London. -- The attempted coup by dissident soldiers in Venezuela earlier this month drove home the ambiguities of the message Latin American governments now, 500 years after Spain started the rape of the continent, are desperate to tell the world: that over the last decade or two they have arrived at a state of political sophistication and economic emancipation.
Five hundred years from Columbus to Castro, the one remaining despot, is a long time to wait for democracy to arrive, especially when measured against its northern cousin. And for that we have no one to thank but Spain (and, to a much lesser extent, Portugal).
North America was settled by pilgrims, idealists, political and religious refugees. They wanted to create a New World and democracy became the chosen instrument. Flawed of course. It did not protect the Indians and it did not involve the slaves. But it laid the basis for economic advance first and social reform later.
The Spanish conquistadores were not fleeing persecution. They were adventurers and mercenaries. They lived under the Inquisition and Counter-reformation. They really did not question and authoritarianism and feudalism were second nature. They were not interested in development or society. They were there only to conquer and pillage, to extract the mineral and agricultural wealth as fast as they could and ship it home. ''The bloody trail of the conquest,'' as its earliest reporter, the friar Bartolome de las Casas, put it.
The high Indian civilizations, the Incas and the Aztecs (the Mayans were already in decline for other, still disputed, reasons) were destroyed mercilessly. To re-read Prescott's great accounts is to understand brutality and ignorance at its worst. No wonder modern day Peru is so race-ridden, corrupt and feudal, with the Indians of the Andes treated worse than the blacks in South Africa ever were. It should come as no surprise they are switching their allegiance away from the state to the guerrillas of the Maoist Shining Path.
Not only was political evolution suffocated at birth for the best part of four and a half centuries, so was economic. The counter-reformation state banned and restricted enterprise in the private sector. It licensed certain entrepreneurs to develop state monopolies. It favored state mercantilism. Individual inventiveness and endeavor were stifled.
Here were two side-by-side continents, equally endowed by nature. One prospered. The other crawled on its belly. Only after the upheavals of World War II, step by difficult step, Latin America has started to shed its alliance of church and state and engage the engine of economic growth, and not too far behind followed democracy.
Two countries, however, blessed by the lack of mineral and agricultural wealth or of Indians, managed to escape the worst ravages of the conquistadores. Chile was one, protected by desert in the north, the high ridge of the Andes to the east, and Antarctica to the south. Farms were settled and, bereft of Indian workers, run on their own by individual families. Trade was mainly with England, not Spain. Democracy arrived 170 years ago, before it reached France and Italy.
Only American influence, in the much later time of Nixon and Kissinger, stymied this telling record of achievement. Fearful of the leftist Salvador Allende, the U.S. offered discreet but telling support to a military coup. But the notions of law, fair play and decency were too deeply embedded for the Pinochet dictatorship's writ to run forever. Two years ago, Chile returned to its roots.
Costa Rica, too, had the advantage of being poor, with few Indians, and it was far from Guatemala, the Spanish Central American capital. Farmers could not grow rich on the backs of the Indians. There was no powerful elite. Today, Costa Rica claims its place as one of the most stable and long-lasting, least militaristic democracies in the world.
Venezuela, in contrast, is mainstream Latin America, albeit more advanced than the average. It has been democratic since 1958, and until recently it maintained a good record of avoiding political violence. Oil has not solved the problem of poverty, but until the latest economic retrenchment, it did help make the poor less desperate. It also worked to reduce the political power of the great landowners.
Nevertheless, last week's events show how much deeper the roots of democratic life have to penetrate to give real stability. The government, or rather the ''court'' of Carlos Andres Perez, still suffers from the old Spanish disease of remoteness and financial corruption.
Venezuela's neighbors, Brazil and Colombia, are perhaps in an even worse state. The feudal system, with the might of the landowners central to it, still maintains, even in the democratic age, a disproportionate influence on decision making. Class differences appear unbridgable. Even if the army is temporarily off stage at the moment in both countries, as in most of Latin America, it remains a potent influence, with an undiminished capacity for quite savage acts of violence.
Could Columbus, the tenacious, but cold-blooded, sailor ever have guessed what a difficult course he had set for his new ''discovery?'' No wonder one can find many Indians today who say, quite bluntly, they wish he'd believed the earth was flat.
Jonathn Power writes a column on the Third World.