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The Hartford Courant

Study: Democracy Doubted Latin Americans Lose Confidence

By MATTHEW HAY BROWN; Courant Staff Writer

April 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Although civilian governments have replaced military dictatorships in most of Latin America, citizens there doubt that democracy can cure the persistent poverty and inequality that plague the region, a U.N. report warned on Wednesday.

In what officials termed ``a deep crisis of confidence,'' more than 54 percent of Latin Americans surveyed by the United Nations Development Program said they would support an ``authoritarian'' regime over ``democratic'' government if that could ``resolve'' their economic problems.

``That is very sad,'' U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Wednesday. ``More important, it is wrong. The solution to Latin America's ills does not lie in a return to authoritarianism. It lies in a stronger and deeper-rooted democracy.''

The three-year study assesses conditions and attitudes in 18 democracies following the transformation that has made the region the first in the developing world to be governed almost entirely by freely elected leaders.

The 250-page report, prepared by a team headed by former Argentine Foreign Minister Dante Caputo, finds that the regional Electoral Democracy Index -- a measure of the right to vote, free and fair elections, and access to public office -- increased from 0.28 to 0.93 on a scale of 1 from 1977 to 2002.

But at the same time, the first generation to come of age in functioning democracies has experienced virtually no per-capita income growth and has suffered widening, world-record disparities in national income distribution.

As a result, the report says, just 43 percent of the nearly 20,000 Latin Americans surveyed in 2002 fully support democracy, while 30.5 percent expressed ambivalence and 26.5 percent expressed nondemocratic views.

Since 2000, presidents elected in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru have been forced by declining popular support to quit office before their terms expired.

The authors interviewed more than 230 regional leaders, including almost all sitting presidents and former presidents and the heads of the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank and other key institutions.

Caputo, head of the UNDP Project on Democratic Development in Latin America, said that an analysis of democracy's shortcomings should not diminish the gains of the past generation.

``There is no unease about democracy, but there is unease within democracy,'' he said. ``Overcoming this requires that we use the most valuable instrument that democracy offers us: freedom. Freedom to discuss the things that cause unease, which some would rather conceal ... freedom to know why a system that is virtually a synonym for equality exists side by side with the highest level of inequality in the world.''

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