Commentary: Latin America: The Downside Of People Power

More Latin Americans are taking to the streets -- and losing faith in the ballot box

Quito, Ecuador, and Mexico City, Mexico, seem worlds apart -- one is a picturesque mountaintop enclave with 1 million inhabitants, while the other is a sprawling megalopolis that's home to 18 million people. But the two Latin American capitals have something very much in common: Both felt the force of people power in late April.

On Apr. 20 thousands of rock-hurling protesters filled the streets of Quito to oppose plans by President Lúcio Gutiérrez to disband the Supreme Court for the second time in four months, forcing him out of the presidential palace and into exile. Just four days later, close to 1 million turned out for a peaceful march in Mexico City to demand that the country's President and two most powerful political parties drop a legal maneuver aimed at disqualifying Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the front-runner for next year's presidential elections. Surprised by the turnout and international criticism, President Vicente Fox now is offering to meet with the mayor to discuss a solution that might allow him to run.

Across much of Latin America, citizens are taking to the streets, rather than the ballot box, to register their political grievances. The military coup may be a thing of the past, but the popular coup is in vogue. Gutiérrez was the third Ecuadorean President in eight years to be ousted by mass demonstrations. Haiti and Argentina also have seen popular revolts against elected governments. In Bolivia, controversy over how to exploit natural-gas riches could drive impoverished Indian demonstrators to try to topple President Carlos Mesa as they did his predecessor 20 months ago. "The politics of race, revenge, and resentment have taken over," says Moisés Naim, a former Venezuelan government minister who is editor of Foreign Policy magazine. "We're seeing public impatience, the incompetence of traditional parties, and the emergence of new actors for which governments have no responses."

The truth is that most Latin Americans are disappointed in democracy. In a 2004 18-country survey by Chilean research organization Latinobarómetro, just 29% said they were satisfied with the way their democracies are working. Who can blame them? Two decades after much of the region returned to democratic rule, poverty remains endemic -- particularly among indigenous groups -- while corruption and crime have reached intolerable levels. Although Latin America is set for 4.4% growth this year, thanks to high world commodity prices, the wealth isn't trickling down in the form of new jobs and improved social services. Latins blame bickering political parties for lining their own pockets and those of the business elite instead of instituting reforms that benefit the majority. Indeed, 55% of those polled said they would back a non-democratic government if it could resolve economic problems.

That helps explain why Venezuelans voted in former paratrooper and onetime coup leader Hugo Chávez in 1998 and confirmed him in his post in a 2004 referendum. Casting himself as a latter-day Robin Hood, Chávez has vowed to redistribute the country's oil riches, pumping $3.5 billion a year into social programs. Seven years into his "peaceful revolution," he has managed to stamp out the vestiges of multiparty democracy, tightened his control over the oil sector, and sent old-style oligarchs packing to Miami. He has done it by harnessing people power -- through street marches, plebiscites, and a civilian militia. While Chávez remains an anomaly, popular impatience with traditional politicians could encourage other populists -- with uncertain consequences.

What can be done to help elected officials regain public trust? For starters, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank could provide more funding to improve judicial, electoral, and economic institutions. Such reforms were successful in Chile, which has enjoyed stability rare to the region -- and reduced poverty -- since its 17-year dictatorship ended in 1988. The key to its success: solid government institutions and political parties' willingness to reach consensus. Sadly, that's a combination you don't see much in Latin America these days.

By Geri Smith

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