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Date: Wed, 15 Apr 98 09:13:06 CDT
From: Tom Burghardt <tburghardt@igc.apc.org>
Subject: (en) Is Latin America Heading for a New Era of Dictatorship ...
Article: 32376
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.29302.19980416121735@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Is Latin America heading for a new era of dictatorship and repression?

By Phil Davison, The Independent, Wednesday 15 April 1998

Clinton has hailed a 'quiet democratic revolution', but the generals are back. Is the US ignoring the threat to human rights in a bid to boost trade? Phil Davison reports

Addressing the first Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994, US President Bill Clinton hailed a quiet revolution of democracy across Latin America. But when he arrives in Santiago, Chile, tomorrow for the second, follow-up summit, he will find that democratic progress is stuttering. Democracy in distress in Latin region, said a front page headline this week in the Miami Herald, the US daily which follows the region most closely.

The main concerns? First, the fact that former military strongmen have returned to the political scene in several countries. Second, the democratically-elected leaders of other countries are showing dictator-like reluctance to leave the stage when their terms are up.

Some South American intellectuals say Mr Clinton has turned a blind eye to simmering threats to democracy in deference to economic stability and because of pressure from the US arms industry. Last year, he resumed the sale of advanced weapons to the region, banned by President Jimmy Carter 20 years earlier.

The 34 heads of state at the Chile summit, on Saturday and Sunday, will discuss efforts to reach a pan-American free-trade zone by 2005, an alliance against drugs to replace the controversial anti-narcotics arrangements currently advocated by the US, and the setting up of a high commissioner to promote greater freedom of the press. But the warning signs for democracy may cast a shadow on the proceedings.

A look around South America tells the story:

In Paraguay, the leading candidate in next month's presidential elections is retired general Lino Oviedo. His candidacy is complicated by the fact that he is in jail, supposedly for the next 10 years, for launching a failed coup against President Juan Carlos Wasmosy in 1996.

The constitutional issue has left the country on the brink of crisis, waiting for the Supreme Court to decide, possibly today, whether the general may continue his campaign and, if so, what happens if he is elected on 10 May as the polls predict. Paraguayans joke of world heads of state attending his inauguration in a prison yard.

In Bolivia, the region's poorest nation, General Hugo Banzer, 72, who ruled by force and by fear for most of the Seventies, was elected president last year.

Bolivians apparently forgave him the countless human rights abuses of his regime - deaths, disappearances and torture - because he promised jobs and security. Now, they are not so sure. The country has been rocked by violence associated with widespread strikes for more than a week.

In Chile, longtime dictator General Augusto Pinochet last month retired as army chief but took his seat as senator-for- life. Some Chileans saw his move as an acceptable quid-pro-quo for handing the country back to democracy in 1991 but some politicians and human rights groups want to oust him from the upper house and are demanding a political trial for his past.

In Venezuela, retired Lt Col Hugo Chavez, who has attempted several coups d'etat in the past, is leading the polls for December's presidential election. He has said he would abolish Congress.

In Colombia, retired General Harold Beoya is campaigning for next month's presidential elections on a platform that would give military officers considerable control of the judiciary, accusing civil judges of corruption. He is currently in the top four of a dozen candidates.

Colombia's President Ernesto Samper cannot run again but the country is largely in the hands of the generals because left-wing guerrilla groups roam over almost half the nation, kidnapping soldiers and civilians and blowing up oil pipelines. The military's successes in capturing cocaine cartel chiefs have also boosted its support.

In Mexico, democracy has been widely perceived as blossoming over the past few years because the left- and right-wing opposition are making gradual inroads against the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But many believe the military is flexing its muscles for fear that the PRI, with which the armed forces have had the cosiest of relations for seven decades, could lose the presidency for the first time in 2000.

The army has taken charge of the Mexico City Police to fight crime and is occupying much of the south-eastern state of Chiapas after a 1994 uprising by Indian peasants led by the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

But it is the clinging to power by several South American leaders that is most worrying Latin America intellectuals, who now speak of constitutional coups.

In Argentina opposition politicians are up in arms over President Carlos Menem's recent suggestion that he might run again for a third straight five-year term next year. That would be unconstitutional. But then so was a second-straight term until Mr Menem pushed through a change in the constitution to allow him to run and win in 1994. Mr Menem said recently that he was the best guarantee of continuity.

In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori hopes to run for a third five-year term in 2000. That, too, was unconstitutional until the Supreme Court, heavily-loaded with pro-Fujimori judges, ruled that he could do so. Mr Fujimori was first elected in 1990. Re-election thereafter would have been illegal but he pulled it off in 1995 after dissolving Congress and calling new elections with new rules.

Mr Fujimori, who also engineered a legal manoeuvre to keep his divorced wife from running in 1995, apparently believes Peruvians will support his constitutional tinkerings because of his successful raid to free the Japanese embassy hostages a year ago.

The sweet smell of continuing power has also reached President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, once a left-wing intellectual but now a forceful free market advocate, who has also pushed through legal changes to lift a ban on a second straight term in elections later this year. He claims the country needs him for another six years to consolidate his unquestioned economic successes.

In Panama, President Ernesto Perez Balladares said last week that he, too, was seeking a constitutional amendment to allow him to run again next year for another five-year term. His critics are already accusing him of launching a civilian dictatorship.

Perez Balladares was General Manuel Noriega's campaign manager in the 1989 elections, later declared fraudulent. After Noriega was captured in a US military intervention, Perez Balladares laid low but later emerged and was elected in 1994.

Now, Latin American intellectuals, human rights groups and others believe the spreading reluctance to give up power threatens a return to the era of Latin America's democratic caesars who ran their nations at the turn of the century, usually backed by the US, beholden to big business and adamant that their citizens were better off if they remained in power.