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Thursday, April 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:27 A.M.

Latin poll shows poor disenchanted with idea of democracy

By Hector Tobar
Los Angeles Times

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Frustrated by a lack of economic progress under the democratic regimes that rule them, a majority of Latin Americans would support an authoritarian government if it bettered their lives, according to a U.N. report released yesterday.

The study by the U.N. Development Program also found that most government leaders in the region feel they are slowly losing the ability to shape policy because of the increasing influence of the United States and international lending institutions.

The three-year study was based on a survey of 18,600 people and interviews with political leaders in 18 countries, including most of the current and former presidents.

The survey found support for authoritarian rule strongest among the poor — a troubling finding, given that a majority of people in the region live in poverty. About 55 percent of those polled said they would support an authoritarian government if it resolved their economic problems, while 57 percent said economic development was more important than democracy.

Decades of transition

Of the 18 countries surveyed — which include all the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of the region except Cuba — only three were democracies 25 years ago. Back then, most were ruled by military officers who had deposed weak, democratically elected leaders.

Today, the survey found, basic democratic practices and rights are firmly established in the region. Most Latin Americans are registered to vote, and a vast majority cast ballots in local and national elections.

Of 70 national elections between 1990 and 2002, there were charges of vote-rigging and other irregularities in 13. And only in two did the international community question the outcome — in the Dominican Republic in 1994 and Peru in 2000.
But the relative health of the formal institutions of democracy belies an underlying malaise, the report said.

Across the region, 7 percent of Latin Americans surveyed said they had been "pressured" to vote for a certain candidate or had effectively sold their votes in the most recent presidential election in their country. The highest degree of such electoral fraud was in Brazil (13 percent), followed by Venezuela and Mexico (12 percent).

And 31 percent of those polled said they knew of someone who had received "privileges" — typically a government job or handout — because of their connections with the political party in power.

Social unrest

"Political institutions which have lost credibility and the persistence of poverty and discrimination together have created a situation which makes these democracies vulnerable," the report said.

Across Latin America, corruption, poverty and economic crises have fed social unrest.

Militant Aymara and Quechua Indians, the impoverished majority in Bolivia, in recent months took over police stations in dozens of villages, chasing out local officials. In recent days, rumors of a military coup swept through the country.

In Argentina, the federal government this month removed the democratically elected governor in Santiago del Estero province after a murder scandal that exposed what federal officials said was the "systematic violation" of the rule of law by local officials.

Since 2000, protests have forced four presidents in the 18 countries surveyed to resign before the end of their terms.

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