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Late in April, two things happened to show what a sorry state Latin America is in. First, a new U.N. Development Program (UNDP) poll of more than 20,000 people was published: It shows that a majority of Latin Americans -- 54.7% -- would support authoritarian governments over democracy if that would solve their economic problems.
Still, a poll is kind of an impersonal way to show dissatisfaction. To see what's really happening, you have to take to the streets, as so many Latins are doing. On Apr. 22, the day after the UNDP poll came out, 20,000 Bolivians protested in the Andean nation's capital to demand the resignation of President Carlos Mesa, just six months after his predecessor was forced out of office by nationwide demonstrations. Bolivians suspect the ruling elite of exporting the country's natural gas below the market price and failing to use the revenues to improve the lives of the 60% of the population that live in poverty. Bolivians may not want a return to the brutal military regimes of the 1980s, but they certainly don't cherish the democratic ideal right now.
U.S. policymakers should note the UNDP report with interest. But they should view what's happening in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America with deep alarm. Bit by bit, the citizens of Latin America's mean streets are concluding that democracy isn't delivering. This is happening even in countries where the elected rulers seemed to fulfill the hopes of the people. In Peru, Stanford University-educated economist Alejandro Toledo is the first President of Indian origin and a democratic alternative to the strong-arm rule of ousted leader Alberto Fujimori. Yet Toledo's approval rating recently slipped to 8% because of corruption allegations and a failure to make much improvement in citizens' lives after three years in office. In Mexico, one poll says 70% of Mexicans have little or no faith in their legislators. In Brazil, the government of President Luiz In?cio Lula da Silva -- the choice of the working class -- has only a 28% approval rating. In the past four years, elected Presidents in four of the hemisphere's countries have been removed by force, most recently in Haiti.
Democracy just cannot be taken for granted in the region -- not when poverty is spreading. In 2003, 43.9% of Latin Americans lived in poverty, up from 40.9% in 1980. And not when Latin America today has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any region in the world -- even worse than Africa's.
Latin America's democratically elected leaders can't seem to alter those numbers. Some of these leaders are corrupt; others can't make headway against problems that have been decades in the making, such as inadequate education and health care. The most galling thing is that the problems persist even when the global economic cycle favors this commodity-dependent region. "Countries throughout Latin America can always generate enough foreign exchange by exports to keep the elites and the bureaucrats happy, but they never get around to distributing anything to the rest of the people," says Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere program at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Roett, who has studied the region for 42 years, says he has never been this pessimistic about Latin America.
Yet progress is possible. Take Costa Rica: Back in 1948, the country eliminated its armed forces and proceeded to spend the savings on education instead. Today, the country's workforce is educated enough to attract investment from the likes of Intel Corp. (INTC
). In Chile, when the country returned to democracy in 1990 after 17 years of military rule, political parties drafted a plan of national reconciliation that agreed on social and economic priorities. Today Chile is one of the few countries in the region that has managed to reduce poverty significantly.
Latin Americans can make democracy work to improve their lives if they cooperate across party lines and focus on essentials such as education. But it will take more than voting -- and marching -- to reap the "democracy bonus" the region so desperately needs. By Geri Smith