True to form, the sensational in Latin America keeps grabbing the headlines: Peru's continuing hostage crisis and Ecuador's tumultuous week of presidential musical chairs are but the latest displays.
These events demonstrate much more than the human drama of the moment, however. They also point to the fragility of the region's noble twin experiments in mass democracy and liberal economic reforms.
The unprecedented mass democracy in place in Ecuador since 1979 and in Peru since 1980 (with a short but significant interruption in 1992-93) gives all citizens 18 and older a voice and a vote. However, in neither country, in contrast to several others in the region, has the regular expression of voice and vote yet produced strong, stable, institutional democracy.
Ecuadoreans tend to vote for the person rather than the party. Every four years, they've elected presidential "personalities" and as many as 21 parties in their one-house, now 82-member congress. Just trying to govern is a problem, much less making politics routine and predictable. Each successive elected president has run afoul of a majority opposition in congress, though none quite so spectacularly as Abdala Bucaram, "El Loco," who was voted out of office for "mental incapacity" by a simple majority plus one of the Ecuadorean congress just six months after sweeping to victory in 20 of the country's 21 provinces.
Peru's turn to personality
Peruvians embraced open democracy with great enthusiasm in 1980, only to see their chosen candidates - Fernando Belaunde Terry (1980-85) and Alan Garcia (1985-90) - make national conditions much worse over the decade, even with congressional majorities for their parties, Accion Popular and Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana. Since the 1990 elections, Peru's citizens have turned their backs on traditional parties and their candidates to support a "nonpolitical" personality and his promises.
However capable of ending hyperinflation, restoring political order after a debilitating struggle against Shining Path guerrillas, and generating economic growth, President Alberto Fujimori rules without the benefit of organized parties and institutionalized decisionmaking. The takeover of the Japanese ambassador's residence by Peru's other guerrilla organization, the tiny and almost moribund Movimiento Revolucionario Tpac Amaru (MRTA), represents, among other things, a left antipolitical alternative to Fujimori's own personalistic approach.
In both countries, the mediating role of one ongoing institution, the military, is instructive. The armed forces have been significant behind-the-scenes actors; they have not resorted to their traditional approach of seizing control by coup. In Ecuador, they played a critical but supportive role designed to get the crisis over with as quickly and efficiently as possible without actually taking charge. In Peru, they continue to stand behind President Fujimori even though he has undermined their professional institutional integrity over the course of his seven-year rule.
Such responses permit the maintenance of civilian democratic rule in both countries in spite of all of its problems. Continuity of civilian rule is a precondition for any future "deepening" of democracy.
In addition, however, the dramatic December surprise in Peru and the February surprise in Ecuador also reflect the challenges inherent in trying to move toward a liberal, market-oriented economy. In the short and medium term, a shift to a market economy makes things worse for a lot of people who weren't very well off to begin with.
Ecuadoreans say 'enough'
In Ecuador, the voice of mass democracy shouted "Enough!" well before the newly enacted market liberalization reforms could take hold. The new Fabian Alarcon government voted in by congress to take the place of President Bucaram's administration is very likely to respond to the clamor by modifying, perhaps even reversing, the liberal economic reform course.
In Peru, such liberal economic reforms are much further advanced, but most Peruvians are still worse off than they were 20 years ago. Though MRTA and its spectacular hostage taking lack support at all levels of Peruvian society, their protest about the adverse effects of the country's shift to a liberal, private-sector-driven economic approach calls attention to that initiative's inability, so far, to respond to basic economic needs.
The good news in both cases is that elected civilian government has survived. The bad news is the threat to economic reforms designed to restore a free-market economic model that was abandoned in the 1930s in Ecuador because it could not respond to the challenges of the Great Depression, and in the 1960s in Peru because the military thought it had a better approach. The reforms could falter before they can produce the beneficial effects predicted by supporters.
Politics in these two countries is more transparent, open, and mass-based than at any time in their histories. And only elected governments - able and willing to meet such vital public needs as education, health, and housing as they reform along market-oriented lines - are likely to endure. Democracy's long-term survival in Latin America requires a strong economy. But if economic progress is to be based on liberal principles, it must have a human face.
* David Scott Palmer, who teaches Latin American politics and US-Latin American relations at Boston University, is editor of and contributor to "Shining Path of Peru" (St. Martin's).