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While the International spotlight has been focused on the Middle East, events in Latin American countries continue to be of significant interest in the United States, experts told a group of Murray students.

The students, meeting in Riverview Junior High School, participated in a video interview with Latin American experts speaking from Washington. Riverview Junior and Murray High School students took part in the program, sponsored by the CloseUp Foundation. The students had spent several weeks preparing for the discussion of Latin American countries. They also heard from Don Gale, KSL news analyst, during a Monday luncheon that capped off the project.The news program also had electronic links through the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-Span) with students in Howell, Mich., and Pasadena, Md. In rotation, students at the three sites asked questions of John Burnstein, Washington Office of Latin America, and Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute.

C-SPAN II will rebroadcast the student program Friday, March 8, at 6 p.m.

"I don't think the (news) media is ignoring Latin America right now. People tend to be most interested in what's exciting, and the focus now is on the Middle East," said Burnstein. Four years ago, Nicaragua and El Salvador commanded much of the world's attention as they fought for ideological supremacy, he said.

Among factors that contribute to unrest in Latin American countries, Muravchik said, are the involvement of the military in internal affairs and the entrenchment of lop-sided economies that perpetuate a small upper class and huge lower class with few middle-class people.

When given a fair chance to do so, however, Latin Americans show a preference for democracy, he said, citing the recent election in Chile, in which voters toppled the Pinochet dictatorship.

The United States sometimes makes poor judgment calls, Muravchik admitted. It supported Pinochet against former Chilean leader Allende because communism was the international bugaboo at the time and Allende was communist.

At this point, said Burnstein, "(Fidel) Castro in Cuba may be the last of the died-in-the-wool communists." He represents the urge in many small countries to stand up to "American imperialism," he said. "The United States does have an ugly image in many countries."

The decline of communism in Europe may contribute to the democratization of Latin American countries as well.

Murray High School 11th-grader Jed Burton asked Muravchik how the United States could help influence economies in Latin American countries to promote more democratic government in those countries.

"A heavy overlay of restrictions and regulations in those countries make it hard for people to start new businesses or enhance trade," Muravchik said. A U.S.-supported effort to discourage the hide-bound traditions that prevent economic expansion may ultimately create broader distribution of wealth in the third world countries and more interest in democratic government.

Many Latin Americans are greatly dissatisfied with their governments and economic conditions, but lack political influence to move them toward democracy, Burnstein said. "They want to help themselves, but find it very difficult.

Should the United States interfere when Latin American democracies are in trouble, asked Murray student Heather Greenhalgh.

It is over-optimistic for Americans to assume that democracy will continue uninterrupted in countries where it is still an experiment, Muravchik said. The United States can offer economic aid (for instance, through debt relief) and diplomatic encouragement, but needs to maintain some remoteness to avoid creating resentment and ill will.

The Murray students did not all get to ask their questions during the hourlong program. Among those who participated or were prepared to do so, besides Jed and Heather, were Aaron Brown, Jessica Ward, Jenny Cassidy, Jonathan Panson, Jacob Bernhardt, Ryan Hancey, Lori Schatten, Jennifer Hanson, Chris Hopkins, Lori Michaelson and Kathy Simpkins.