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SAN JOSE, Feb 2 2012 (IPS) - Latin American democracy has had to struggle against every kind of ideological experiment and event, some more lethal than others to the ideals of democracy, justice, freedom, and economic growth. Today many countries have forgotten how crucial it is to preserve the rule of law and especially the security of people and their possessions, without which there is neither competitiveness, democracy, nor peace. Until a few years ago it was believed that economic and social development were possible in an environment with weak institutions. However, the overwhelming weight of reality quickly proved this to be a fiction. Today it is universally understood that development is impossible without adequate institutional participation, which begins with the simple practice of democracy. This means a democratically-elected representative and participatory government furnished with adequate checks and balances and in which the branches are independent. This design was magisterially justified by Montesquieu, though certain politicians in the region prefer to ignore it. One of the central political fallacies of Latin America is that every area can generate its own particular form of democracy and civil liberties. All too often, this notion is merely camouflage for oppression or authoritarian rule.

The basic rules of democracy are universal, and the rigour of a country\’s adherence to them is what determines whether it is more or less democratic.

However, certain Latin American governments have fallen into the trap of believing that being democratically-elected gives an official the mandate to modify the rules of democracy to advance a given political project. If a government restricts individual liberties, limits the freedom of expression, and scales back the freedom of commerce without justification, it is subverting the very bases of democracy that brought it to power.

The dilemma here, to which no solution has been found, is how to fight against democracies whose leaders behave in an authoritarian manner and yet are not dictators.

Because in truth, there is but a single dictatorship in all Latin America, and that is in Cuba. The other regimes, whether we like it or not, are democracies in varying degrees of deterioration or fitness. To try to overthrow these governments, or remove them in another manner, through violence or in violation of the constitution or the law, is to fall into the same mode of autocratic behaviour that we are trying to end. The people themselves must learn to see through the illusions of demagogy and populism, because the problem is not false messiahs but rather the populations that welcome them with palm leaves and adulation.

One of the most eloquent cases of scorn for the rule of law and the erosion of democratic institutions is Nicaragua. With the reelection of Daniel Ortega as president in 2006, we began to see the disappearance of checks on government power and the undermining of individual liberties. This decline was most visible in the fraud that tainted the 2008 municipal elections and in the recent presidential elections.

It is not enough for Latin America to get rid of leaders with authoritarian tendencies when they will only be replaced by new stars of the political stage. Despite the fact that our peoples valiantly defeated the dictatorships that drenched the second half of the 20th century in blood, there is still much work to do if democracy is to establish itself permanently in the region. To paraphrase Octavio Paz: in our region, democracy does not need to sprout wings; it needs to send down roots.

The only way to take away the power of those who have concentrated it after winning popular support is to weaken that support through a process of civic education, opportunity, and ideas. Unfortunately we are failing at all three and continuing to postpone the major political, educational, and tax reforms that we have promised to carry out. Neither Spanish colonialism nor a lack of natural resources nor US hegemony nor any other theory generated by Latin America\’s eternal victimisation complex can explain the fact that we cannot overcome our shortfall in innovation, make the rich pay their taxes, produce graduates in engineering and the hard sciences, promote competence, build the infrastructure that we have failed to build for the last 200 years, or provide business and investment with juridical security.

What right does Latin America have to complain about the inequality that separates its peoples when almost half of its revenue comes from indirect taxes and when the tax burden of some countries of the region is barely 11 percent of the Gross Domestic Product? What right does it have to complain about the lack of quality jobs when the average student spends just eight years in school? How can it complain about inequality or poverty when military spending has risen an average of 8.5 percent yearly since 2003 reaching an astounding total of 70 billion dollars in 2010? Our leaders would do well to follow the example of President Obama, whose reaction to his country\’s economic crisis was to slash 487 billion dollars from the military budget over a decade. I realise, of course, that much remains to be done to liquidate US debt with peace and international security when the country remains the world\’s largest exporter of weapons. The time has come for Washington to put principles above the profits of certain US corporations.

These observations about Latin America do no more than point out the amnesia of a region that is driving the return of an arms race, spurred in many cases by battles against phantoms and other illusions. This is why in my last government I proposed to the international community and the industrialised countries especially to advance a Costa Rica Consensus, creating mechanisms to forgive debt and provide international financial support for developing countries that make steadily greater investments in education, health, and environmental protection while spending less and less on soldiers and weapons. The time has come for the international financial community to reward not only those who spend carefully but also those who spend ethically. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Oscar Arias Sanchez, ex-president of Costa Rica (1986-1990/2006-2010), won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

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