People power rules in S. America

Last week, the president of Bolivia became the latest Latin American leader to leave office amid protest.

Latin America's biggest leadership problem used to be strongmen who overstayed their welcome. These days, leaders are just as likely to be tossed from the presidential palace before their time is up.

Bolivia's Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada can now be added to a growing list of elected South American presidents forced from office in the past six years by massive social protests.

Mr. Sánchez de Lozada resigned on Friday, 14 months into his second term. His government crumbled amid demonstrations that began in mid-September when his administration decided to go ahead with plans to sell natural gas to the United States and Mexico. At least 65 people were killed in 33 days of clashes between soldiers and demonstrators.

Though some say the popular ousting of elected leaders represents democracy run amok in Latin America, the events that led to the collapse of governments in Ecuador, Argentina, and now Bolivia reflect a major shift in the way the region responds to crises, analysts say. Whereas in the past, using the military might have been considered a legitimate response to putting down unrest, once Sánchez de Lozada unleashed the Army, support from his political allies evaporated. Today, countries here are increasingly relying on political solutions - albeit sometimes messy ones.

"Fifteen years ago, the armed forces would have moved in to quell protests and take power," says John Youle, who runs a consulting firm in the Andes. "Today, they would rather defend democracy, however flawed. The general view is that politicians created the mess, politicians need to figure a way out."

A growing list

Mr. Sánchez de Lozada joins the ranks of Argentina's Fernando de la Rua, who resigned in December 2001; Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador, who was forced out in January 2000; and Peru's Alberto Fujimori, who quit in November 2000. Another Ecuadorian president, Abdalá Bucaram, was forced out in 1997.

Venezuela's Hugo Chávez nearly suffered the same fate in April 2002. He was briefly ousted by the military, but public wariness of the armed forces and enough support from his political base allowed him to return two days later.

Regional analysts are closely watching Peru's Alejandro Toledo and Ecuador's Lucio Gutiérrez, who have radically veered from their original campaign planks and now have less than 20 percent support in public opinion polls. Mr. Toledo was forced to impose a 30-day national state of emergency in May to squelch strikes gripping the country, and Mr. Gutiérrez has ditched the coalition that brought him to power, governing today on an ad hoc basis.

While the details may differ from country to country, liberalized economic policies and accusations of gross corruption are common threads linking the fate of South America's newly deposed leaders.

Nations here have been following a US-led effort to open their economies since the mid-1980s. Bolivia was the first to implement sweeping changes in 1985, and nearly every nation followed suit. The changes - selling off state-owned companies, reducing tariffs and subsidies, and shrinking the role of government - have paid off on the macroeconomic front. Exports across the region are up, international reserves are solid, and four-digit inflation is gone.

These positive trends, however, have not translated into improved living conditions for the vast majority of people. Poverty has increased in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela in the past decade; foreign debts have ballooned with new loans and mismanagement; and gains from privatization were funneled into the hands of a few.

In Bolivia, the demonstrations - the largest since democracy was reinstated in the early 1980s - initially began in the highlands to protest the government's plan to export natural gas, but quickly morphed into a nationwide antigovernment movement.

"Gas is only just one issue. These protests were about a government that did not listen to or represent the people of Bolivia," says Hugo Salvatierra, a human rights lawyer working in the eastern city of Santa Cruz.

On Sunday, Carlos Mesa, vice president turned interim president, named his 15-member cabinet. The Army, Congress, and indigenous leaders have said they will support the new president, though one indigenous leader warned of new protests within 90 days if Mr. Mesa does not institute policies aimed at helping the country's native peasant population. Mesa has promised early elections and a referendum on the gas issue.

Unpopular economic moves in the midst of the crises were the final straw that led to the collapse of the different regimes. In Ecuador, Mr. Bucaram fell when he pushed through massive rate hikes for public services in early 1997 during a march that brought 2 million people to the capital. Three years later, Mr. Mahuad's government collapsed after he proposed substituting the local currency with the US dollar. And Mr. De la Rua's end in Argentina in 2001 was precipitated by a decision to limit bank withdrawals. Mr. Fujimori and his associates, some of whom are behind bars, are accused of pilfering more than $1 billion from Peru.

Conversely, Venezuela's Mr. Chávez has been able to hang on to the power, despite prolonged strikes that crippled the country's economy, by bucking the regional trend and following a populist approach that keeps him above 30 percent in the polls. And since the attempted coup last year, the Army has remained largely on the sidelines.

Has the pendulum swung too far?

South Americans are both emboldened and disenchanted with democracy, analysts say. On one hand, the region's democracies have been unable to meet public expectations, with many leaders switching to austerity measures from the free-spending rhetoric of the campaign trail. On the flip side, mass demonstrations against government policies were unheard of during decades of strongman rule. Democracies, however flawed and fragile, allow people to express their discontent. But, some analysts warn, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction.

"In some ways these protests represent the voice of the people, who are mobilizing against unpopular measures," says Luis Nunes, Peru director for the US-based National Democratic Institute. "But they are a dangerous interpretation of democracy. In South America we cannot have revolving-door presidencies. This isn't what democracy means."

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