Another Latin strongman emerges

Venezuela's political upheaval reopens issue of whether Latin America

In La Paz, Bolivia, a well-known television journalist is spicing her electoral campaign for the mayor's seat with praiseworthy references to Venezuela's strong-arm president, Hugo Chvez.

In Colombia, people frustrated with their country's worsening guerrilla conflict and sinking economy pray for "a Colombian Fujimori" - in reference to Peruvian presidential bulldozer Alberto Fujimori.

And here this week in Venezuela, while intellectuals debate the accelerating concentration of power in the executive branch under Mr. Chvez, the populace continues to give the former colonel and failed coup leader its overwhelming support.

After more than a decade of democratization, Latin Americans are revisiting a historical taste for authoritarian leadership. Many people blame the inability of the region's democratic institutions to reverse poverty and social inequality. But some see a deeper cultural culprit. A citizen-based government bucks centuries of sovereign rule going back to European conquerors and Mayan kings.

Added to these factors is economic globalization, an influx of US and European companies that revives a centuries-old conquest complex - even many in the region's elite consider globalization imperialism's new clothing. And the attraction to nationalistic strong men, modeled after South America's 19th-century liberator Simn Bolvar or this century's Argentine leader Juan Pern, takes on magnetic strength.

After the constitutional assembly, "All of us in Latin America are sitting on a time bomb made up of the have-not masses and the impoverished middle classes that have no faith in democratic institutions they dismiss as run by a self-serving elite," says Vilma Petrash, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela. "Those are the people who respond to a Chvez who has been clever enough to present himself as heir-apparent to Simn Bolvar, as the new Latin liberator."

Looking for 'third way'

With communism discredited and US-style capitalism blamed for growing ranks of unprotected poor, Latin Americans are like other populations looking for the famous "third way," says Ms. Petrash. But a rejection of institutions like legislatures, the judiciary, and political parties, lumped together as corrupt, plus a lack of civic education, leave Latins looking to leaders who promise to throw out the old rascals and stand up to foreign ones.

Following Chvez's recent dissolution of the legislature, his new constitutional assembly began investigating judges on grounds of corruption, and may soon start suspending local mayors and governors. In another move to strengthen his power on Tuesday, Chvez named close ally Hctor Ciavaldini as the new head of the state-run PVDSA oil monopoly.

But the more Chvez's critics in Venezuela accuse him of usurping power, the more his supporters cry for more.

The protests of Peru's neighbors over Fujimori's autogolpe, self-coup, in 1992 led the Organization of American States to call for a referendum to see how Peruvians felt. "Fujimori went along with the demand," notes Caracas political analyst Adolfo Salgueiro, "and of course he won overwhelmingly."

"A growing number of people in Latin America want an authoritarian democracy based on one strong leader," says Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin America expert at Florida International University in Miami. "They want the symbols of democracy, partly to avoid an undesirable label of dictatorship, but they approve concentrating authority in the executive branch."

To explain Latin America's undying attraction to authoritarian leaders, cultural historians look back over five centuries to the Spanish conquest. In countries like Mexico and Peru with large Indian populations that were already long accustomed to government by sovereign rulers and impenetrable elites, the new government was not so different.

While North America was being settled mostly by northern European colonists seeking freedoms of expression and religion and self-government, the Spanish (and Portuguese) conquering and then settling Latin America were more intent on sending the New World's riches home than creating citizen-based governments.

Peruvian political analyst Santiago Pedraglio notes that the South American countries considered to have the region's strongest democracies - Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina - also have the most homogeneous populations from more-educated European stock.

Of course that didn't stop Argentina from following Juan Pern, who convinced his descamisados - the shirtless poor - that he was their savior, or Chile from 16 years under Augusto Pinochet.

In Latin America the caudillo or authoritarian leader maintains the reputation of an effectual rescuer in the face of chaos, institutional corruption, lost national identity - or all three together. If Chilean society remains so divided it's because many Chileans credit General Pinochet with saving the country from Salvador Allende's socialism.

Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo suffers the reputation of a "weak" president in part because his attempts to strengthen the rule of law at the expense of Mexico's traditional omnipotent-president system has been accompanied by greater social chaos.

Then there is the Fujimori success story. Even many "Fuji" critics grudgingly acknowledge that he took over a disastrous economy, a frightening terrorism problem with the infamous Sendero Luminoso, and rampant corruption - and turned things around.

"What Fujimori did was blatantly illegal, shutting down democratic institutions overnight with the support of the armed forces," says FIU's Gamarra. "But many Peruvians will proudly tell you today that their model is being followed in Venezuela."

Some of Chvez's more moderate supporters insist their man is in fact no Fujimori. "In Peru you had a coup d'tat, but here the president has been respectful of the democratic institutions," says Hermann Escarr, a Chvez supporter in the month-old constitutional assembly writing the country's new constitution. "Nothing has been shut down."

That may make Chvez a "Fuji-lite." But both leaders' actions discredit democracy as a viable form of government in difficult economic times, some analysts say.

The problem for Latin America is that many of the changes it requires are long-term antidotes to the caudillo reflex. A better-educated populace, replacing corruption with a professional civil service, narrowing the rich-poor gap; none of that happens as fast as an overnight coup.

Getting on the right track

But political reform can help get countries going on the right track. Allan Brewer-Carias, a Caracas lawyer and member of Venezuela's constitutional assembly, says more localized government is key to forming participatory democracy. "France has 38,000 local governments, compared to 300 in Venezuela," he says. "In the US you take things like the local public hearing for granted, but we don't have that."

Latin countries must also find ways to improve their economic situation within the democratic system. Chile has reduced extreme poverty rates over its decade of democratic rule, and Argentina's Menem pulled his country from an economic disaster without closing down democratic institutions - although some critics still labeled him a caudillo.

The challenge for Latin America's democracies is to find their way through the globalization process that will continue in the next century while offering economic opportunity, broader citizen participation, and an effective justice system.

"Either we carry out reforms that incorporate the mass of poor and disenfranchised citizens and offer them a stake in democracy," says Venezuela's Petrash, "or we're going to find that Hugo Chvez is one more in a long tradition."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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