Strongarm Shortcuts Are No Substitute for Democracy

JONATHAN POWER

April 24, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

Stockholm. -- The presidential coup d'etat in Peru pushed too many observers into questioning whether, in the midst of economic agony and domestic insurgency, democracy can function without a ''temporary'' helping hand from a strong man, the military or some combination of both.

But surely all that remains to be questioned in 1992, in the words of the ''Human Development Report,'' published yesterday in Stockholm by the United Nations Development Programme, ''is the causality -- the direction of the arrow, whether more freedom leads to more development or more development leads to more freedom?''

Apparently not. There are still those who look with fascination at the East Asian high-tech age. What about South Korea's rags-to-riches within a generation under General Park, or even in Latin America, Chile's economic miracle under General Pinochet?

Nevertheless, those who now maintain that for Peru maybe the coup was a short-term necessity, ignore that for every example of an authoritarian state that has accelerated economic development, there are more examples that merely led to economic stagnation or to chaos.

How attitudes on this subject are shaped depends to a degree on how we look at economic progress.

If we see the rise in gross national product as an end in itself, maybe there is a compelling reason on occasion, with an unusual leader, to take a shortcut. Even then, the proponent of such an argument would have to explain how democracy seems to have pulled most of South America out of the terrible economic decline of the 1980s.

Moreover, the impossible problem is to judge beforehand who is this remarkable leader. A mistake is not as easy to get rid of as one that was elected.

More to the point is to understand that a growing majority of the world's people feel instinctively that growth is not an end but part of a larger meal. Democracy cannot just be put on one side as the last dish to be served.

It used to be argued as a matter of course that the poor would always vote for economic development first and political freedom second. If this were true -- and the nearly half-century old Indian experience always challenged it -- it is less so today. The world over, people are becoming both more educated and more aware.

Between 1960 and 1990, adult literacy increased from 46 percent of the world's population to 64 percent. Even in underdeveloped societies, people can more easily look over their garden fences. Peasant passivity, even if it once existed, is rapidly becoming an anachronism.

From Burma to Zaire, ordinary people are demanding the right to vote. If in Peru today there is a moment's ambiguity revealed in opinion polls that show majority support for the coup, it is no more than the temporary elation that comes from decisive action in a country where state institutions are either ossified or corrupt. When Indira Gandhi tried a similar move in India, the electorate booted her out as soon as she suspended the ''emergency'' and gave them a chance.

Neither will the army get away with its new ''freedom'' to deal with the guerrillas of the Shining Path movement. The growing network of human rights monitors, many prepared to risk their lives so the truth will out, together with a press more sophisticated and probing than a generation ago, will all make sure that there is a steady flow of embarrassing information on human rights violations.

For more and more people, freedom is not an optional extra but a fundamental and integral part of human development. At last, rich country governments are beginning to get serious about cutting off aid if recipient countries do not respect democratic values and basic human rights.

One wishes they would get just as serious about whom they allow their arms merchants to sell to. According to the UNDP, countries that spend heavily on arms receive roughly twice as much aid, per capita, as countries that spend more modestly.

It is important to get tough. While halting the big budget items, aid givers can always soften the blow by keeping on giving what the Americans call ''humanitarian aid,'' the aid that is supposed to service the essential needs of the very poorest. Contrary to general perception, that is only about 7 percent of rich countries' aid budgets.

Don't cry for Peru. The country has been there before. The tough, ''enlightened,'' military ruled the roost in the 1970s. It produced some modest, not well-thought-out land reform in the high Andes, much repression, a heady dose of inflation and a lot of corruption.

There is no shortcut to development, economic growth, good governance, honest courts and a humane military. Democracy always demands patient renewal -- a continuous search for the best balance between conflicting social interest groups and priorities.

We have to keep saying it: Democracy doesn't necessarily bring quick results, but over time it is more likely to bring sure results. This is the way that the arrow of our age is pointing.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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