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By Ambassador Odeen Ishmael

Hardbeatnews, CARACAS, Venezuela, Fri. Apr. 28, 2006: The brutal assassination of Guyana’s agriculture minister Satyadeo Sawh on April 22 marks a dangerous turning point against political democracy in the country.

The state is being destabilized by violent crime, which has shown strong signs of being politicized. What the Anglophone Caribbean sees as not being unusual in some Latin American countries seems to be taking root in the Guyanese society. As the Caricom foreign ministers stated on April 24 in their condemnation of the assassination, “Such acts of violence have no place in the democratic culture of the region and undermine the political, economic and social stability of the countries of the community.”

Growing violent crime has become a most dangerous menace to the democracies in this hemisphere. It is chasing away people, discouraging investments and driving fear in people, many of who now openly clamor for iron-fisted governments to deal with this situation. Democratic governments are too “soft” they say.

Interestingly, a 2004 UN survey of democracy in 18 Latin American countries showed that a majority of people would willingly support an authoritarian regime in exchange for economic progress and better security. In the introduction to that report, Dante Caputo, a former Argentine foreign minister wrote: “We have witnessed the deepest and broadest advance of democracy since the independence of our nations. But what has been won is by no means secure. Democracy appears to be losing its vitality. If it becomes irrelevant to Latin Americans, will it be able to resist the new dangers?”

The leaders of Latin American and Caribbean democracies have to take heed of this situation. Many of their citizens feel that representative democracy has been disappointing. They are becoming disenchanted because they think the current political system is failing to generate widespread prosperity, reduce crime or close the wide gap between rich and poor.

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, recognizing this problem, stated recently: “We have democratic governments. What we don't have are government institutions able to deliver what the people really want. That is why democracy is in doubt today in Latin America.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, broad political freedoms exist side by side with widespread poverty. Crime is now cancerous and corruption is wreaking havoc on the social fabric. Millions are unemployed and nearly half of the people live on less than US$2 a day. But democratic changes have enabled people to protest actively on the streets against their governments, which failed to solve their social and economic problems. These protests forced 11 elected presidents out of office in the past 15 years.

Clearly, more and more Latin Americans feel that free-market polices such as reducing trade barriers, cutting budget deficits and selling off state-run industries – all elements of the “Washington consensus” – are not propelling their countries’ economies forward fast enough. A paper produced last month by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, shows that between 1960 and 1980, when military rulers largely held sway, the region's per capita income jumped by 82 percent. By contrast, in the next 20 years, when Latin Americans turned to democracy and free markets, per capita income grew by just 9 percent. Between 2000 and 2004, it grew by only 1 percent.

It is therefore no surprise that the voters in the region, after assessing the political choices, are abandoning the centre-right political parties and choosing leftist leaders who do not follow the “Washington consensus”, but who, generally want to maintain economic links with the developed world.

But even in making choices in elections, apathy is growing. Overall, people have participated well in fair elections, which show a 70 percent average turnout. While in some countries, voting is compulsory, in others increasing numbers of disillusioned voters stay away. In the February 5 presidential election, Costa Rica experienced its lowest turnout with only 65 percent of the voters casting their ballots. And in the recent Peruvian parliamentary elections, the blank ballots accounted for the largest proportion (29 percent) of the “votes.”

With the advance of democracy, political violence, except in Colombia, has waned. But drug trafficking across the northern South America, Central America and the Caribbean has bred another dangerous brand of violent criminals, some of whom are now connected to forces determined to undermine democratic governments.

Across the region, armies have become smaller and they are now less openly involved in politics. Yet, with the escalating violent crime, many of the “re-organized” armies and police forces often are unable or unwilling to enforce the law. As a result, murders, kidnappings and drug-related crimes have multiplied, leaving citizens living in fear. Currently, with 25.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the Latin America and the Caribbean region has the highest murder rate in the world.

The UN 2004 report confidently states: "The deficits and pitfalls of democracy should not make us forget that we have left behind the fears of assassination, forced disappearances and torture." With the assassination of the Guyanese minister, the authors may have to re-assess their views since at least one of these dangers has reared its ugly head again.

EDITOR’s NOTE: The writer is Guyana’s ambassador to Venezuela. –