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Latin Generals Vie Again For Power

At summit, Clinton hails democracy. But ex-military leaders are showing up in politics.

The tinkling of brass that President Clinton heard while in South America last weekend came from former military leaders returning to power.

That tinkling may become a clanging.

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As he sat down with 33 other heads of state here over the weekend for the second Summit of the Americas, Mr. Clinton met only one former military leader in the group: President Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, a former general and a 1970s military dictator.

But that club of one may be expanding soon. In two other South American countries - Colombia and Venezuela - former military leaders are running for president in elections this year. In other countries members of past military juntas are running for congressional seats. And in Chile, where Clinton spoke to Congress Friday on a theme of strengthening democracy's return in the region, former military dictator Augusto Pinochet is a lifelong senator - as stipulated in the Constitution he created.

On Friday, Paraguay's Supreme Court declared a general who was a clear favorite to win the country's presidency in May ineligible to run. The court ruled that Gen. Lino Oviedo, who attempted a coup in 1996, was ineligible as a result of his "insubordination."

Yet despite the saber-rattling and authoritarianism that military leadership usually suggests, the rise of former military leaders in Latin America is not necessarily a worrisome trend, regional analysts say. More important, they add, is what the trend says about a continent-wide clamoring for stability, security, and progress toward social and economic justice.

The return of military leaders "signifies that the region's democratic transition is taking root, and distinct political forces are emerging," says Francisco Rojas Aravena, a military-political specialist at Santiago's Faculty of Latin American Social Sciences. "This is as valid for ex-military leaders as it is for liberals, conservatives, even communists. But I don't think it signifies a return to the old authoritarianism."

Adds Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, "This is basically healthy, provided that if they are elected to office they don't violate the constitutions that allowed them to get there."

In one sense, it shouldn't surprise anyone that former military leaders are finding their way back to power within electoral politics. South America has a long tradition of military leadership, which remains associated with establishing order.

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In Chile, for example, a vocal minority may despise the 17-year Pinochet regime for its flagrant human rights violations. But another sizable group associates the dictatorship with a return of order and prosperity after the chaotic years of the Salvador Allende presidency, which ended with Pinochet's coup in 1973.

Still, not all former military leaders can be neatly filed away under "dictators and antidemocrats." "It would be easy to generalize and say all these guys are part of a worrisome general trend, but they're not the same," says Mr. Gamarra. "Each case has very different characteristics."

In Venezuela, former military officer and failed-coup mastermind Hugo Chvez is running on a populist campaign condemning the country's "corrupt" political elite. Colombia's former commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Harold Bedoya, is running in May elections on a law-and-order platform in a country torn by a 30-year-old civil war and drug-trade violence.

Military 'problem solvers'

And while the region's former military regimes are generally associated with the conservative right, Bolivia's President Banzer was elected last year with a populist campaign that promised to make fighting poverty the priority over market reforms. (Latin America's last military dictatorship, Fidel Castro's Cuba, remains an icon of the left.)

What does run like a common thread through every case of a rising ex-military man is the backdrop of Latin America's intense social flux. In this context, the attraction of military leaders should be taken as a warning, observers say, that traditional politics are not solving voters' problems.

"Support for these military leaders comes largely from people who don't think the traditional politicians and their parties deliver," Gamarra says, "and in many cases, they are right."

In his speech to Chile's Congress, Mr. Clinton called for a "second round" of democratic reforms in Latin America. "There are still too many citizens who exercise their right to vote, but after the election is over feel few benefits from the decisions made by their officials," he said. "This kind of popular frustration can fuel the ambitions of democracy's foes."

With these "frustrations" over democracy's inability so far to answer everyday problems, such as crime, former military leaders are making a comeback for some of the same reasons that mayors are rising national leaders across Latin America, Mr. Rojas Aravena says. "They are closer to the people, they are associated with solving and bringing some order to daily problems."

Warning signs

Still, some observers say there are some red flags raised by the campaigns that should be watched. In his attack on Venezuela's ruling political class, Mr. Chvez is calling for a "cleaning out" of the country's Congress - with himself wielding the broom. Such statements horrify democracy-rights advocates, who recall the closing of Peru's Congress by President Alberto Fujimori in 1992. And in Colombia, Mr. Bedoya advocates replacing the civilian justice system with military courts until the country's high crime rates and insecurity are turned around.

"Even if Bedoya fails in his election bid," Gamarra says, "some of his military-honed ideas may indeed prevail."

If that happens, the military's resurrection in Latin America is sure to make even more noise.

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