Latins lose faith in democracy

Lucien O Chauvin

In Peru, the president is polling in single digits, and some want to bring back a former strongman. Just across the border in Bolivia, the government had to fend off rumours last week that the military was planning a coup. Next door, indigenous politicians in Ecuador called for a general uprising to force the president out of office. In Venezuela, the electoral board set a tentative date for a recall vote on its left-wing leader. And to the north, in Colombia, the president is pushing a plan to change the country’s Constitution so he can run for a second term. It was a wild week in the Andean region, which has been riding a political seesaw of late. And voters don’t like what they see.

According to a new United Nations study, people here are losing faith in democracy — even as the region’s economy grows. Political freedoms have not brought financial gain to the masses, half of whom say they would support an authoritarian regime if it resolved economic problems. In the Andean nations, which account for one-third of South America’s population, only 37.3 per cent of the people polled for the report said they were democrats; the rest were either ambivalent to democracy or openly opposed to it. The Andes represent a general trend in Latin America, where 54.7 per cent people say they would support an authoritarian government if it helped them financially.

This may explain why Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s former hard-line president, is leading polls in a crowded field of potential candidates. And more than 60 per cent of Colombians support President Alvaro Uribe and his push to change the Constitution so he can run for a second term. Still, strongmen don’t necessarily bring economic improvement. In Venezuela, opponents have been trying for years to unseat what they see as an autocrat in President Hugo Ch’e1vez, who has rewritten the Constitution to cultivate more power. The perception that democracy does not translate into better standards of living comes at a time when most countries in the Andes, and Latin America, are recuperating from years of stagnation. The World Bank says that Latin American economies should expand by an average of 4 per cent this year.

Peru is expected to do even better. It has enjoyed one of its longest growth spurts during the Toledo administration, and economic indicators are good across the board. Gross domestic product is expected to grow by more than five per cent this year, inflation is low, and exports are on track to top $10 billion. Polls, however, show that more than half of Peru’s 27 million people believe their economic situation will be the same or worse this year. The problem in Peru and in other Andean countries is that growth is being led by high international prices for raw materials like gold, copper, and hydrocarbons.

For Jorge Leon, a political scientist and researcher with an Ecuadorean think tank, there has been a backlash against traditional political parties and the choice of “outsiders” as presidents. Three of the region’s five president — Venezuela’s Ch’e1vez, Ecuador’s Lucio, and Peru’s Toledo — never held political office before becoming president. Bolivia’s Carlos Mesa, who also never held elected office, became president in October 2003 after street protests forced President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to flee to the US. Only Colombia’s Uribe had experience as a former mayor, governor, and senator before winning the presidency. He did, however, buck the country’s traditional two-party system and became the first president elected as an independent there. All this political inexperience adds up to disillusioned populations. — The Christian Science Monitor