FORTY YEARS AGO, fresh from his triumphant takeover of Havana after a guerrilla campaign launched from Cu-ba's Sierra Maestra mountain region, Fidel Castro warned that the Andes would soon become the "Sierra Maestra of South America."
Despite Castro's efforts to back leftist groups in the Andean countries, no successful revolutionary movement emerged there during the 1960s and 1970s. The Shining Path and Tupac Amaru uprisings in Peru gained considerable strength in the 1980s and early 1990s, shaking that nation, but these insurgencies were contained and largely extinguished. Nowhere else in the Andean region did revolutionary movements come close to power.
Far from succumbing to revolution, Colombia and Venezuela came to be widely regarded as bastions of democratic stability. During the mid-1970s, they were the only South American nations not ruled by their armed forces, and for years thereafter they were often referred to as well-established, if imperfect, democracies. Bolivia and Ecuador -- long accustomed to chronic instability, frequent military interventions and dire poverty -- evolved during the past two decades toward democratic governance and improved economic performance. Peru emerged from difficult periods of economic deterioration and Shining Path's virulence to enter a period of economic growth in the early 1990s, under the leadership of the democratically elected, if authoritarian, Alberto Fujimori.
The Andean countries in the early '90s seemed to be doing reasonably well, as part of a continent on the move. There were growing problems, but they seemed surmountable.
However, at the end of the decade, the Andean region is in trouble. Castro's vision of revolutionary change is not apt, but the Andean countries are engulfed in profound crises.
Colombia's decline is the most dramatic. The political violence of the 1940s, '50s and '60s has given way during the last decade to increasingly frequent and highly visible assassinations and kidnappings. Colombia is losing three simultaneous and mutually interactive wars: with the powerful narcotics enterprises, with the burgeoning guerrilla armies and with the fast-growing and vicious right-wing paramilitary organizations. Years of escalating insurgencies, urban violence and social deterioration -- compounded by the country's worst economic recession in 60 years -- have produced a national crisis of values, institutions and confidence.
The high hopes that greeted the election of Andres Pastrana as Colombia's president last year have been dashed. The credibility of almost all the country's established institutions and leaders has plummeted, and a bleakly pessimistic national mood has taken hold. Large national "marches of silence" attest both to public outrage and to the absence of articulated programs that can command broad support. That 60 percent of Colombians polled recently favored a U.S. military intervention in their country reveals a desperate impasse.
The situation in neighboring Venezuela, the largest source of imported petroleum for the United States, is very different but is also deeply disturbing. Discredited political and economic establishments have been brushed aside, and the two main political parties have imploded. A retired army lieutenant colonel, Hugo Chavez, handily won election as president and has swept into power a largely hand-picked constituent assembly with extraordinary authority.
Recently, the constituent assembly in effect dissolved the Congress and announced its intent to radically restructure the judiciary, leading the president of the Supreme Court to resign and state that the court should commit suicide rather than suffer assassination. No one seems to know what to expect next from Chavez, who, earlier in his career, led an attempted military coup. In fact, he appears to be systematically pursuing his announced radical program to revamp what he regards as a thoroughly corrupt country.
In that context, Chavez's expressed interest in Simon Bolivar's pan-Andean ideal -- combined with Chavez's open invitation to Colombia's guerrilla leaders to confer with him on Venezuelan soil -- lead some to wonder whether he has in mind an alliance to destroy Colombia's weakened system.
In Peru -- where ethnic outsider Fujimori has overturned entrenched patterns of power, privilege and authority -- the country's previously weak institutions have been further undermined by years of personalist rule; attacks on the Congress, the judiciary, the media and other erstwhile power centers; and continuing repression. Fujimori's tacit alliance with a shadowy group of military intelligence officers has solidified his grip, and many signs suggest that he intends to flout constitutional restraints and engineer a third consecutive presidential term. Meanwhile, the bloom is off Peru's economy. Foreign investment has dropped, and unemployment is rising, fueling a potential political tinderbox.
Buffeted by turmoil
In Ecuador, where the previously elected president was ousted by Congress for alleged insanity in a move of dubious constitutionality, the current president, Jamil Mahuad, has been unable to turn around an economy buffeted by international financial turmoil, falling commodity prices, labor unrest and destruction caused by the El Nino floods. Last week, Ecuador -- facing 7 percent negative growth and 55 percent inflation -- narrowly averted becoming the first Latin American country in years to default on its international debt. It has requested a 30-day delay on meeting its interest payments and has appealed for substantial debt reduction.
In this regional company, Bolivia's stolid adherence to democratic politics and its continued implementation of market-oriented economic reforms look relatively stable and attractive. But Bolivia's president, retired Gen. Hugo Banzer, is an unpleasant reminder of an earlier period of repressive military rule, and Bolivia's economic and political reforms remain fragile.
Broad rhetoric about hemispherical community and the bold vision of free trade from Alaska to Patagonia ignore the realities of Andean upheaval.
Narcotics, insurgencies, kidnappings, murder, extortion, deep poverty, vast economic inequities, human rights violations, weakening institutions, rampant corruption, decaying values, the public's disenchantment and despair -- all contribute to a sense of turmoil. The inter-American community, particularly the United States, needs to bring this region's troubles into much better focus.
Abraham Lowenthal is founding president of the Pacific Council on International Policy. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.