When Douglas Challborn saw a representative of a democracy watchdog group being barred from a polling site here during April 9 elections, he had to think fast.
"As a foreign election observer, I couldn't just tell the Peruvians what to do," says the Canadian diplomat. "So I made a point of going over and talking to the person, with my OAS [Organization of American States] cap and vest very visible."
It worked - the observer got in.
Foreign election observers and monitoring teams are having an impact across Latin America, playing a pivotal role in the region's democratization process. From Mexico to Chile, they are seeing the fruits of a decade of intensifying international commitment to democracy.
And in those corners of the region where authoritarian practices threaten most, international watchdogs are taking advantage of a broadening acceptance of universal rights - like ensuring elections are fair - to move more boldly when democracy's signposts are trampled.
"The spread of democracy in the hemisphere has permitted international observers of elections to become a universal norm, encouraging electoral authorities to be transparent and honest," says Robert Pastor, an expert in electoral monitoring at Emory University in Atlanta.
"It's now difficult for any regime to reject their participation," adds Mr. Pastor, who has organized missions to 20 countries for the Carter Center, a human rights organization begun by the former president.
The regime of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori may wish it had kept the foreigners out.
Observers are calling attention to flawed ballot-counting conditions in Venezuela, where controversial "mega elections" are set for Sunday to determine elected officials from president to local councillor.
Peru's deepening political crisis over Sunday's presidential runoff election can be clearly tied to last week's pronouncement by the OAS monitoring team that the country's electoral computer system was not reliable. The OAS, of which Peru is a member and whose mission Fujimori's government invited here as a way to gain international legitimacy, said the elections should be postponed.
Based on that finding, Mr. Fujimori's opponent, Alejandro Toledo, announced he would boycott the May 28 vote, demanding the election be reset for June 18. Fujimori said Mr. Toledo was just looking for a scapegoat, and commented that tabulating a two-man vote was so simple it could be done on an abacus.
But Toledo's move threatens to pull the legitimacy rug out from under Fujimori. The OAS could still recognize improvements in the computer system, or Peru's electoral authorities could still accept a postponement. But if the Sunday vote goes ahead unsanctioned and Fujimori wins his coveted third term, most observers foresee a nasty confrontation with the OAS and months of political instability.
The OAS action here is being watched closely both by governments and civil society to see just how far the organization is willing to go to challenge a member government in support of democratic principles. "The OAS mission is setting precedent," says Canada's Mr. Challborn.
Yet despite Peru's crisis and perennial problems in Haiti, much of Latin America can boast stable democratic processes, thanks in part to international observers.
A decade after the watershed international monitoring effort in Nicaragua's 1990 election, experts say observing teams are now much more sophisticated, monitor more than just election day, and work more closely with domestic groups that know their country's particular challenges to the democratic process.
Barry Levitt, a political analyst with the National Democratic Institute-Carter Center observation team in Peru, says the observers used to "come in a few days before the vote, have no idea of the pressures and threats the pollworkers are facing, and step out for a little observing on election day in a small radius around the not-uncomfortable hotel they're staying in."
But he and other experts say that is changing and monitoring teams are:
* Arriving in countries earlier and paying more attention to keeping the campaign on a level playing field.
* Getting out of cities to observe rural areas where the entrenched powers have more influence.
*Organizing "quick counts" on election night to stem fraud.
*Staying longer to monitor post-election conflict resolution.
*Depending more on domestic observer groups.
"It's crucial that foreign observers coordinate with the [non-partisan] internal civil society" for guidance, says Ted Lewis, director of Global Exchange's Mexico program.
In Peru, the NDI-Carter team paid close attention to widespread media bias in favor of Fujimori and lack of television access for opposition candidates in the runup to the April first-round vote.
But as Rafael Roncagliolo, secretary general of Peru's Transparencia watchdog group notes, "It was our studies of media coverage that the Carter people used as the basis for their criticism. They then signalled those findings to the world, something we would have had greater difficulty doing," he says. "It's a complementary relationship."
Despite the positive resum international observers can show for their work in Latin America, experts say there are challenges. Money is drying up, says Shelley McConnell, a Carter Center associate director, in Venezuela for Sunday's elections.
"Better technology is compensating a bit, but less money is making things harder," she says. Another problem, Pastor points out, is that proportionally more funding now comes from outside governments. "In some places the NGOs [are increasingly] reflecting the position of their donor country." For example, he says that in Haiti's 1995 election, observer groups "ended up reinforcing the policy of their funding source, the United States." The US position was that democracy had been served, when in fact, Pastor says the elections were "pretty flawed."
One neverending challenge for observers is that in any election there's always a loser. Ms. McConnell recalls how in Nicaragua's 1990 election the task of convincing president Daniel Ortega to accept defeat fell to Jimmy Carter.
"Nobody knew how Ortega was going to respond to losing," she says. Finally President Carter went to the young president and said: "Look, [in a democracy] you win some, you lose some. I can tell you, it's not the end of life."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society