Latin America can't be force-fed democracy

When I departed Carson City in 1967 to become an idealistic young U.S. Foreign Service officer, I had vague notions about promoting democracy in Latin America and the Third World.

But when I left Latin America for the last time 10 years ago, I had nagging doubts about whether democracy was the wave of the future or an unrealistic American dream. Recent events have only reinforced my doubts.

Consider the gloomy assessment of Peter Hakim, president of the prestigious Inter-American Dialogue, in the current edition of "Foreign Policy" magazine. "In Peru, an autocratic president has curbed the power of congress and the courts and muffled the press," he writes.

"Voters in Venezuela last year elected the leader of a failed military coup d'etat as president and now overwhelmingly support his campaign to radically transform the nation's political institutions. Guerrillas in Colombia have free run of half the country. Brazil was forced to devalue its currency in January 1999, provoking an open rift with Argentina... (and) in the region's worst performance in more than a decade, nearly every major Latin American economy has fallen into a deep slump..." Not to mention a partial military coup in Ecuador last month.

Hakim's observations impressed me because I had served in Colombia, Peru and Venezuela during my Foreign Service career. The depressing picture that he paints in an article titled "Is Latin America Doomed to Failure?" examines the question of whether democracy is really taking root in our hemisphere. After all, most American diplomats who worked in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s thought our southern neighbors had finally overcome (or outgrown) repressive military regimes, Cuban-style revolutionaries and boom-and-bust economics.

Between 1978 and 1990, as Hakim points out, some 15 Latin American countries cast aside dictatorial regimes and began to elect their leaders. Only a few of them had any significant democratic traditions and some, such as Bolivia, El Salvador and Nicaragua (remember them?), had virtually no experience with democracy.

During my years in Latin America with the U.S. Information Service (USIS), we promoted democracy in many different ways - by putting out information on our political and legal systems, by stocking our libraries with American books, by sponsoring speakers and seminars on democracy, free elections and judicial reform, and by granting U.S. university scholarships to the best and brightest students we could identify. And after spending millions of American taxpayer dollars to promote democracy in Latin America, what did we accomplish?

I remember a relevant vignette in Caracas, Venezuela, in the late 1980s: With the help of the American Bar Association, we put on a mock drug trafficking trial with an American judge and prosecuting and defense attorneys, and a jury made up of Venezuelan law students.

Based on a real case that should have been a "slam dunk" for the prosecution, we were surprised when the young Venezuelans returned a "not guilty" verdict.

"What was the problem?" the American prosecutor asked. "It was those income tax returns," the jury foreman explained. "No one in Venezuela files a truthful tax return." So we blamed the weird verdict on cultural differences.

In Latin America, there is a high tolerance for corruption and much of what happens depends on your social status and/or whom you know. These are difficult, entrenched obstacles that well-meaning Americans cannot overcome. A solution would require a complete overhaul of Latin American society and politics.

Hakim also blames economic hardship, inadequate public education and high crime rates for the region's problems. And he adds that "Latin America's basic democratic institutions - judicial systems, legislatures, political parties and even the presidency - are weak and discredited in most countries." That's why "many citizens appear willing to give up some measure of democracy and accept authoritarian governments (as in Peru and Venezuela) that they believe can solve their problems."

Although Hakim holds out some economic hope for Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico and Uruguay, his overall assessment is pessimistic.

Take Haiti for example. Last November, CBS' "60 Minutes" investigated whether more than one billion of our tax dollars had been squandered since we sent 20,000 American troops to Haiti in 1995. According to "60 Minutes," the U.S. has spent more money in the past five years trying to establish the Rule of Law in Haiti than anywhere else in the world. And what have we received for our investment? Not much!

Prison inmates are still housed in subhuman conditions, some 90 percent of them are pre-trial detainees rather than convicted criminals, many are teenagers, few have lawyers and many don't even know or understand the charges against them.

The U.S. Agency for International Development hired an American contractor, Checchi & Co., to launch a multi-million-dollar justice reform program. Unfortunately, Checchi's top man in Haiti turned out to be a disbarred California attorney. Why else would he be in Haiti?

On and on it goes. This isn't so much an argument against foreign aid as it is a plea for realistic assessments of our ability to alter foreign judicial and political systems. There are no "Made in America" solutions for Latin America and the Third World. They have to do it themselves, and the sooner we recognize that fact, the better.

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


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