Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Andean Nations – Democracy in Trouble

Democracy is in trouble in all of the nations of South America that were freed by Simón Bolívar: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In Venezuela, César Chávez, who once led a military coup against a former president, has established a personality cult that has divided the nation along class lines; the poor are generally for him, while the middle and upper classes despise him. Colombia has a long history of democratic government, but its control does not extend beyond the middle-class sections of the country’s large cities. Paramilitary groups and drug barons fight for domination of the rural areas and of the city slums.

Moving down the Pacific coast, Ecuador’s Congress recently threw out the country’s president, Lucio Gutiérrez, for “abandoning his post,” although Mr. Gutiérrez was in the presidential palace issuing orders at the time. In fact, the Army had to remove him forcibly from his post.

Mr. Gutiérrez angered Quito’s street mobs by dissolving the Supreme Court – for the second time in four months – and putting Quito under a state of emergency. Thousands took to the street to protest Mr. Gutiérrez’s actions until Congress gave in and replaced him with Vice President Alfredo Palacio. As this is written, Mr Gutiérrez is reported to have taken refuge in Brazil’s embassy in Quito where he awaits the opportunity to flee the country. The new government refuses to let him go and wants to arrest him on charges of…. Well, what the charges are is unclear. Replacing the entire Supreme Court may not be politically astute, but it does not seem to violate any Ecuadorian law. Mr. Gutiérrez was the third president to be ousted by Congress or by a coup since 1997, and all of Ecuador’s presidents since 1997 have been accused of corruption or of abuse of authority.

Peru is said to be the basket case of Latin America, in even worse shape than such Central American countries as Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. Unemployed or underemployed Peruvians are leaving the country in hopes of finding work in Argentina or Spain. The country’s ex-president, Alberto Fujimori, lives in exile in Japan, the country of his ancestors, while the current Peruvian government seeks to extradite him and put him on trial for crimes that he allegedly committed while in office.

The Bolivian government’s attempts at introducing economic progress are stymied by indigenous groups that seem intent on keeping the country in a primitive state. In the mid-1990s, the Bolivian government privatized the oil and gas industries and invited foreign companies to explore. This move proved to be a boon for the nation’s economy. Proven and probable reserves of gas increased by a factor of ten, and gas exports to Argentina and Brazil went up by a factor of four. The government and industry came up with a plan to export gas by means of a pipeline through Chile, Bolivia’s traditional enemy, where it was to be loaded onto tankers and sold to California and Mexico. The indigenous population, which believes that foreigners are exploiting the country’s natural resources, protested by setting up roadblocks. The Bolivian government gave into mob rule and cancelled the pipeline, thereby robbing the country of a future source of income, which could have gone a long way towards alleviating the country’s poverty. Paradoxically, those who suffer most under Bolivia’s feeble economy are the same people who consistently block efforts to improve it.

In both Ecuador and Bolivia, democracy has given way to mob rule. Colombian democracy seems to be in no imminent danger of disappearing, but it the government does not control large areas of the country, and even in the portions that it does control, it has been unable to come to grips with the country’s endemic violence. I suspect that Hugo Chávez, who is an admirer of Fidel Castro, would like to make himself “president for life” of Venezuela (a polite way of saying dictator), and he may have the mob support to do it. The outlook for democracy in these South American countries is not good.

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