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Monday, December 7, 1998 Published at 00:14 GMT

World: Americas

Analysis: How secure is Latin American democracy?

Venezuelan military provided security during presidential elections

Latin American Correspondent Stephen Cviic asks if authoritarian leaders are making a comeback in the region.

Venezuela has elected a former coup leader to its highest office; in Paraguay, the ex-army commander Lino Oviedo, is widely thought to hold the strings of power; and the arrest of Chile's former military leader, Augusto Pinochet, has revived old wounds and demonstrated that he is still admired by a substantial minority of the population.

Although it is now several years since soldiers throughout Latin America decided to leave presidential palaces and return to barracks, recent events have not been altogether encouraging for lovers of democracy.

Soldiers' threatening shadow

Dissatisfaction with democracy is mainly the result of continuing economic difficulties because although Latin America has put the days of high inflation behind it, it is still the region with the biggest gap between rich and poor.

But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the strength of this trend. The region's biggest country, Brazil, is a solid democracy where the idea of a military takeover seems almost laughably remote. The same applies to Argentina.

Colombia holds elections through thick and thin despite extremely high levels of violence and Mexico is continuing its long march away from one-party rule.

And there are three factors which make it highly unlikely that the region could ever again be governed at gunpoint.

The military themselves were scarred by their years in power, and the prospect of repeating the experience makes most generals shudder; the information revolution has brought Latin America a relatively free media; and, unlike during the Cold War, there is no support from abroad for authoritarian rulers.

The best evidence of this came in 1996, during General Oviedo's coup attempt in Paraguay when pressure from the United States and the regional common market, Mercosur, stopped him in his tracks.

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