospect that high interest rates would ruin the economy in a vast region of the world, and would trigger a financial chain reaction that sooner or later would turn against itself.

Were the consequences not foreseen? In spite of their ``great forecasting power,'' bankers and financiers made a great mistake, which, if not corrected, can cost the democratic world the irretrievable loss of stability in Latin America's debtor countries.


Not so. Just as Cuba and Nicaragua were lost to the democratic West, something similar could happen to much larger and powerful nations such as Argentina and Brazil. But in this event, $100 million to aid ``freedom fighters,'' as sought by the Reagan administration for the contra forces in Nicaragua, would hardly help.

George Mendoza is an Argentine newspaperman now living in Boston.

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