Today's date:
Winter 1987

South American Notes

Professor Lowenthal, a member of NPQ's Board of Advisors, recently traveled throughout South America as be often does in his capacity as the Executive Director of the Inter-American Dialogue and one of the country's leading scholars on Latin America. Lowenthal gathered the following impressions during a time when the situation in South America seemed better than it bad in recent years, although be also found disquieting tensions that have, in fact, grown worse since his return to the United States.

Peru - Lima is depressing. I had hoped that Peru under the young, charismatic and popular Alan Garcia would be on the upswing. It is not. The sense of despair in Lima is palpable, and the most biting pessimism comes from those who a year ago harbored the greatest hopes.

The economic situation within the country has actually improved in the past year, but people do not expect this to last. Sendero Luminoso, that strange terrorist movement, has gained urban strength in Lima and elsewhere. The government has dramatically combatted corruption and drug trafficking, but the sense of pervasive corrosion in the society is heavy, reinforced by such phenomena as kidnappings for profit.

A question widely discussed in Lima is what all this means for civil-military relations. Will the Army continue to stand aside while terrorism, violence and alienation increase? The Sendero-led uprising in three prisons led to a brutal massacre of hundreds of prisoners, scores of them executed in cold blood. Did the military, in effect, temporarily displace Alan Garcia in dealing with the prison uprising? What will be the military's reaction to Garcia's belated efforts to establish responsibility for the prison massacre? Will the Izquierda Unida already the strongest leftist political force in South America - now gain further support, or is it likely to be tarred by Sendero's brush?

Chile - Chile is not so depressing. It is frustrating, and likely to become more so, for the large majority of Chileans who want to rid the country of Pinochet after thirteen years of personal rule. But purposeful, organized and essentially optimistic political activity is taking place, mobilizing the energies of many people who can see beyond Pinochet.

The biggest unknown is whether senior Chilean Army officers can be persuaded to part company with the General, who shows every sign of wanting to stay in La Moneda forever. The opposition's task is to persuade the Army to part company with Pinochet by demonstrating that he is unpopular, that he cannot win a fair plebiscite, and therefore that his veneer of institutional legitimacy will be gone after 1989. They must do so, however, without scaring the Army and the Chilean right into worrying that the process will get "out of control" and lead to resurgent and triumphant leftism.

In Chile, too, much of the future rests on issues of civil-military relations. Can the Chilean opposition develop ground-rules for the transition from Pinochet that reassure the military hierarchy that the institutional prerogatives of the armed forces and their individual interests will be respected? And what role will be played by the US Embassy - probably not as important an actor as the Chilean opposition would like or as Pinochet (and Senator Helms) fear, but important nonetheless.

Argentina - My sense of Argentina is fragmentary because I spent two days in bed with bronchitis and because I was in Buenos Aires while Argentina won the World Cup and the country was in a moment of false euphoria.

Within these constraints, I get the impression that things are going reasonably well in Argentina. Raul Alfonsin is doing a remarkable job as President, deftly combining firmness and compromise and building coalitions both to reform the economy and to strengthen his own political base.

But the country's underlying problems are still formidable. The Plan Astral was quite successful in its first phase, but underlying inefficiencies in the economy are reappearing and the problem of mobilizing new investment remains very difficult. Trade union opposition to government policies is becoming more of a problem. Rightist opposition to Alfonsin is vocal, focusing most recently on a Church-led campaign to continue the ban on divorce (an issue that Alfonsin has sought to sidestep). The armed forces are still on the defensive, but are smarting at their fate.

Uruguay - Montevideo is quaint. I have never previously visited here, but my guess is that the country is not very different from what it was 25 years ago. A relatively small cupula of political leaders controls politics with an open style but within understood constraints. Beneath the surface, the country is decaying elegantly, exporting its citizens (more than 10% have left in the last 20 years), and adding to its longtime subordination to Argentina a new, and perhaps eventually more important, susceptibility to the dynamic influence of Brazil.

The issue of the moment in Uruguayan politics is the question of amnesty, which translates into military exemption from prosecution for human rights abuses in the 1970s. In Uruguay, where the Army voluntarily negotiated its exit from power, no rebuke will be administered. This frustrates some but probably helps consolidate the democratic transition, as does the new government's sound management of economic issues.

The military period in Uruguay seems like a bad dream that everyone would like to forget, but the Army is a lot bigger, wealthier and more powerful than it used to be, and the commitment of the young to Uruguay's version of democracy may be less firm than that of their elders.

Brazil - Brazil is booming. The Plan Cruzado attempt to halt inflation without inducing recession has started brilliantly, and Brazil has considerable international clout, enough to dispense with IMF blessings and to decide unilaterally at what rate it will service its debt. Creditors who don't like what Brazil is paying them are invited simply to return the checks!

It is, however, hard to be sure how solid all this is. The Cruzado plan - based in large part on a price and wage freeze - is beginning to fray as distortions and evasions accumulate. [A very prescient view considering the latest Brazilian developments -Ed.]

A key question in Brazil is where the investment will come from to permit further growth in a period when international credit is drying up. What implications for foreign investment and debt servicing would there be if Brazil turns increasingly toward national mobilization of savings? What can be done about the great inequities characteristic of Brazilian society - the coexistence within Brazil's borders of a vast nation of the extremely poor along side the modern sector? Concern with this split in the country is greater than ever previously, but programs to deal with its implications, such as agrarian reform, are controversial. The civil-military issue does not seem so central in Brazil today, but that is in part because the military has maintained for itself a major continuing role in government and the economy, including several Cabinet positions.

Los Angeles - Four major general impressions stand out as I return to California.

First, the countries of South America are becoming more different from each other than they have been. They are not simply at different places on the same continuum; they are heading, to some extent, in different directions.

Second, the debt issue is not the only major economic issue in South America. The question of reorienting national economic strategy to mobilize local savings is key in Brazil and to some extent in Argentina.

Third, the problem of Central America is very remote from the concerns of most South Americans. They have a mutual distaste for Sandinista excesses and for US interventionism, combined with a strong disinclination to get very involved.

Fourth, the issue of civil-military relations is absolutely central to much of South America today. The strength of the regions renewed democracies will depend on being able to overcome mutual distrust between officers and politicians.

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