Reaping the Whirlwind

In their bowler hats and colorful bustle skirts, they looked more like the clientele of a farmer's market than hardened insurgents. Yet there was no mistaking what was on the minds of the tens of thousands of Aymara Indians who poured into the streets of La Paz last week. For the better part of a month, peasants, miners, students and teachers had taken over the handsome colonial plazas of the Bolivian capital city of about 1 million, defying tear gas, attack dogs and riot police. Shouting "Nationalism now!" they threw up roadblocks to press demands for the repeal of a controversial energy law that gave foreigners concessions to exploit the country's rich oil and gas reserves. The country's besieged president, Carlos Mesa, tendered his resignation early last week in a nationwide television address, and the Bolivian Congress finally accepted his offer three days later. Yet another Latin American democracy had been brought to its knees.

The 20-month-old administration of Carlos Mesa is only the latest in a series of constitutional governments in Latin America that have been toppled before finishing their terms. Six democratically elected Latin American presidents have quit or been run out of office since 2000. In April, the Ecuadoran Congress ousted President Lucio Gutierrez, who fled, rumor had it, in the trunk of a car to the Brazilian Embassy. Four Argentine presidents came and went between 2001 and 2003. Armed rebels forced Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide to resign with two years still left in his term. Even in Brazil and Mexico, bastions of relative stability in a convulsed region, corruption and predatory legislatures have all but paralyzed their governments' efforts to enact crucial economic and judicial reforms. Latin America scholars see a region in the throes of a governability crisis. "In 40 years of watching Latin America I've never seen it this bad," says Riordan Roett, head of the Western Hemisphere Studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "We are reaping a whirlwind of resentments and social tensions."

Two decades ago, such political upheaval would have automatically fueled talk of an imminent military coup. The armed forces have largely retreated from the political arena since then, but some nations seem to have evolved from tinhorn dictatorships to tinhorn democracies. Latin America hands like Roett say there is a world of difference between the morass in the Andes, where left-leaning populists are pandering to the grievances of the urban poor and long-neglected indigenous people, and the more stultifying political deadlock in Brazil and Peru, where the ruling crust vies for control of jobs and privileges.

Yet some parallels are hard to miss, and none more so than the prevalence of feeble political institutions. While the press in Latin America is mostly free, and elections open and generally untainted, many of the other pillars of democratic life are notoriously frail. The courts are often seen as tools of the ruling elite. Legislative seats are often divvied up among a clutch of political parties representing a multitude of causes and special interests. Politicians often treat parties as flags of convenience, flying the colors of the highest bidder. One quarter of Ecuador's 120 legislators have abandoned their original parties since 2004, while 152 Brazil lawmakers have made a total of 257 party switches since 2003.

Splintered politics make governing hell for even the most popular of presidents. In a fractured congress, presidents become hostages of friable coalitions, in which each party controls small but crucial blocs of votes and often holds out support in exchange for cabinet jobs or pork. "The presidents who fail in Latin America are for the most part presidents who lack legislative majorities," says Arturo Valenzuela, the director of Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies. The election of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada with barely 22 percent of the vote in Bolivia in 2002 helped trigger the chain of events that drove him from power a year later, and sent South America's poorest country into a relentless spiral of political turmoil. Even the charismatic Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who won the Brazilian presidency in 2002 by a landslide, wrestles almost daily to marshal a working majority in Congress, where his party only controls 17 percent of the seats.

One of the most popular explanations for the current disarray in Latin America targets the gospel of free-market reforms preached by pundits in Washington and the rainmakers on Wall Street during the 1990s. Critics of the so-called Washington Consensus argue that the fruits of stability have failed to reach the masses. Scratch the surface, however, and the picture looks more complex. Across Latin America, infant mortality has plunged while literacy and life expectancy have soared--not least in destitute Bolivia. Primary-school enrollment and access to clean water and electricity are rising. More citizens are involved in politics than ever: indigenous people make up about 30 percent of the Bolivian Congress.

Yet for all those social advances, the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in Latin America remain unacceptably stark. More than half of all Peruvians fall below the poverty line today. The gap between the rich and poor is getting wider: the wealthiest 20 percent of Bolivian society earns 44 times more than the poorest fifth. With increasing access to television, radio and telephones, the poor are more aware than ever of lopsided social inequities. "People perceive their inequality much more readily than they used to," says Roberto Laserna, a regional-planning expert who heads the La Paz-based think tank Fundacion Milenio. "Because of that, frustrations are growing."

Frustration can yield big dividends at the polls. Seven major Latin American countries will hold presidential elections between now and the end of next year, and some of the challengers are tilting left in hopes of capitalizing on popular anger. If elected, however, they will likely face the same crisis of governability that dogged their predecessors. "Democratic governments in the region fall for the same reasons that the dictatorships did in the 1980s," says Alex Kazan, a Latin America expert and equity strategist at Bear Stearns. "They create expectations and don't deliver." Amid the fevered expectations, more elected leaders will certainly fall well before they are due to relinquish the presidential sash.