ONE of the major challenges facing the next United States president will be in Latin America. Its fragile democracies - spawned in the 1980s - are showing signs of breakdown. Two schools of thought will dominate the debate over what the US has done in Latin America during the 1980s. Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, believes that President Reagan's Latin policy has contributed to a historic expansion of democracy. In Mr. Abrams's view, ``the pendulum that should have returned new Latin democracies to army control has been suspended for all 7 of the Reagan years.'' The opposing school subscribes to the view that Latin American civilian leaders have brought what there is of democratic government in the region. Mr. Reagan's Latin legacy is more of a series of failures based on what former national security adviser Robert McFarlane called an ``intrinsically unworkable'' process. William D. Rogers, who held Abrams's job in the Ford administration, argues that there is ``little to suggest that his administration brought about these [democratic] changes.''
This year's report of the Inter-American Dialogue warns that the factors that helped deter military intervention in the 1980s - fresh memories of the high costs of direct military rule and the lack of civilian support for military takeovers - are waning. The 1990s may become a ``graveyard'' for the fragile democracies that emerged in the 1980s.
The Dialogue's dismal assessment is based on three critical areas of conflict between civilian governments and their armed forces. First, conflict between civilian rulers and the military continues to focus on attempts to prosecute military officers accused of human rights violations during past periods of military rule. Second, to boost the legitimacy of democratic government, civilian rulers have tried to curb the authority and privileges of the military. In Haiti last June, President Leslie Manigat committed this politically fatal error before he was forced into exile by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy. Finally, military and civilian leaders disagree on how best to deal with guerrilla insurgencies. The failed coup in May against Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo grew out of the Army's dissension over counterinsurgency strategy.
If current trends persist, the following countries are likely to lead a new round of military coups in Latin America. In South America, Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru are prime candidates for a coup, given the history of civilian-military conflict. Since the return of democracy in Argentina in 1985, acts of military insubordination have been constant, although President Ra'ul Alfons'in has managed to stay in power.
Ecuador has been electing civilian rulers since 1979, but military revolts have become a frequent occurrence, exacerbated by tensions between the president and congress and between regional elites. In Peru, because of the Sendero Luminoso insurgency, large sections of the country are already under de facto military rule. The more the Sendero revolt grows, the more likely a military takeover.
Tensions are likely to grow in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, with elections scheduled over the next 18 months. All three of these Central American countries now have civilian leaders, but key policy decisions are shared with the military. This means that in each of these three Central American countries the military retains implicit veto power on budgets, counterinsurgency policy, and relations with the US.
It is debatable how much the US has contributed to Latin American democratic development in the 1980s. But if the warnings issued by the Inter-American Dialogue are correct, there is little reason to believe that democratic advances will continue, regardless of who gets credit for what happened in the 1980s.
The crux of the US policy dilemma is that military assistance to Latin American armies and counterinsurgency warfare training - two mainstays of Reagan's approach to Latin America - are antithetical to fostering democratic norms. More than 60,000 Salvadoreans have died in the last eight years despite $100 million a year in US military aid and billions in economic aid designed to prop up the civilian government of Jos'e Napole'on Duarte. Over the past several decades, it is hard to see how our efforts to train Latin American military officers have made Latin America a better place to live or enhanced the viability of democratic rule. It would be wise if the next president of the United States noted the Inter-American Dialogue's warnings and created a more enlightened Latin policy.
David W. Dent is a co-editor of the ``Handbook of Latin American Studies'' and a professor of political science at Towson State University in Baltimore.