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STANFORD -- It is too early for Americans to feel triumphant about the wave of democracy sweeping the world, says Stanford University's Terry Karl, a political scientist who is monitoring the forthcoming election in El Salvador and who has taught extensively on how to create democracy in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

Too many countries offer the trappings of democracy only, Karl said. Their leaders think elections alone will make them more acceptable to the international community.

"All of a sudden, an electoral system arises in a country so the government can get some aid, credits or most-favored-nation trading status," Karl said. "I call this electoralism; that is, having the procedures of democracy without deeper internal roots."

International agencies and such countries as the United States have "faith that the mere holding of elections will somehow lead to democracy," she said, "but there is evidence that elections can sometimes have perverse effects and even create barriers to democracy."

Besides free and fair elections, Karl lists two other essential ingredients of a democracy: the rule of law and civilian control of the military. Many so-called democracies lack one or both.

An atmosphere of "complacent triumphalism" has prevailed in Washington about the recent wave of democracy, Karl recently told a campus audience. Many policymakers think that, with a little push from the U.S. economic blockade, they even can bring democracy soon to Cuba.

Karl says she fears instead a "reverse wave of authoritarianism" may come in the 1990s.

Since Portugal instituted democratic elections in 1974, "almost 50 polities have changed from some sort of authoritarian rule to something that may or may not be called democracy, depending on how you define it," she said.

When George Bush left office in 1993, he boasted that 96 percent of the peoples in the Western Hemisphere lived under democracy, Karl said, and "there was some reason for this optimism."

"We had seen the first transfer of power from one party to another in Bolivia in 1985, the first democratically elected president to succeed another in Argentina in six decades, and by the early 1990s, civilian governments that were at least nominally elected held office in every single Central and South American country.

"There was clearly, if nothing else, a switch from military to civilian rule."

As a result, she said, there is now broad, bipartisan agreement in Washington and in academic policy centers that U.S. foreign policy can and should promote democracy.

"You see offices for the promotion of democracy located in places ranging from the Defense Department to the State Department," Karl said. "They shape our policies toward Haiti and Cuba, although not toward Mexico."

But such policies are "often ill directed, and they have generally been unsuccessful," Karl said.

The tightened U.S. economic blockade of Cuba was convincing even the critics of Castro's regime that they should support their country, Karl said she learned during a recent stay in Cuba to teach a course on democratization.

"Food is scarce. There are no medicines. There is little or no oil, toothpaste, soap and other basic goods," she said. "But people tend to blame their problems on economic warfare from the United States rather than on the economic policies of their government."

Meanwhile, she said, the blockade isolates Cubans from other viewpoints, with even academic and cultural exchanges kept at a minimum.

The result, Karl said, is that "criticism of the Cuban government gets deflected, and dissent is viewed as helping the Cubans in Miami who want to overthrow the government. This limits the prospects for a debate, for pluralism and for democracy."

The blockade also reinforces the argument of the Cuban government that economic transition must come before political transition, she said. This idea on how to sequence reform also has taken hold with political leaders in the former Soviet Union.

"Because democratization is taking place under such difficult economic conditions, people have begun to question whether it can bring a better way of living," Karl said. "For example, in a debate I was in recently at the State Department, a Russian scholar called for 'constructive authoritarianism' in his country."

He referred specifically to the Chilean model for reform, she said, in which the authoritarian regime of Pinochet introduced free- market economic reforms to Chile after 1973, and democracy only began to come much later.

Karl said she disagreed with the Russian because her research findings with Stanford political scientist Philippe Schmitter "show the opposite" is more typically the case.

"If you are going to order political and economic change, the political reforms ought to come first," she said.

"It is much easier to change economic policies than embedded political arrangements. There are few moments in most countries' histories where you see a rewriting of the constitution or electoral laws - the basic political rules of the game - unless, of course, you have a military coup, which generally rewrites them in the wrong direction."

Many of the African and Latin American countries who are instituting elections aren't really tackling other political reforms, she said.

"They are hybrid regimes limited by an odd combination of democratic procedures with non-democratic practices," she said.

Such regimes can produce "popular disillusionment" with democracy, Karl said, and there is growing evidence of this in Latin America.

"In Venezuela, for example, where a military man named Chavez unsuccessfully tried to overthrow the continent's second-oldest democracy, Chavez himself became extraordinarily popular, a symbol of the fight against the government's neo-liberal economic policies and corruption," she said. "In the barrios, people printed up counterfeit money with his face in the middle, replacing the face of Bolivar."

In Panama, she said, where Guillermo Endara became president in the wake of the U.S. invasion, he now has only a 9 percent popularity rating.

"Meanwhile, very popular presidents have used their high approval ratings to subvert democratic institutions." Karl said. In Argentina, Carlos Menem has made his country's Supreme Court an instrument of his own personal use, while in Peru, Alberto Fujimori has shut down the congress."

"When combined with a deterioration of human rights standards in Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, these are very worrisome indicators."



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