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Latin America's flickering democracy

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Latin Americans can't seem to make democracy work. Ecuador now has its seventh president in nine years. Bolivian Indians recently overthrew their second president in less than two years. In 2001 the majority Indian population in Peru elected one of its own as president, after his predecessor had fled the country, but as The Economist of London reported last month, he has long been the region's most unpopular president.

And that's just the beginning. The decades-long guerrilla/drug war in Colombia rages on and the United Nations reports that drug production is rising in the Andes. President Hugo Chávez increasingly polarizes Venezuela and the region, and uses oil hand-outs to prop up Fidel Castro's decrepit authoritarian regime in Cuba. Costa Rica's long-admired democratic system is torn by presidential scandals, Nicaragua may soon elect a failed Sandinista from the past, and Haiti is a perpetual failure in every way.

Even Argentina, the market reform "model" in the 1990s, is on its sixth president in four years, five of them in a fortnight around New Year's Day, 2002. The economic collapse then devastated living standards for the majority and precipitated the largest debt default in world history, which was greeted with cheers in the national congress.

Polls show that democracy as a system is popular in the region, but also that most Latin Americans don't believe it works for them. Indeed, international agenciesreport that the region has long had the world's widest rich-poor gap and that living conditions and opportunities for bettering one's lot are few and in most places not increasing. And Latin America is falling ever farther behind the developing countries of Asia.

The problem of ineffective or downright failing democracies is far more basic to the region's thinking and governance than politicians in the Americas - including Washington - are aware of or willing to admit.

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