LONDON -- Democracy has finally arrived in Mexico, leaving only Cuba out on a distant limb in Latin America.
Yet the substance of the opposition's election victories is less tangible. Can the newly elected mayor of Mexico City, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, who now stands a good chance of winning the presidency itself in the year 2000, deliver to the poor and dispossessed of Mexico what the demagogy of electioneering seemed to promise?
Indeed, this is the question for all of democratic, free-market Latin America, except the continent's one success story, Chile.
Unemployment and deep poverty are every country's bane. How long will the people wait for trickle-down to trickle down?
Even in the best of times Latin America has never been good at dealing with its poor. It is the sharpest and most distinct antithesis of east Asia. Its Spanish and Portuguese, medieval, Catholic-inspired, feudalism and mercantilism run deep.
Land reform and peasant rural development have always been sideshows -- and even when, following the revolution in Mexico, there was significant effort to give land to the peasantry, the resources and expertise to realize the small farmers' immense potential was never forthcoming.
In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, large-scale land reform shortly after the end of World War II was the defining moment when the genie of economic development was effectively uncorked.
In more recent times -- the 1970s -- no other continent so indulged itself at the trough of cheap credit.
The bubble burst in the early 1980s. The West's serious recession, combined with steadily rising interest rates, broke the back of most of Latin America. It was the lost decade par excellence. The middle classes suffered but the poor were crucified. Unemployment went through the roof and with it crime.
It was in Mexico that the dikes burst. In December, 1994, the currency crashed. It wasn't the foreign investors who pulled the plug on the peso. It was Mexico's own businessmen, anticipating political and economic disturbance, precipitated by the peasant uprising in Mexico's southern Chiapas province and the assassination of the front-running presidential candidate.
To be fair, much has been achieved by financial rigor. Right across Latin America, inflation is now down from the stratosphere. Foreign investment is on the up and up. Privatization is well under way and democracy continues to be well accepted.
Governments have to focus not just on improving their country's macroeconomics but on job creation and education. Growth alone will not be enough. The Chilean example of building special high schools in poor neighborhoods points the way.
As yet there are no significant barbarians at the gate. Nor hoards of dispossessed about to burn down the presidential palace. Even in Peru, still picking up the pieces after the guerrilla takeover of the Japanese embassy, the government has never felt itself seriously threatened.
But universally, there is that most dangerous phenomenon, the revolution of rising expectations. If the democrats do not deliver, then weep for Latin America.
Jonathan Power writes a syndicated column on the Third World.
Pub Date: 7/11/97