South America is a land of different cultures and has a history of as many different types of government, mostly dictatorships. Most of South America won independence from Spain and Portugal between 1810 and 1824. In 1823, President James Monroe enunciated the first US policy on Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine warned European nations against interfering in the affairs of independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. In 1904, Roosevelt’s Corollary said the US would act as a “policeman”, intervening militarily when US interests were at risk.
After W.W.II, the independent countries of the Western Hemisphere formed the Organization of American States, a military alliance to prevent aggression against any American nation. South America is the fourth largest continent. It ranks fifth in population. The continent is divided into 12 independent countries and two political units. The countries consist of Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Guyana, Surinam, and French Guinea. In the 12 countries of South America, democracy has slowly been on the rise since 1959.
The rise started in Venezuela and ended in Surinam last year. One by one South America’s countries have turned form dictatorships into democracies where the voters control the elections. Even with democracy taking control, the countries still have many problems. The largest problem is the tradition of corruption of the political leaders. The corruption has mainly been the use of bribe-taking and bribe-giving. “By definition, democracy presumes equal opportunity; bribery and corruption make the playing field uneven and weakens democracy’s foundations.” Recently, corruption has reached into high places in Venezuela and Brazil.
President Carlos Perez (1993) and Fernando Collor de Mello (1992) were forced to resign when faced with corruption charges. The large drug trade has also caused problems for the rise of democracy in South America. Each year, hundreds of tons of Cocaine feed an illegal US drug market. It is worth an estimated $38 billion a year. This illegal money has found its way into the pockets of many people in high places.
In Columbia, a major source of illegal drugs for the US, President Ernesto Samper was accused of taking a $6 million bribe to allow drug trafficking to continue as usual. Laundered drug money has financed development in many South American cities, but it has also brought bloodshed. The large gap between rich and poor of South America has presented another challenge for democracy. In South America, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. But since the rise of democracy economic conditions have not worsened.
Recently, the poor have been taking their demands for better economic conditions to the streets. In Argentina, workers have protested the privation policies of President Carlos Menem. They are demanding job security to go back to “the good old days” of the Peron era. The military also threatens democratic systems in South America. Today the soldiers are back in their barracks, “but in most nations, the possibility remains that the generals, heeding a real or imagined call to restore order, will impose military rule. This threat is illustrated by Chilean President Eduardo Frei’s problems with Chile’s former dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet who still controls the military until the year 1998. Each country in South America has faced some action that has tried to return them to what they once were–dictatorships.
In Venezuela, which has the oldest civilian regime in South America, suffered two coup attempts by army officers in 1992; both were unsuccessful and were put down. In Chile, Gen. Pinochet still commands the armed forces, but because of free elections he is no longer the head of state. With democracy having a hard time in South America, “only Chile seems to respect the rule of law.” In Bolivia, which had 189 military coups in its first 168 years of independence, has become a country with stable democracy. Voters elected President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to be the head of state in their new democracy.
Columbia, the most violent country in South America, has had the hardest time dealing with corruption in their democracy. This is due to their booming drug trade. It has 83 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, nine times the US murder rate. Someone gets killed in Bogota, the capital of Columbia, every hour. In Medillin it’s every half hour.
Columbia has a type of “narco-democracy” in which drug traffickers have achieved control over the top levels of government through bribery and intimidation. Brazil is another country where violent actions have played a part in the corruption of their democracy. Legislator Edmundo Galdino, paralyzed from the waist down by a hired gunman, said, “..its’ easier, cheaper, and more certain of success to hire an assassin than a lawyer to sue someone in court.” His government commission recently concluded that contract killers have 99% impunity, only 1% are ever convicted, making it the safest job in Brazil. Brazil’s corruption dates back to its colonial days (1500-1822) when rich landowners developed a system of “exchange of favors.” Brazil has come to be called the capitalist version of Russia. After 11 years of democracy, Argentina is no longer in danger of a military takeover. Elected President Carlos Menem has tried to bring changes for the people, but has overlooked the fact that most of the people are suffering from the terrible economic conditions. South America’s most recent “coup” was in Peru in 1992.
President Alberto Fujimori fired congress and imposed martial law, “saying he could not tackle the country’s pressing economic problems and Maoist insurgency under the constraints of democracy.” Guerrillas that terrorize rural Peru have played a big part in hurting Peruvian democracy. Most recently, in Lima, terrorist captured the Chinese embassy. They were put down after an extended stand off in late April of 1997. For the first time ever, all twelve South American countries have democratic governments. South America, “a continent famous for coups and military dictators, has embraced civilian, democratic leadership.” South American democracy is very fragile.
As modernization, the exchange of ideas, and trade with other democracies begin to happen, “South Americans are hoping their democratic experiments will succeed.”.