LATIN AMERICAN POLITICS
For many, democracy has been disappointing
Voters become disenchanted as old promises of new prosperity remain unfulfilled
— reported by the Houston Chronicle
If democracy were a game of sheer numbers, Latin Americans would be celebrating a historic triumph.
After decades of domination by dictators, the land that runs from northern Mexico south to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, has become governed almost wholly by freely chosen leaders. For nearly 20 years, elections have taken place like clockwork. In a 14-month cycle that began last November and ends in December, 12 new heads of state will have been selected.
But just as a raucous wedding can give way to a rocky marriage, elections often have produced governments that have been inept or unfaithful to the people who elected them. Many voters feel betrayed because they think democracy has failed to generate widespread prosperity, reduce crime or bridge the huge gap between rich and poor.
The honeymoon with democracy is over.
Unlike Europe and the United States, where democracy exists alongside great wealth, Latin America is a region where broad political freedoms rub shoulders with widespread poverty. Although all Latin Americans except Cubans freely choose their leaders, millions don’t have jobs, and nearly half live on less than $2 a day.
Crime runs rampant. Corruption scandals have disgraced presidents and small-town mayors alike. Outraged citizens have taken to the streets, and in the turmoil 11 elected presidents have been forced out of office in the past 15 years.
Some Latin Americans look back fondly on the era of military rule, a period when economic growth rates were far higher than today. One of the few regionwide studies on the subject, a 2004 U.N. survey of 18 Latin American countries, showed that a majority of people would willingly support an authoritarian regime in exchange for economic progress.
Still, the U.N. report points to some signs of optimism for a more inclusive political climate.
Voters are electing more women and minorities. Last month, Michelle Bachelet won a runoff to become the first female president of Chile. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, won December’s presidential election in the first round, unprecedented in South America’s poorest country.
Most Latin Americans also draw a distinction between democracy as a system of governance and the poor performance of their leaders.