Despotic rule OK if lives improve, Latin Americans say

U.N. report finds view is strongest among poor

April 22, 2004|By Hector Tobar | Hector Tobar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Frustrated by a lack of economic progress under the democratic regimes that rule them, a majority of Latin Americans would support an authoritarian government if it bettered their lives, according to a United Nations report released today.

The study by the U.N. Development Program also found that most government leaders in the region feel they are slowly losing the ability to shape policy in their countries because of the increasing influence of the United States and international lending institutions.

The three-year study was based on a survey of 18,600 people and interviews with political leaders in 18 countries, including most of the current and former presidents.

The survey found support for authoritarian rule strongest among the poor - a troubling finding, given that a majority of people in the region live in poverty. About 55 percent of those polled said they would support an authoritarian government if it resolved their economic problems, while 57 percent said economic development was more important than democracy.

"The solution to Latin America's ills does not lie in a return to authoritarianism," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a videotaped message responding to the report's findings, which were released in Lima, Peru. "It lies in a stronger and deeper-rooted democracy."

Of the 18 countries surveyed - all the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of the region except Cuba - only three were democracies 25 years ago. Today, the survey found, basic democratic practices and rights are firmly established in the region. Most Latin Americans are registered to vote, and a vast majority cast ballots in local and national elections.

Of 70 national elections between 1990 and 2002, there were charges of vote-rigging and other irregularities in 13. And only in two did the international community question the outcome - in the Dominican Republic in 1994 and Peru in 2000.

But the relative health of the formal institutions of democracy belies an underlying malaise, the report said. Across the region, 7 percent of Latin Americans surveyed said they had been "pressured" to vote for a certain candidate or had effectively sold their votes in the most recent presidential election in their country. The highest degree of such electoral fraud was in Brazil (13 percent), followed by Venezuela and Mexico (12 percent).

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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