Vision of Democratic Latin America Blurs Peru Coup Latest Problem


Mexico City. -- With last Sunday's de facto military coup in Peru, President Bush's vision of a democratic Latin America is beginning to look like Swiss cheese.

The Peru debacle follows September's military coup in Haiti and the nearly successful takeover in Venezuela in February.

Other wobbly democratic governments can be found in Nicaragua, Brazil, Guatemala, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Argentina.

Since World War II, history's pendulum has twice swung in favor of military governments. Now after more than a decade of the region's biggest democratic renaissance, Latin America is braced for another swing backward.

Seven months ago, 32 foreign ministers met at the Organization of American States to condemn Haiti's coup.

Tomorrow, the same ministers will meet again at the OAS, this time to condemn Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's suspension of the constitution and his emergence as a strongman backed by the army.

What country will be next?

Bolivia's President Jaime Paz Zamora seemed to be taking his cue from Peru Wednesday when he warned the legislature to shape up or be eliminated.

Behind the discontent is that fact that many Latin countries are running out of time in dealing with a host of problems, from extreme poverty to government corruption, guerrilla wars and drug dealing.

The majority of Latin America's 440 million people are worse off now than they were a decade ago, and extreme poverty is a fact for 160 million of its people, World Bank figures show.

Today the young officer who spearheaded the failed Venezuelan coup is considered a national hero in that oil-rich country, where poverty has grown from 37 percent in 1981 to 65 percent in 1989.

The canyon separating the rich and the poor has also widened, as many countries replaced populist social programs with draconian free-market measures advocated by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Bush administration.

In many cases, the free-market reforms were being carried out by amateur politicians who had come to power precisely because they were from outside the system.

Catholic Guatemala is ruled by an evangelical Christian turned politician. Nicaragua's president is a 63-year-old grandmother with dubious interest in government. Brazil's leader heads a newly created party with no broad base of support.

Then, of course, there is Mr. Fujimori, an engineer with no political experience who came from nowhere to win the 1990 presidential election with the help of evangelists.

Mr. Fujimori, of Japanese descent, was viewed as a no-nonsense savior by a predominately mixed-race electorate grown tired of empty populist promises and a ruling European elite.

Many voters also thought his Japanese heritage would lead to billions in economic aid from Tokyo. He had to settle for millions.

And while his free-market economic reforms have had some measure of success -- inflation has dropped from 7,650 percent in 1990 to about 50 percent today -- the president has felt himself frustrated by congress and the courts.

To Mr. Fujimori, the courts were packed with holdovers from the previous regime of Alan Garcia, a populist politician who managed to ruin the country's economy and his reputation.

Mr. Fujimori contends the court system let guerrillas and drug dealers go free, either because of death threats or bribes, and that judges annulled or gutted many of his reform decrees.

The legislature was similarly obstreperous in his view, refusing to go along with many of his 120 emergency decrees announced last fall.

From his viewpoint, the courts and the legislature were acting like Nero while the country burned.

Extreme poverty now embraces 12 million of Peru's 22 million people. Impoverished Andean farmers, with no other alternative, produce 60 percent of the world's coca, the prime ingredient in cocaine.

And finally, the rural-based Shining Path guerrilla movement was for the first time threatening to engulf Lima, Peru's capital of 8 million people, most of them living in ghastly shantytowns.

Before the coup, nearly three-quarters of the country's territory was placed under effective army rule to ward off Shining Path.

The home-grown guerrilla movement had its origins in Maoist thought, but its views have graduated to the philosophy of Pol Pot, the Cambodian Communist leader who slew millions in a lunatic agrarian plan in the 1970s.

While the Peru has had some success in building rural self-defense committees and the guerrillas' aims remain unpopular, Mr. Fujimori felt the crisis was such he needed unlimited power.

Unfortunately his actions have had the opposite effect.

The United States suspended $320 million in economic and military aid, thus putting in limbo the biggest anti-drug program in South America. Brazil also halted a $2-billion development project in the Amazon.

And Mr. Fujimori received the condemnation of every South American government and Japan. Peru is now completely isolated in the hemisphere and faces the possibility of a trade embargo.

"His actions were insane," said Enrique Zileri, director of Caretas, the nation's most influential magazine, which was briefly closed by troops. "There was no need for his actions. This whole thing will boomerang against him. He didn't need to go this far."

The Peruvian president also censored the press, arrested the presidents of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies and jailed 20 opposition party members.

He also managed to do to do the impossible: Resurrect the discredited political career of Alan Garcia. The former president -- now a hero -- went into hiding while his party faxed messages to the news media calling Mr. Fujimori a Nazi.

"I think one can be sympathetic to the disastrous situation in Peru," said Robert Pastor, a Latin America adviser to President Carter. "But at the same time I think the hemisphere should be unified in its condemnation of Fujimori's actions."

The Peruvian president has already shown signs of wobbling by promising to restore the democratic process in 18 months or less. He says his efforts to clean up the courts and rewrite the constitution are extremely popular.

Meanwhile, a Mexican cartoonist summed up the feelings of many Peruvians last week. He showed President Fujimori committing hara-kari.

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