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Two cheers for the prosecution of Latin American strongmen

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Argentina's former president, Carlos Menem, has shown an extraordinary ability to shock and surprise. That talent was in plain view last month when he married a Chilean beauty queen half his age, the former Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco. The following week produced an even greater shock: Mr. Menem was arrested, accused of involvement in illegal arms deals with Ecuador and Croatia while in office.

Menem's detention took place days before Peruvians elected Alejandro Toledo as their next president, rewarding him for his stubborn, seemingly quixotic, battle to keep Alberto Fujimori from serving a third term. Indicted last year on a range of charges, including murder, Mr. Fujimori avoided arrest by fleeing to Japan.

Menem and Fujimori ruled their countries for nearly all of the '90s, and were Latin America's most dominant politicians of the period. While there are striking parallels between their governments, the differences are just as important. Menem ruled autocratically at times, running roughshod over the judiciary and legislature. But Fujimori rejected all constitutional limits. He closed Congress and the courts in 1992, then reshaped both institutions and put them firmly under his control. He stifled political parties, muzzled the press, and manipulated the country's electoral commission.

The Argentine president pressed too hard and too long for the right to try for a third term, but finally desisted. Under similar circumstances, Fujimori simply got rid of the judges blocking his way, and went on to win a fraud-ridden election. While Fujimori relied heavily on the Army and intelligence services to keep power, Menem slashed the size, budgets, and political influence of the armed forces.

Neither man is an isolated case. Latin America has clearly made extraordinary progress toward democracy since the days that military strongmen and personalist dictatorships ruled in most countries of the region. Now, elections are the only accepted way to gain political power. In many other critical areas - human rights, freedom of expression, and citizen participation, for instance - the change is stark. Yet, throughout Latin America, unsavory patterns of government continue to prevail and violate democratic practice. In many countries, high officials, from presidents on down, regularly disregard legal and constitutional constraints. In too few places are there effective checks and balances on executive power.


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