Ever since President Clinton invited the Western Hemisphere's leaders - everybody but Cuba's Fidel Castro - to a celebration of democracy in Miami in 1994, the US has touted Latin America as a solidly democratic region.
But, with recent political upheavals in Paraguay and Ecuador and a bubbling constitutional crisis in Venezuela, the United States is having second thoughts about just how deep that democracy goes. And it is looking for new ways to encourage the democratic and peaceful resolution of political instability.
One idea is to enlist regional help at flashpoints of political conflict before they turn into full-blown, tanks-rolling crises. The US hopes to present a plan on these lines at the June general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Guatemala - although there is "no blueprint yet," according to a State Department official.
To avoid a perception that the idea is a US imposition, US officials declined to discuss specific "mechanisms" while consultation with OAS member states continues. But, based on a formula that has worked in the past, one possibility would be for political crises to trigger creation of a "friends" group of countries to assist in crisis resolution.
The "friends" group of Argentina, Brazil, and the US helped Ecuador and Peru resolve a 50-year border conflict with a peace treaty signed last year. The same three countries worked closely with Paraguay for the peaceful resolution of its recent governmental crisis.
Still, not everyone in Latin America is warm to the US proposal, especially with the American-led military intervention in Yugoslavia dusting off traditional Latin concerns about US meddling in countries' internal affairs. Mexico in particular has doubts about any expansion of the regional organization's "right to intervene." In provisions dating from 1991, the OAS is authorized to suspend any member country that violates its own constitutional order.
BUT the US proposal demonstrates a resurgent concern about a democratization process that some observers had started to conclude was reaching maturity.
"Latin democracy is like a 20-story building under construction, but we're still only at the foundation," says Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Miami's Florida International University.
The sharpest concerns now spring from events in Venezuela, where newly installed president Hugo Chvez - leader of an unsuccessful military coup attempt in 1992 - is sending mixed signals about his drive for near-absolute powers to reform the political system.
Both before and after taking office, Mr. Chvez has hinted he might dissolve the Congress and the Supreme Court to clear the way for reforms. But in recent days he and top officials have taken to reassuring Venezuelans and the international community that the wide-ranging constitutional reforms the new government is seeking will be achieved through democratic means.
But, with hundreds of Chvez supporters chanting "Dissolve Congress!" outside the National Congress last week, analysts wonder how Chvez will deal with limits recently placed on his constitutional reform efforts by the country's Supreme Court.
As Venezuelans prepare for an April 25 referendum on holding a constitutional assembly, the US has called on Chvez to uphold the commitments he made to govern in conformance with the Constitution. But last week even Chvez's chief opponent in the presidential election, Henrique Salas Romer, spoke out against any form of "intervention" by the OAS in Venezuela's affairs.
In the case of Paraguay, long-running political turmoil came to a head when Vice President Luis Argaa's assassination March 23 sparked riots and fears of a military coup. He was a bitter enemy of a former general and longtime power broker, Lino Oviedo.
The crisis ended abruptly when President Ral Cubas exiled himself in Brazil, and Mr. Oviedo fled to Argentina. That opened the way for the head of the Senate, Luis Gonzlez Macchi, to temporarily assume the presidency - a constitutionally mandated denouement that left analysts squinting at the silver lining.
"A decade ago this would have ended with a coup and Oviedo in control," says Mr. Gamarra of Florida International University. But "even with a murder in the middle, this ended with a constitutional mechanism, so that's something to be optimistic about."
As for Chile, its former military dictator, Augusto Pinochet - under Britain's latest ruling last week - sits in London awaiting possible extradition to Spain where he could be tried on charges of torture. Both Chilean and international analysts say Chile's justice system is incapable of trying him at home because of privileges and limits on justice in the country's Pinochet-era Constitution.
Examples like Chile prompt insistence from the United States that Latin America has moved to a "second generation" of democratic challenges requiring multiparty systems with broader citizen participation, strengthened judicial branches, and greater openness.
"There will be obstacles along the way, we realize it's a tough road," the State Department official says. "But there are lots of hopeful signs mixed with the potential threats."