ONE by one, the military dictatorships so prevalent in Latin America in the '70s have been yielding to democratic civilian rule. A decade ago two-thirds of all Latins lived under dictatorships; now 90 percent of the people live under governments which embrace at least some democratic principles. This trend toward greater respect for democratic freedoms is heartening. Outside pressure helps. Pope John Paul II on his recent visit to Chile was sharply critical of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's regime. The US has also been making a strong case for democracy and against human rights abuse through two of its Latin ambassadors. Some US actions, however, such as its abstention, rather than a veto, on a World Bank loan to Chile last July, and its vote against a recent UN human rights resolution against Chile, could be interpreted as sending mixed signals.
Outside pressure can encourage inside pressure. That was the case for Haitians who finally routed Jean-Claude Duvalier last year after close to 30 years of a brutal and corrupt family dictatorship. Voters last week overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, which reduces the power of the presidency and denies it to Duvalier associates.
In South America, Chile and Paraguay remain the major dictatorial holdouts.
General Pinochet has ruled Chile with an iron hand for close to 14 years. One-third of all human rights violations there since 1980 occurred in 1986. Protests and assemblies are routinely broken up.
Perhaps in anticipation of the Pope's visit, General Pinochet earlier this year said that a number of Chileans in exile would be allowed to return and that political parties would be legalized. The opposition's new Movement for Free Elections, with its singular focus on the 1989 election, is a positive development.
In any case, the Pope's trip, billed as strictly pastoral, has had some political impact. Monitor correspondent Clara Germani reports that the visit brought the first ``breath of free public expression'' that many Chileans can remember; at a mammoth youth rally last week many people spoke publicly about how it is to live in such a repressive atmosphere. The Pope has urged his church bishops to press for free elections in 1989.
US Ambassador to Chile Harry G. Barnes Jr. has also been keeping the pressure on, openly meeting with opposition leaders and rebuking the government for its poor human rights record. He once told General Pinochet the US has concluded that ``the ills of democracy can best be cured by more democracy.''
US pressure continues against Paraguay's dictatorship as well. General Alfredo Stroessner has been in office 33 years; signs of ``give'' are few. Though his rule has been marked by corruption, fraud, media censorship, and occasional brutality, the paternalistic General Stroessner is credited by many Paraguayans as the man who ended a long history of civil chaos by coming to power. He will probably be ``reelected'' for as long as he wants to run; still, new divisions have surfaced within his Colorado Party on how to handle his succession.
Like Ambassador Barnes, US Ambassador to Paraguay Clyde Taylor has made it his business, under similarly tough circumstances, to contact opposition politicians and to speak out forcefully for democracy and against civil liberties curbs and media censorship. It is a bold stand for which he personally has paid a price. An irate Paraguayan government has bombarded him with insults and threats; in February police broke up an outdoor reception, held for him by a multiparty group, by spraying the party scene with tear gas.
Continuing outside pressure on dictatorships to change may appear to do little, but it chips away at repression.
The Reagan administration cannot expect support for its policy on ``dictatorships of the left'' - Nicaragua and Cuba - without showing consistent concern for right-wing oppressors.
Recent US outspokenness takes away from such leaders the excuse that they must curb civil liberties as they fight beside that larger democracy to the north against communism. Notice should be served that such governments must make the transition to decency before they can count on the US as a partner.