Rise of Democracy in South America
South America is a land of different cultures and has a history
of as many different types of government, mostly dictatorships. Most
of South America won independence from Spain and Portugal between 1810
and 1824. In 1823, President James Monroe enunciated the first US
policy on Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine warned European nations
against interfering in the affairs of independent nations in the
Western Hemisphere. In 1904, Roosevelt's Corollary said the US would
act as a "policeman", intervening militarily when US interests were at
risk. After W.W.II, the independent countries of the Western
Hemisphere formed the Organization of American States, a military
alliance to prevent aggression against any American nation. South
America is the fourth largest continent. It ranks fifth in population.
The continent is divided into 12 independent countries and two
political units. The countries consist of Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela,
Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Guyana,
Surinam, and French Guinea. In the 12 countries of South America,
democracy has slowly been on the rise since 1959. The rise started in
Venezuela and ended in Surinam last year. One by one South America's
countries have turned form dictatorships into democracies where the
voters control the elections.
Even with democracy taking control, the countries still have
many problems. The largest problem is the tradition of corruption of
the political leaders. The corruption has mainly been the use of
bribe-taking and bribe-giving. "By definition, democracy presumes
equal opportunity; bribery and corruption make the playing field
uneven and weakens democracy's foundations." Recently, corruption has
reached into high places in Venezuela and Brazil. President Carlos
Perez (1993) and Fernando Collor de Mello (1992) were forced to resign
when faced with corruption charges.
The large drug trade has also caused problems for the rise of
democracy in South America. Each year, hundreds of tons of Cocaine
feed an illegal US drug market. It is worth an estimated $38 billion a
year. This illegal money has found its way into the pockets of many
people in high places. In Columbia, a major source of illegal drugs
for the US, President Ernesto Samper was accused of taking a $6
million bribe to allow drug trafficking to continue as usual.
Laundered drug money has financed development in many South American
cities, but it has also brought bloodshed.
The large gap between rich and poor of South America has
presented another challenge for democracy. In South America, the rich
keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. But since the
rise of democracy economic conditions have not worsened. Recently, the
poor have been taking their demands for better economic conditions to
the streets. In Argentina, workers have protested the privation
policies of President Carlos Menem. They are demanding job security to
go back to "the good old days" of the Peron era.
The military also threatens democratic systems in South America.
Today the soldiers are back in their barracks, "but in most nations,
the possibility remains that the generals, heeding a real or imagined
call to restore order, will impose military rule. This threat is
illustrated by Chilean President Eduardo Frei's problems with Chile's
former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet who still controls the military
until the year 1998. Each country in South America has faced some
action that has tried to return them to what they once
were--dictatorships. In Venezuela, which has the oldest civilian
regime in South America, suffered two coup attempts by
army officers in 1992; both were unsuccessful and were put down.
In Chile, Gen. Pinochet still commands the armed forces, but because
of free elections he is no longer the head of state. With democracy
having a hard time in South America, "only Chile seems to respect the
rule of law."
In Bolivia, which had 189 military coups in its first 168 years
of independence, has become a country with stable democracy. Voters
elected President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to be the head of state in
their new democracy. Columbia, the most violent country in South
America, has had the hardest time dealing with corruption in their
democracy. This is due to their booming drug trade. It has 83 murders
per 100,000 inhabitants, nine times the US murder rate. Someone gets
killed in Bogota, the capital of Columbia, every hour. In Medillin
it's every half hour. Columbia has a type of "narco-democracy" in
which drug traffickers have achieved control over the top levels of
government through bribery and intimidation.
Brazil is another country where violent actions have played a
part in the corruption of their democracy. Legislator Edmundo Galdino,
paralyzed from the waist down by a hired gunman, said, "...its'
easier, cheaper, and more certain of success to hire an assassin than
a lawyer to sue someone in court." His government commission recently
concluded that contract killers have 99% impunity, only 1% are ever
convicted, making it the safest job in Brazil. Brazil's corruption
dates back to its colonial days (1500-1822) when rich landowners
developed a system of "exchange of favors." Brazil has come to be
called the capitalist version of Russia.
After 11 years of democracy, Argentina is no longer in danger of
a military takeover. Elected President Carlos Menem has tried to bring
changes for the people, but has overlooked the fact that most of the
people are suffering from the terrible economic conditions.
South America's most recent "coup" was in Peru in 1992. President
Alberto Fujimori fired congress and imposed martial law, "saying he
could not tackle the country's pressing economic problems and Maoist
insurgency under the constraints of democracy." Guerrillas that
terrorize rural Peru have played a big part in hurting Peruvian
democracy. Most recently, in Lima, terrorist captured the Chinese
embassy. They were put down after an extended stand off in late April
For the first time ever, all twelve South American countries
have democratic governments. South America, "a continent famous for
coups and military dictators, has embraced civilian, democratic
leadership." South American democracy is very fragile. As
modernization, the exchange of ideas, and trade with other democracies
begin to happen, "South Americans are hoping their democratic
experiments will succeed."