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Democracy's Continent

WHILE the world's gaze was fixed on the hopeful events in Eastern Europe, something historic occurred in South America, almost unnoticed. With the elections of new presidents in Chile and Brazil this month, every country in South America has a popularly elected leader. This is the culmination of a remarkable decade for democracy on the continent. In 1979, eight of the 10 major South American countries were under military dictatorships. Conditions in Chile and Brazil are vastly different, but the countries have this in common: Their citizens have now cast presidential ballots for the first time in many years. In Chile the last such election was in 1970; in Brazil, 1960.

As the people of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia are quickly learning, however, democratization is exhilarating, but democratic government is hard work. For Chile and Brazil, now comes the heavy lifting.

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In making the transition from the harsh dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to self-rule under Patricio Aylwin, Chile has some advantages. Its economy is robust, and Chileans have more experience with democratic institutions than other South Americans. The divisive ideological stridency of the Allende era has been muted, as most Chileans share a general consensus in favor of free-market policies. Thus the rickety coalition that Mr. Aylwin has cobbled together should give his government a running start.

But if the Army under General Pinochet has withdrawn to the barracks, it hasn't stacked arms. Aylwin will have to patiently negotiate with the brass to reassert civilian control over government functions still dominated by the military, and he's unlikely to jeopardize those negotiations by insisting too strenuously on accountability for past human rights abuses. This could set him at odds with some of his followers. Also, his 17-party coalition inevitably will begin to fragment.

Even so, new Brazilian President Fernando Collor de Mello probably envies Aylwin's problems. Mr. Collor takes the wheel of a country in economic disarray, bent under a $110 billion foreign debt and wracked by hyperinflation caused by fiscal mismanagement. Moreover, in Brazil the gap between rich and poor is one of the widest in the world; there is tremendous pent-up demand for social equity, as the strong vote for Collor's left-wing opponent demonstrates. Collor will have to try simultaneously to cut government spending and alleviate poverty. Fortunately, Brazil still has a strong private sector to fuel growth.

Challenges abound in both countries. But for a moment, let's rejoice over the realization of democracy in South America.

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