THE recent ousting from office of Guatemalan President Jorge Serrano Elias and his Venezuelan colleague Carlos Andres Perez, preceded by the ignominious impeachment of Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello, should serve as a reminder to United States policymakers that democracy still has a long way to go in Latin America.
When a wave of democratization hit the region in the early 1980s, many analysts erroneously took it as a definitive turn from a long tradition of military dictatorships and authoritarian ruling. Disappointments came soon. Argentine President Raul Alfonsin Foulkes's troubled administration, besieged by military upheavals and economic instability, had to leave office six months early. Paraguay and Uruguay did not fare much better, although those newly born democracies in the Southern Cone have managed to s urvive. Chilean President Patricio Aylwin Azocar still has to cope with his predecessor, Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, who seems determined to keep himself in power behind the scenes. In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori now heads a virtual dictatorship with surprisingly high levels of popular support. The ousting of President Collor brought down hopes of restoring democracy to unstable Brazil.
Even Colombia and Venezuela, two countries in Northern South America with a longstanding tradition of democratic continuity, have been facing a growing threat of political and military insecurities derived from drug trafficking, guerrilla warfare, and corruption.
In Central America, Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama are cases of extreme precariousness, deepened by an erosion of their leadership and a seemingly unshakable presence of the armed forces in their political life.
Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's government has had to grapple with a resurgence of guerrilla activities and a profound political crisis. The overthrowing of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and Fidel Castro Ruz's stubborn rejection of overtures to open up a democratic path in Cuba, also show how difficult it is to cast away that Latin American tradition of authoritarianism.
Authors like Argentine writer Jose Ignacio Garcia Hamilton have repeatedly pointed out that Spain's conquest and legal system have generated autocratic attitudes that are now too deeply rooted in Latin American society to be changed overnight. That, and the fact that democratic ideas never really became ingrained in the region, may explain why occasional outbursts of dictatorial trends seem to take hold quickly, as in Peru and Venezuela.
In Argentina, for instance, aristocratic governments followed the imposition of a liberal constitution in the mid-19th century that was totally alien to the country's political tradition.
Modern historians also underscore that even in the US, democracy took a long time to become a political reality. So why assume that Latin Americans, by virtue of mere political will, could abruptly change the course of their own history in less than a decade? Neither their history nor their social habits show the civic self-discipline that is characteristic of modern democracies and an essential ingredient for political dialogue.
Demanding a drastic modification of their autocratic tradition seems to have been a leitmotif of US foreign policy in recent years. But State Department optimists should bear in mind that cultures do not cut off their ties with the past at the whim of a group of bureaucrats who equate democracy with free enterprise and capital investments. Although not impossible, the task of transforming developing economies into modern, technologically advanced democracies will probably take the rest of this century an d perhaps much of the next. Patience and understanding are essential to cope with the region's adolescence.