La Democracia, Si

AS President Bush noted this week, the American hemisphere is ``very, very close'' to being democratic from the Arctic Circle in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. As recently as December, military dictatorships still ruled in Chile and Panama, and Nicaragua was a one-party state aligned with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Today, each of those countries is governed by or awaiting the inauguration of a civilian president chosen in multiparty elections.

Chile, with a legacy of democracy, largely found its own way back to government by the people. During 16 years under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, thousands of Chileans were killed or imprisoned, or simply disappeared. But their brave repossession of representative institutions culminated last Sunday with the inauguration of President Patricio Aylwin, who routed General Pinochet in a December election.

Mr. Aylwin's honeymoon may be short. Though Chile has a generally strong market economy, a wide gap between rich and poor must be narrowed, and Chile is burdened with foreign debt. Aylwin also faces a delicate task in negotiating sustainable political arrangements with the Pinochet-led military, which has retained broad powers. At the same time, the new president must respond to popular pressure to redress past human rights abuses without provoking the military into strong-armed retaliation.

In Panama and Nicaragua, the end of dictatorships was hastened by the United States. This does not, in our judgment, taint these new democracies. When given a fair chance, the voters in Panama and Nicaragua elected both President Endara and President-elect Chamorro with large majorities. The expression of popular will in both lands is unmistakable.

But US midwifery does impose a responsibility on Washington to help nurture the young governments. Bush's request this week for an $800 million ``democracy fund'' to assist economic reconstruction and national reconciliation in Panama and Nicaragua is a vital step. We join in his plea to Congress for swift action to get the funds flowing south.

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