Throughout the early 1980s, a democratic fervor swept South America, and military dictators gradually relinquished control to civilian governments. Among the continent’s 13 countries, only two generals, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, prevailed. And three months ago, Stroessner himself was deposed by a longtime ally, Gen. Andrés Rodríguez, who immediately pledged some democratic reforms. But now, as Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay prepare for May elections, fledgling democracies are under fire from another quarter—a steadily deteriorating economic situation. “It is not as dramatic as a war,” said George Ann Potter, director of Latinamerican Press, a Peru-based publication that focuses on continental political and development issues. “But if anything is really going to seriously challenge most of the so-called democracies in Latin America, it will be the economic crisis.” Civilian governments have grappled with economic stagnation and a crushing foreign debt that now totals more than $480 billion for the region. And international relief organizations have characterized the 1980s as the “decade of lost development,” while such gauges of living standards as nutrition, infant mortality and life expectancy slip back to levels of more than 10 years ago. Those conditions will be vital factors in the May elections. Only in Paraguay—which has suffered less econom-
ic decline than many of its neighbors—is the election campaign preoccupied with the country’s nascent democracy.
There is little doubt that Rodriguez, who became the leader of Paraguay’s ruling National Republican Association, or Colorado party, after a Feb. 3 coup, will win the presidential elections there on May 1.
The opposition parties had scarcely three months to prepare after stagnating under Stroessner’s 34-year dictatorship. But daily newspapers are now publishing, with unprecedented openness, stories about Stroessner’s embezzling millions of dollars and about indictments against government ministers. They have also printed a flurry of interviews with formerly outlawed politicians.
“People just can’t stop talking about it,” said Aldo Zuccolillo, publisher of ABC Color, a newspaper banned by Stroessner. “The fear is gone. Now it’s the future of the country that is at stake.”
In Bolivia, once the continent’s most politically unstable country, the armed forces have not staged a coup for seven years. With no
immediate threat of military intervention, unemployment has emerged as the key issue in May 7 elections for the presidency and congress. Presidént Víctor Paz Estenssoro, who is stepping down, laid off or retired about 80,000 government workers as part of his 1985 austerity plan. That program brought inflation down from a peak of 24,000 per cent in 1985 to an average of 20 per cent last year—but added to the already high unemployment rate. “So far, the government has been able to maintain stability,” said Herbert Müller, a financial analyst and pollster in La Paz. “But if there is no economic reactivation and a program for employment, social tensions are going to explode.” In the political campaign, Paz’s heir as candidate for the ruling National Revolutionary Movement, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, is running second in a field of 10 to former military dictator Gen. Hugo Banzer, fondly remembered for the relative prosperity during his rule from 1971 to 1978.
Argentines have also been subjected to frequent coups. But in 1983, after eight years of military rule, President Raúl Alfonsin was elected on a platform that focused on restoring civil liberties. Even though military officers have staged three uprisings in the past two years, the campaign for May 14 presidential elections has revolved around economic issues. Eduardo Angeloz, presidential candidate for the ruling Radical Civic Union party, is taking criticism for Alfonsin’s economic policies after the monthly inflation rate—in the single digits for almost a year—jumped to 17 per cent in March and is expected to hit 25 per cent for April.
Argentine opinion polls placed charismatic opposition candidate Carlos Menem clearly ahead of Angeloz, although the polls show that at least 25 per cent of voters remained undecided last week. Menem, who is running a populist campaign and casting himself as the political heir to former Argentine president Juan Perón, has promised to help the poor but has not offered concrete economic alternatives.
While civilian governments in the region struggle to deal with growing discontent and economic hardship, military establishments have kept a relatively low profile by Latin American standards—perhaps because they have no solutions either. Said Carlos Franco, a Peruvian political analyst: “It is clear the armed forces don’t feel they have the economic and political formulas nor sufficient social consensus to take over.” For the region’s new democracies, that, at least, is one sign of hope.
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