Third World countries develop with authoritarian democracy

December 16, 1993|By Georgie Anne Geyer

FROM THE important but largely unsung elections in Venezuela, my respected colleague Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald reported some surprising -- and extremely important -- findings.

The election itself on Dec. 5 offered no surprises: Elderly but respected former president Rafael Caldera won. The reason was clear: The incumbent president, Carlos Andres Perez, was in disgrace over financial "irregularities." And the state itself, once the model for democracy in Latin America, had turned out in essence to be so centrally controlled by a few enriched politicians that it was on the verge of military coup or street upheaval.

But Mr. Oppenheimer noted a different, more profound type of change. "Venezuela," he wrote, "may move to adopt a mild version of a political system that is gaining ground around the world -- constitutional despotism."

President Caldera, who has a sterling reputation, wants to reform the Venezuelan Constitution to allow the president to dissolve Congress and call new legislative elections in cases of extreme government deadlock. The president could also create a mechanism of referendum to oust a president before the end of his term -- an "auto-golpe," or self-coup, in effect.

A prominent jurist, Escovar Salom, surprised Mr. Oppenheimer by telling him that he loved these new ideas because "our political systems are too rigid: They don't provide for escape valves or emergency exits to resolve political crises. That's why, whenever there is a serious crisis, the only alternative that comes to people's minds is that of a military coup."

Prominent historian and author Carlos Capriles encapsulated the new thinking by saying, "We need an authoritarian government that acts within the law, and that respects individual rights."

Before everybody becomes horrified by such travesties on "democracy" and "human rights" and "free markets," let us look rationally at a world in which the American government and officials are so strongly pushing all three as the basis of our foreign policy.

Thirty years ago, after World War II and in the midst of the vast decolonizing process, no one knew what worked in the Third World. The struggle -- the grappling of systems and themes -- evolved to "Marxism-vs. democracy." In truth, it was never so simple.

With Germany and Japan, the transformation was possible because they were defeated countries and the United States provided both total authority and unprecedented largesse, both of which transformed those war-racked and authority-less societies.

In the Third World since then, the pattern and system that have worked where American authority was not present or not total has been the Pacific Rim style of "authoritarian democracy," LTC which is characterized by an authoritarian center, a mixture of state and private economic power, population control from the very beginning, great investment in serious education and a gradual move toward greater democracy.

This has worked miracles from South Korea to Taiwan to Hong Kong, Thailand and (above all) Singapore. When I was in Kazakhstan two years ago, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the star of Central Asian politics, told me that this was surely the way that Central Asia was going -- and that is happening.

We also do not have to look so far afield from our hemisphere. Just last week, on Dec. 11, Chileans went to the polls and elected as president Eduardo Frei Jr., the son of the most beloved president of that country. Democracy is again thriving in Chile after 17 years of the often brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

But that case is also not so simple. Democracy is prospering because of the manner in which Mr. Pinochet transformed Chile's economy from a Spanish, statist, regulated economy to a free market. Indeed, Chile is such an example that in Russia one is constantly told that the "Pinochet method" is what they strive for -- and representatives of Russian President Boris Yeltsin have contacted him directly to learn from him.

And there are other examples, one of the most dramatic being that of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, the descendant of Japanese immigrants. He has an entirely different mind-set from that of the wealthy Spanish Peruvians who controlled the Congress and effectively prevented any change. Mr. Fujimori is an authoritarian leader, yes, and when he dissolved the Congress in 1992, many Americans naturally and vociferously objected.

However, Peru -- which was devastated by economic ruin and the brutal "Sendero Luminoso" guerrilla movement and seemingly eternal gridlock in its political realm -- is reviving. Sendero is virtually finished, the economy is picking up and the government is working, all because of Mr. Fujimori's policies.

So, is it not too simplistic for the United States to base all of its foreign policy on our style of democracy and free markets? Would it not be more sophisticated and, above all, more effective to look at these societies in the chronological style of development that the Pacific successes illustrate so conclusively for the world?

I have a suggestion: Let us change the language to enlarge our capacity to understand how societies really develop. Instead of "democracy," let us back countries with "representative" governments. Instead of "free markets" or "capitalism," let us speak of "economic freedom." These terms are far more inclusive. They also describe societies that are working -- and those which are so desperately trying to.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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