It has been an article of faith to the Reagan administration that elections and democracy in themselves guarantee respect for human rights. Yet that faith is being betrayed in many newly emerging democracies, as I could not help but discover during a recent visit to Brazil.
In Rio de Janeiro I picked up a local newspaper, the Jornal do Brasil, and read that 11 bodies bearing the signs of execution by death squads had been found in Rio the previous morning.Later that day, I was told that three more bodies, riddled with bullets, had been found a few hours earlier at the edge of the campus. What was going on?
Brazil is not at war and it is no longer ruled by a military dictatorship. It has elected civilian officials, an autonomous judiciary, freedom of speech, assembly, press and religion, and a plethora of independent civilian institutions. When anyone takes stock of politicla development in Latin America, the advances seem all the more impressive because this giant has been added to the roster of democracies.
Unquestionably, the Reagan Administration deserves some share of the credit for the shift to democracy in both Latin America and eastern Asia.
However, the current situation in Brazil demonstrated with painful clarity that our government has overstated the case for the curative powers of democracy. It may even have done considerable harm in presuming that democracy automatically guarantees respect for human rights.
The effect of that presumption has been to deflect attention from persisting abuses once a country holds election and a civilian government takes office.
In Brazil, the hallmark of the military dictatorship in the late 1960's and during the 1970's was the systematic use of torture. Tragically, it appears that torture is even more pervasive today.
In major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, the police perform hundreds of summary executions each year. The victims, never brought to trial, are those merely suspected of involvement in common crime.
In Rio, the police moonlight in the service of locak shopkeepers who display the corpses of executed slum dwellers so as to terrorize others not to engage in holdups and burglaries.
Brazil is not the only Latin American democracy in which violent abuses of human rights are pervasive. This is also the case in such genuine democracies as Colombia and Peru, and in more superficial democracies such as El Salvador and Guatemala.
While it is true that the governments of these countries, unlike Brazil, face left-wing insurgencies of varying strengths, many of their abuses of human rights cannot be explained by these challenges.
Such is the case outside Latin America as well. In the Philippines, for example, violent human rights abuses have certainly not declined since Corozan Aquino replaced Ferdinand Marcos-- far from it. They appear to have increased.
The point here is not to dispute the desirability of promoting democracy. The point is that those who find torture, summary executions, and death squad killings repugnant should not assume that democracy means an end to these abuses.