By Joel Brinkley

Just suppose for a moment that Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and the other Arab states in play right now somehow manage to become vibrant, liberal democracies. Islamists fail to worm their way into office, the remnants of authoritarianism are purged from their new constitutions. And terrorist groups don't watch and wait for the right moment to insinuate their way into power, as Hezbollah has in Lebanon.

Those are ambitious suppositions, to say the least. But even as the world waits with baited breath to see what happens, given the potential for these states to fall into malign hands, no one seems to be thinking about the most important factor that will determine whether the new governments succeed or fail. In one word, it's prosperity.

When that first uprising began in Tunisia last December, demonstrators weren't intent on throwing their dictator out of power. No, they were poor. They were hungry. More than anything else, they wanted greater economic well-being. And, as another part of the world has amply demonstrated, future Arab leaders will have to provide that prosperity -- and quickly -- or they will fail.

Just 20 years ago, Latin America experienced a similar democratic spring. One after another, most every state turned from brutal dictatorships to elective democracies that promised democratic freedoms. They fell "like a set of dominoes," recalled Gonzalo Marroquin, president of the Inter-American Press Association. Hopes were high. But a decade later, bitter disappointment began setting in.

As Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the Organization of American States, once put it: "The failure of the region's democracies to deliver tangible improvements in the quality of life for their majorities has translated into growing dissatisfaction with democracy and readiness to question the benefits and performance of democratically elected governments."

In other words, those vaunted new democratic governments let their people down. So what happened? Hugo Chavez stepped onto the stage in Venezuela. He introduced socialist populism and with it ever-greater authoritarianism. His style of governance provided a pestiferous model that swept through the region like a plague.

Now, governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras and Argentina, among others, are aggressively harassing the news media, in some cases killing reporters, because they know full well that a free press is the most powerful enemy of authoritarianism. In Argentina just last week, the government sent goons to shut down the nation's largest newspaper company, often critical of the president, so it could not distribute its newspapers.

Problems like that are ongoing in several Latin American countries. Authorities are being blamed for the murder of nine Honduran journalists in recent months. In Venezuela, "we live in a state of permanent confrontation with an authoritarian autocratic government that controls all the powers," said Teodoro Petkoff, a Venezuelan journalist. Chavez has nationalized dozens of radio and TV stations.

In Colombia, the government's internal-security force "delivered funeral-service arrangements to my door," said Hollman Morris, a journalist there.

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa "tells the people that the press is the main enemy of the people," said Cesar Ricaurte, an Ecuadorian newspaper columnist. Next month, Ecuador will vote on a referendum that would effectively place the press under government control.

Those journalists spoke at an Inter-American Press Association meeting a few days ago. The group's president declared that, region-wide, "we know that the visible enemies of freedom of expression are those intolerant politicians with dreams of remaining in power."

For the Middle East, that's a compelling cautionary tale. Curtailing press freedoms is usually the first step along the road to dictatorship. Latin America finds itself in this place because its democratic leaders failed to put economic development high on their agendas.

Well, potential democratic leaders in the Middle East have even higher hurdles. Before the revolts, Egypt's average annual per-capita income stood at $2,007. Thirty percent of Libyans were unemployed.

The broad failure of democracy across much of Latin America is tragic, deplorable. But I would argue that if democracy comes to the Middle East, and it fails, that would be a catastrophe for the entire world. Who would take the place of these failed democratic leaders? The Arab world has no tradition of socialist populism. No, in that region Islamists have long sought to befriend the poor.

So much is at stake that every major international organization -- the United Nations, European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, African Union, Arab League -- should step up and work urgently to assure that any new democratic Arab government gets it right, recognizing that we are facing the most important issue of our day.


Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times


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World - Latin America Provides Cautionary Tale for Middle East | Global Viewpoint