Column: Democracy teeters on the brink in Peru, Venezuela

Having spent a total of 10 years of my U.S. Foreign Service career in Peru (three years) and Venezuela (seven years), I was disheartened by what happened last Sunday in those troubled South American democracies.

As the Reuters news service reported, "Peru voted when maybe it shouldn't have, while Venezuela wanted to and couldn't." Neither of these developments was good news for the future of democracy in Latin America.

In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori was elected to an unprecedented third term despite credible allegations of electoral fraud by his opponent along with many knowledgeable Peruvians and international observers. As a result, the U.S. and several other western democracies are considering economic sanctions against Fujimori and his government.

And in Venezuela, presidential elections were postponed for "technical" reasons that led to the resignations of all five members of the country's National Electoral Council. Politically, Venezuela has been in limbo since last year, when President Hugo Chavez, a former coup plotter, pushed through a new constitution that dissolved Congress and called for new elections.

During my 1983-86 tour of duty in Peru, Fujimori was the rector of an obscure agricultural university. Although we (the U.S. Information Service - USIS) sent him pro-democracy publications, we didn't know him personally. But we did know his future presidential opponent, Alejandro Toledo, quite well. Toledo, the son of impoverished Andean peasants, became a brilliant international economist, thanks in part to U.S. scholarships.

In the first round of voting earlier this year, Fujimori drew 49 percent of the vote to Toledo's 41 percent, necessitating a second round of voting. Toledo cried fraud, however, withdrew his candidacy, and urged a boycott of last Sunday's runoff election. International observers called for delay in order to assure the fairness of the process, but the authoritarian Fujimori went ahead anyway, polling 51 percent of the vote to non-candidate Toledo's 17 percent. Another 30 percent of the electorate marked "no to fraud" on their ballots, apparently endorsing Toledo's boycott.

Even though Fujimori - a Peruvian of Japanese descent known as "El Chino" (The Chinaman) - insisted that the election was "just, fair and transparent," the U.S. condemned the process and called Fujimori's regime a serious threat to Latin American democracy. For its part, the Organization of American States convened a foreign ministers' meeting in Washington to examine the election results after an OAS observer team questioned Peru's technical capacity to undertake an honest vote count.

The Peruvian vote creates a dilemma for the U.S., which has lauded Fujimori's get-tough policies on terrorism and drug trafficking. As Time magazine commented, "Despite all the hand-wringing over Fujimori's dubious political tactics, it could be Toledo who causes the U.S. and its interests more heartache." Toledo called Fujimori a dictator and urged "peaceful resistance" in search of "clean" elections. Nevertheless, key State Department officials believe Peru's internal divisions represent a more dangerous challenge to the country's delicate political stability than Fujimori's continued presence in the presidential palace.

Meanwhile, in oil-rich Venezuela, the National Electoral Council resigned en masse, plagued by confusion and mismanagement. Opposition leaders said the postponement of last Sunday's scheduled vote reflected astonishing incompetence by the elections board but supporters of President Hugo Chavez said the delay proved that democracy was working well since the country avoided flawed balloting.

The Electoral Council blamed Nebraska-based Election Systems and Software Co. for computer problems, saying the company failed to produce a valid database by the May 11 deadline. But a spokesman for INDRA, the Spanish company in charge of counting votes, charged that "there was total chaos and mismanagement at the council."

Although Chavez - a former army paratrooper who led a failed 1992 coup attempt - claims he is carrying out a "social revolution," his opponents say he represents a threat to democracy, citing his admiration of, and personal friendship with, longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and his open disdain for the private sector. Chavez's economic policies have created hardships for many Venezuelans and some of my old friends and colleagues are even thinking about moving out of the country.

Before the vote was postponed, Chavez led his nearest challenger, former Zulia (Maracaibo) state Gov. Francisco Arias, by 15 to 20 points in opinion polls. Arias, deploring a "national disgrace," urged the government to call new elections quickly.

Last Sunday's electoral problems in Peru and Venezuela illustrate democracy's uphill struggle in Latin America. Already this year, Ecuador suffered a bloodless coup, Bolivia declared a state of emergency to quell social protests and Paraguay was hit by yet another military uprising. And Colombia, battered by decades of violence and drug-trafficking, plunged further into turmoil when President Andres Pastrana attempted to close down a corruption-plagued Congress. Don't forget that President Clinton has proposed to send $1.6 billion and U.S. "advisers" to Colombia to help combat drug trafficking; that's how Vietnam started.

When I left Latin America 10 years ago, I thought democracy was firmly entrenched everywhere except in Cuba. Now, however, I'm not so sure.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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