US in Latin America: good deeds or intervention?

The Clinton administration deserves applause for its recent actions to safeguard democracy in Peru and Ecuador. Washington demonstrated that it was both willing to defend democratic institutions and able to produce results. These US initiatives, however, were neither supported nor particularly welcomed by most Latin American countries.

In January, Ecuador suffered a classic military coup - the first in the region in a quarter of a century (aside from Haiti). Elected president Jamil Mahuad was ousted and, for a short time, power was assumed by a junta of military officers and indigenous leaders. External pressure, mostly from the US, prompted second thoughts. The military pulled out of the junta, causing it to collapse and allowing the elected vice president to become president. Civilian rule was restored, but with little support from other governments in the region.

Earlier this month, Peru's President Alberto Fujimori, seeking a constitutionally questionable third term, seemed ready to claim victory in an election tainted by irregularities.

During the ballot counting - when Mr. Fujimori's vote total hovered near the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff - the head of the Organization of American States monitoring team, Eduardo Stein, stated bluntly that "something sinister is happening." This left no doubt that a Fujimori triumph in the first round would be widely viewed as illegitimate.

But, more than anything else, it was the persistent demands of senior US officials that, in the end, dissuaded the Peruvian government from declaring victory and allowed the election to proceed to a second round of voting. Fujimori's vice-presidential candidate confirmed the central role of US pressure when he railed against US violations of Peru's sovereignty.

Other than a few mild and scattered statements, Latin American governments avoided any public criticism of Peru's elections, rebuffing Washington's efforts to encourage them to speak out.

The challenge now is to persuade the Fujimori government to make this round of elections more evenhanded and credible - for example, by providing opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo with fair access to the media and overhauling the official electoral body so that it is neutral and independent. But Latin American governments are still unlikely to join any US effort to keep this round of the Peruvian elections clean and honest.

The region's governments appear today uneasy about the commitments they assumed in the early 1990s to take common action whenever constitutional processes were violated in the hemisphere. They did respond jointly to several democratic breakdowns - in Haiti in 1991, Peru in 1992, Guatemala in 1993, and Paraguay in 1996. But they failed to act against violations in Ecuador in 1997, when the national Congress used a dubious pretext to depose an elected president - or in Peru and Ecuador this year.

It is not hard to find reasons for the recent hesitation of Latin American governments to join with Washington to deal with democratic reverses in other hemispheric nations. Economic problems continue to demand priority attention in most of the region's major countries.

Any US initiative suffers from the widespread disappointment with the US trade policy in the region. The particular circumstances of Peru and Ecuador may also be part of the explanation. Fujimori, after all, is still favored to win, and it makes little sense to pick a fight with a neighboring government that will probably hold power for five more years. Events this past January in Ecuador may have proceeded too quickly for concerted action.

The most important reason, however, may be Latin America's concern about the style and approach of the US and apprehension about any use of Washington's overwhelming power in the region. Other governments continue to resent and fear the US penchant for unilateral action in the hemisphere - whether to fight drugs, control migration, establish trade restrictions, or promote democracy. And they have a point. Election day was too late to seek Latin American support for a united front against electoral fraud in Peru. It has been plain for the past six months that the elections would be marred. US consultations with Latin American governments should have begun far earlier. The perception is that Washington wants the region to support its position and its way of proceeding - rather than to find ways genuinely to cooperate.

The US and the nations of Latin America know that they have a shared interest in defending and advancing democracy in the hemisphere. Indeed, back in 1991, they pledged to work together to accomplish just that. They need now to overcome their misgivings and build sufficient trust to become sustained partners in the effort and make it work.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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