Pubdate: Thu, 31 Aug 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, Times Staff Writer


QUITO, Ecuador--At times when dictatorships prevailed elsewhere in
Latin America, elected governments in the Andean nations withstood
adversity. Yet for tens of millions of people here in Ecuador and
neighboring nations, democracy seems to have delivered little more
than elections.

Brutal inequality, economic breakdown and lawlessness are spawning
political instability and a rise of militaristic strongmen. In
different ways and to different degrees, the Andean countries are
drifting toward the straits between tyranny and anarchy. The United
States has concrete reasons for concern. Colombia, Peru and Bolivia
are the world's top sources of cocaine; Venezuela is the chief U.S.
oil supplier. Regional turmoil has been accompanied by growing
anti-U.S. sentiment but, at the same time, rising legal and illegal
immigration to the United States.

The forces behind the crisis are the pressures of globalization to
open markets, modernize economies and strengthen democratic
institutions. Headlong change has toppled elitist and corrupt
political structures and churned up new social forces, which lack new
institutions to control them.

Consider recent events in Ecuador:
The lights went out in Congress on Aug. 1. Someone cut the electricity
during a struggle for the legislative presidency that degenerated into
bottle throwing and fistfights, which continued by candlelight. Two
factions claimed victory, broke into separate "congresses" and went about
the business of legislating.

In response, President Gustavo Noboa refused to deal with either side
until the Supreme Court resolved the dispute. When Noboa tried to push
through sweeping, U.S.-backed privatization legislation as an
emergency measure, the center-left faction accused him of wanting to
emulate Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and shut down Congress.
Rumblings of unrest are increasing.

Politicians here apparently don't understand that people have had
enough. Noboa came to power in January after a coup--South America's
first in two decades--by a ragtag alliance of army officers and
indigenous activists fed up with economic chaos. The fifth president
in five years faces other classic regional woes: foreign debt
consuming 40% of his budget, emergency-level crime, an exodus of
emigrants overseas and of rural migrants to cities, tension between
coastal financial elites and the disenfranchised indigenous peoples of
the highlands.

In addition, Ecuador lies in point-blank range of Colombia's conflict,
whose assorted combatants cross the border at will. As fighting
intensifies, Ecuadoreans--and Venezuelans and Peruvians--fear a
violent spillover.

Colombia's virtual civil war has brought a striking U.S. response in
the form of a $1.3-billion aid package to fight drugs. The ills of
Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia are less bloody but in some
senses harder to confront. The latter nations offer variations on a
trend that could worsen quickly if the Colombian conflict escalates or
the world economy sputters.

"We are at a very bad moment," said Diego Garcia Sayan of the Andean
Commission of Jurists, an academic and human rights organization. "The
solution is to build trustworthy democratic institutions that can
resolve problems. But the big daily concern of most poor people is not
whether their mayor, congressman or president was fairly elected, but
rather how to fill their plate and find a job." The region is feeling
the pressure of what some call a new invisible government--world
financial institutions, foreign investors, even human rights groups,
according to Bruce Bagley, a professor of international relations at
the University of Miami. "International and domestic pressures are
causing traditional institutions to buckle in a variety of ways,"
Bagley said.

The gloomiest scenario: a region dominated either by a 21st century
brand of authoritarianism or profoundly dysfunctional states.

Other regions offer a stark contrast. Mexican voters recently ousted
an authoritarian, 71-year-old ruling party, a breakthrough that is
vital to meaningful progress. Recently, Chile's Supreme Court enabled
the prosecution of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, speeding the
transition of a democracy that, like those of Brazil and Argentina,
has a modernizing and competitive economy.

Generalizations can be problematic, of course. There are notable
differences among the five countries that belong to the 31-year-old
Andean Community of Nations. Overall, however, they share political,
ethnic and geographical traits. They either avoided brutal military
regimes during the past 30 years or got rid of them sooner than their
neighbors in the southern cone. Colombia and Venezuela are among the
longest-surviving democracies in Latin America, a fact that the more
hopeful leaders see as a bright spot.

"The perception of the problems of the Andean area are exaggerated,"
said Deputy Foreign Minister Francisco Carrion of Ecuador. "Of course
it is a zone of turmoil to the extent that there is injustice, unequal
distribution of wealth, very grave social problems. But in spite of
everything, democracy endures."

Unfortunately, the enduring democracies were slow to pursue economic
reforms that were sometimes imposed by dictatorships elsewhere.
Today's Ecuadorean and Colombian governments struggle to provide
security and basic services in large chunks of their national
territories. The specter of military intervention looms in Ecuador,
whose armed forces have a rural power base and are the nation's most
popular institution.

The armed forces have ominous clout in Peru and Venezuela, buttressing
two paradigmatic strongmen who recently reaffirmed their power at the
polls: Fujimori and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a former
paratroop colonel.

Last month, an isolated Fujimori put on the presidential sash for the
third time while riot police battled protesters and downtown Lima
burned, leaving six dead. Venezuela's Chavez jetted off for a defiant
visit to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after a year and a half in
power marked by worrisome economic indicators, surging unemployment
and crime and an erratic government response to deadly floods, the
worst disaster in the nation's history.

Fujimori and Chavez are very different men. Fujimori is a pragmatic,
disciplined mathematician who doesn't waste a word. The long-winded
Chavez exudes Caribbean charm and preaches a radical melange of
Marxism, nationalism and anti-imperialism. But their origins are
similar. Both are anti-political populists. Both swept to power over
the wreckage of traditional parties that were brought down by their
own venality and irrelevance.

Chavez, who led an attempted coup in 1992, denies any dictatorial
ambitions. His devoted followers argue that he has held four elections
to ratify his "peaceful revolution." "He rewrote the constitution and
he did away with Congress, just as he pledged," said Hector Beltran,
42, who drives a rickety micro-bus between Caracas shack towns and
opulent hilltop suburbs. "I'm not giving up on Chavez, and I don't
care what the rest of the world thinks. If the rich and corrupt feel
inclined to live in Miami, let them go. I won't be losing any

Critics say Chavez has done little more than hold elections, just like
the discredited elites. His regime is under fire for restricting the
independence of the courts, legislature and elections agency and
failing to stamp out corruption. Divisions in the politicized military
raise worries.

"I see thunderclouds ahead, and in Venezuela the storm can come fast,"
said Eric Ekvall, a Caracas political consultant.

In Peru, Fujimori has had a decade to consolidate a civilian-military
governing machine. His spy agency casts a shadow over the Congress,
courts, press and just about every other significant

Peru has globalized selectively: Economic restructuring has generated
record growth rates and macroeconomic stability even as the president
defies foreign and local pressure for clean elections and other
reforms. The regime has hardened its tone with anti-U.S. diatribes and
a strange affinity for the far-right ramblings of the U.S.-based
Lyndon LaRouche movement. Although the government and opposition sat
down last week to negotiate democratic reforms, the process promises
to be slow.

Nonetheless, Fujimori has achieved a rarity in the region: a sense of
a society under control. That is why he retains the grudging tolerance
of the U.S. government, particularly in law enforcement and military
circles. His regime, founded on a self-coup eight years ago, could
become the model for a trend toward authoritarian governments with
civilian facades and sophisticated methods of repression.

"The militaries have learned you just can't step in with direct coups
any more," Bagley said. The Peruvian model of "an intelligence
apparatus that foresees problems, harasses dissidents, shuts down
newspapers is more subtle, Machiavellian and effective. But it does
nothing for the institutionalization of political order."

The panorama looks somewhat more heartening in neighboring Bolivia.
President Hugo Banzer, a former dictator of the 1970s, remade himself
as a civilian leader years ago and won election in 1997. His victory
may show a yearning for old-fashioned order, but he governs
democratically. With an elaborate system of coalitions and a knack for
negotiation, Bolivia seems the most stable Andean nation.

But it is also one of the poorest and most backward nations in the
hemisphere. As in Ecuador, the huge indigenous population ekes out a
medieval existence a world away from the urban elite. Banzer's
militarized and U.S.-funded anti-drug campaign has eradicated coca at
an astonishing clip, pushing tens of thousands of coca farmers to the

The well-organized leftist unions that control the coca growers are
part of a social time bomb that exploded in April. Riots against
proposed water privatization in Cochabamba, near the coca heartland,
flared across the country. A startled Banzer declared martial law. It
was a sobering reminder of Bolivia's potential for turmoil.

The coca factor recurs in Peru and, of course, Colombia, where drug
money feeds myriad forms of violence and crime. That narco-guerrilla
conflict will play a major role in the shaky future of the region.

Colombia's neighbors are bracing themselves, convinced that the
infusion of U.S. resources will produce a crackdown in hot spots
including Putumayo, a bastion of guerrillas and coca near the
Ecuadorean border.

Plan Colombia, the Colombian government's $7.5-billion peace and
anti-narcotics blueprint of which the U.S. aid package is a part, sets
aside money for Ecuador and other neighbors to shore up infrastructure
and security forces against possible Colombian spillover. Already,
Ecuador and Venezuela suffer kidnappings and other crimes blamed on
the Colombian rebels, who have also sought contacts with leftists in
neighboring nations.

The other decisive variable for the region's stability: global
economics, particularly the health of the U.S. economy. As bad as the
picture looks now, the ripples from a downturn in the United States
would hit the Andean nations like tidal waves.

In any scenario, Bagley said, "it's a very dark horizon. We are going
to see a very difficult decade, both economically and for democracy,
throughout the Andes."
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