WASHINGTON -- The hemisphere-wide alarm that greeted last week's coup in Haiti exposed the fragility of democratic institutions in much of Latin America and the continued strong role their armed forces play in politics, bolstered in some cases with U.S. assistance.
"There was a lot of concern among all the democratic governments" that other military leaders would get the same idea, a senior State Department official said.
This fear was probably stronger in the Central and South American nations that have only recently achieved democracy than in much of the Caribbean, where Haiti is located.
"No one pretends that democracy has been consolidated," another official said. "There are elements looking at Haiti and watching closely to see what kind of reaction comes."
The decision early Thursday by the Organization of American States to dispatch a mission demanding an end to the coup that deposed Haiti's first freely elected president marked a crucial affirmation of its recent determination to shore up democracy and abandon its strict non-interventionist stance.
The move was strongly backed by the United States. It coincided with a dramatic post-Cold War change in U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean that shifted away from combating leftist rebellions and toward free trade and economic cooperation.
With this policy shift have come U.S. efforts to help nurture the institutions, such as legal systems, that strengthen democracy. At the same time, international lending institutions are trying to curb Latin military spending by linking aid with limits on it.
But some experts on the region believe these changes are undermined, perhaps fatally, by the flip side of U.S. policy: the growing U.S.-backed military involvement in the drug war and in counterinsurgency. Among other things, it enhances the ties between the U.S. and Latin military establishments.
"There are a whole series of new things that are very frightening in their implications," said Alexander Wilde, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.
Military establishments in Latin America and the Caribbean are small compared with those of some Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Haiti's was getting only $1.5 million in U.S. aid this year before the Bush administration severed all such funds.
But those militaries face few external threats, so their roles are almost entirely internal law enforcement and quelling domestic unrest. They operate largely outside civilian control. This is even more true in the rest of democratic Latin America than it is in the Caribbean.
"In most countries, the military performs police functions or the .. police are actually part of the military," said a congressional specialist on the region. "Part of the problem is that there is not a separate law-and-order function."
In the early 1960s, following the Castro-led Cuban revolution, the United States contributed substantially to the strength of various armed forces as part of a doctrine aimed at removing threats to internal stability in many sectors of Latin societies.
This was accompanied by training aimed at integrating the military establishments into democratic forms of government, but this training fell disastrously short. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of sometimes brutal military-led dictatorships throughout the region.
Unlike the case of Haiti, the coups often occurred with popular support after democratically elected governments proved unable to cope with economic emergencies or insurgencies.
In Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976, "a significant share of the population was screaming for someone to do something about deterioration in the country," said Peter Hakim, staff director of Inter-American Dialogue, another think tank.
As the dictatorships gave way to elected governments in the 1980s, civilian leaders were able to gain some leverage over their militaries.
Argentine President Carlos Menem recently was able to put down a military uprising and shut down the Condor missile program. President Fernando Collor de Mello of Brazil closed down a military nuclear program. Chile reopened the investigation of the murder in Washington of an opposition leader, placing it in civilian hands. And in Guatemala, President Jorge Serrano has made cracking down on military human rights abuses a high priority.
But, "There is still a sense within some militaries that they are the ultimate guardians of national values. I'm not sure attitudes within militaries have changed a great deal," Mr. Hakim said.
Larry Birns, director of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs, labels Latin militaries "a self-serving, self-perpetuating body" whose mission has gone from "defending borders to repressing people."