In Latin America, Democracy Is Losing
Legitimacy-All Over Again
Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian journalist and co-author
of Manual of the Perfect Latin American Idiot, is currently working on
a book about Latin America.
Lima, Peru-In the last two years, four Latin American
governments have been toppled by popular uprisings, although in Venezuela
a "counter-coup" with farcical touches restored President Hugo
Chávez to power.
In Ecuador, an Indian revolt against the adoption of the dollar as official
currency triggered a coup by Vice President Gustavo Noboa against President
Jamil Mahuad (the dollar currency survived).
In Peru, popular insurgence threw Alberto Fujimori out of power. Alejandro
Toledo won the elections, but the perpetuation of past habits-political
persecution, corruption scandals, lack of reform-have led to nationwide
protests that threaten his regime.
In Argentina, President Fernando de la Rúa inherited a $10 billion
fiscal deficit from Carlos Menem, and an over-regulated environment, with
16 percent unemployment, under a currency board monetary system incompatible
with such imbalances. The people expelled him from power, and the man
who has ended up as president, Eduardo Duhalde, is himself hanging on
to power by a thread.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez put an end to four decades of democracy
with traditional party rule born out of the Punto Fijo accords of 1958-a
period rich in corruption, pork and fiscal irresponsibility. But Chávez
tried to assume near-dictatorial powers and to establish a quasi-socialist
economy by decree. His government collapsed after people took to the streets,
though it quickly regained power.
What are the lessons of this succession of political cataclysms that seem
to owe so much to magical-realist literary tradition? There are two, one
positive, the other negative.
First, the bad news: Latin America has not reached puberty, despite what
investment bankers and some Western governments would have had us believe
during the 1990s.
Latin America is still in its mischievous, self-destructive infancy. It
mirrors its own stereotype. The economy, which in the 1990s grew slightly
more than it did in the 1980s, but only half of what it grew in the 1970s,
has not reduced the poverty which affects 50 percent of the population.
So democracy-which held out the promise of economic well-being-is losing
legitimacy all over again.
And now the good news: For the first time in Latin America's history,
an embryo of civil society is developing. It lacks clear leadership, and
it does yet not carry a cogent message, but it is a force against the
status quo, the political and business elites.
This civil society force is not yet armed with a specific government blueprint.
It is a republican-like movement against monarch-like presidents and systems
of privilege, without a well-formed idea of how to give institutional
shape to that libertarian instinct of opportunity and participation. That
is why, confusingly, there is also a touch of socialism in some dimensions
of that loose movement.
Although directed against specific governments, these uprisings aim at
the way power has been exercised for decades in Latin America. It is the
political counterpart of the silent revolution undertaken by the informal
entrepreneurs of the economy, who now account for 60 percent of the man-hours
worked but, because of low productivity resulting from that very system
they reject, only around 35 percent of the GDP.
People are realizing the solutions they once supported are as bad as the
preceding problems. Chavez spearheaded a revolt against the traditional
political culture of a country that wasted $250 billion in oil revenues
in the past 20 years. The traditional Venezuelan political parties, Acción
Democrática and Copei, and a closely knit business elite, enjoyed
those golden years to the last drop with a web of monopolies, tax exemptions
and exchange differentials. The Chávez phenomenon was the response.
But he made matters worse. So the people are now questioning the whole
system, not just the old faces.
An old era-begun in 1980 with democratization and continued through the
1990s with insufficient reforms that strengthened power enclaves while
reducing inflation and lowering trade barriers-is coming to a close. Opportunities
were opened during those years, not to the poor, but mainly to the privileged
few who benefited from monopolies through crony privatizations that contradicted
the stated aim of fostering competition, lowering prices and encouraging
a new business class (privatization has slowed dramatically since 2000,
when there was a 58 percent drop in the sale of state assets).
This cumulative frustration has driven people to set up all sorts of civic
organizations-from groups formed by Buenos Aires neighborhoods to the
networks of hundreds of thousands of destitute women whose principal aim
is to channel state aid in Lima but which have shown enormous managerial
skill without government direction.
The great question is: Which of the two lessons of the recent upheavals
will prevail? If it's the negative one, confirming our stereotype of political
and economic chaos, this nascent civil society will end up unwittingly
bringing the military back.
If it is the positive one, that is to say, if a constructive force brings
to the decision levels of these countries a clear vision that puts no
limits to the creativity and capacity of those that have been left out
thus far, then it may not be too late to start all over again.
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