WORLD POLICY JOURNAL
The Strange Persistence of Latin American Democracy
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In September 2001, while Americans were preoccupied with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, a remarkable economic and political story began to unfold in the southern cone of South America. That month, Argentina’s economy, once praised by Wall Street, Washington, and international financial organizations as a model for the developing world, virtually imploded, sending the country into the worst economic crisis of its tumultuous history. The shocks to the economic system were severe: the collapse of an insolvent banking system, a default on international loans, a nearly 75 percent devaluation of the currency, and an economic contraction that drove the country’s GDP back to 1993 levels.1 This economic meltdown proved devastating to what only a year previously had been Latin America’s most prosperous nation. Most shocking was a poverty rate that swelled to 50 percent of the population, beggaring more than one and a half million people in just six months.
Equally dramatic was the toll the economic crisis took on the political system. Angered Argentines stormed banks and government offices in Buenos Aires and other urban centers, precipitating a rash of riots that claimed 21 lives. During this turmoil, no fewer than four different presidents sought to bring order to the nation between December 19, 2001, and January 2, 2002. Amid the chaos, there was a silver lining. The breakdown of democracy through a military coup—what we have come to expect in Argentina whenever civilian leaders are unable to cope with downturns in the economy and popular discontent—did not materialize. Indeed, the resilience of democracy was the most remarkable aspect of the economic crash in Argentina and a hopeful sign of “democratic consolidation.”2
Notwithstanding the disruptions prompted by multiple presidential resignations and hasty inaugurations, civilian leaders were able to keep the political system afloat. More importantly, people’s faith in democracy did not falter. According to the polling data available from Latinobarómetro, a Santiago-based organization that has tracked political attitudes in Latin America since 1996, support for democracy in Argentina actually grew between 2001 and 2002. The percentage of Argentines that responded in the affirmative to the question “Is democracy preferable to any other kind of government?” increased from 58 percent in 2001 to 65 percent in 2002.3
The survival of Argentine democracy is the most dramatic example of the remarkable persistence of constitutional rule in Latin America since the region began to shed its authoritarian regimes three decades ago, but it is not the only one. A decade ago, besieged by hyperinflation, corruption, and widespread discontent with its political leaders, Brazil was at the top of the list of endangered democracies, and many observers predicted a democratic collapse triggered by a military coup. But the military has stayed in the barracks, and Brazil has seen one president succeed another in fair and open elections. This appears to be the case virtually everywhere in Latin America. At present, with the obvious exception of Communist Cuba, a democratically elected government presides in every country in the region. The surprising strength of democracy in Latin America has not gone unnoticed.
“The region has many problems,” noted the Economist in a 2002 cover story, “but democracy, as such, is not among them.” Astute commentators on the political scene echo this assessment. “The persistence of democracy in Latin America is remarkable and indeed a cause for celebration,” writes Michael Shifter of Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies. Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue agrees: “The authoritarian option has become unthinkable in most of Latin America today. The main concern is not whether democracy will survive in Latin America. It will. Rather what is at issue is the quality of governance and politics across Latin America.”4
Democracy’s persistence in Latin America is easier to detect than to explain. Certainly, since the demise of communism in the early 1990s the climate for nondemocratic regimes has grown colder, while support for democracy has become the declared policy of the international development community and especially the U.S. government. Still, American support for democracy in Latin America in the last three decades has been oversold. This has notably been the case under George W. Bush, whose administration has made democratic promotion a key component of U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, most Latin American democracies operate in the absence of conditions usually deemed important for the sustainability of democracy: a healthy economy, credible and well-organized political institutions, and a thriving civil society. What accounts, then, for the persistence of democracy in Latin America?
The answer seemingly derives, in large part, from a profound transformation of political attitudes. Latin Americans appear to value democratic governance for the political freedom and civil rights that accompany it above the social and economic benefits it may or may not deliver. This new political culture is indeed good news for Latin America since it shelters democracy from the failures and follies of elected leaders as well as from the vagaries of the economy. Yet, paradoxically, this newfound appreciation for democracy—born out of a process of political learning fueled by the fear of the return of authoritarian rule—may not necessarily bode well for the future because it can prevent governments from undertaking the very reforms needed to make democracy durable and effective.
Signs of Persistence
Democracy in Latin America not only persists, but in many salient respects its quality has never been higher. According to Freedom House, whose surveys of political and civil rights have become acknowledged standards for calibrating the quality of democracy worldwide, “the scale of political progress in Latin America in the last three decades has been dramatic.” The organization’s most recent report notes that in 1972, when it conducted its first survey, the Americas and the Caribbean had 13 “free” (read fully democratic), 9 “partly free,” and 4 “not free” countries. By contrast, today this region has 23 “free,” 10 “partly free,” and 2 (Cuba and Haiti) “not free” countries.5
The Freedom House data mirror the extent to which democratic institutions and practices have been broadly accepted in Latin America. With few exceptions, fair elections, the hallmark of the democratic process, were a rarity in the region prior to the 1980s. Corruption was so widespread that disputes over electoral results were a major source of chronic ferment. Today, genuinely competitive elections are the order of the day. Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times, writing from Mexico, where elections have traditionally been “the stuff of global infamy,” reports that Mexico’s electoral institute now advises other countries on how to conduct clean balloting. “On the basics, like registration, voting and counting ballots,” she writes, “Mexico probably does better than the United States.”6 A representative of the U.S. Federal Election Commission who traveled to Brazil to observe that country’s 2002 presidential election declared the Brazilian electoral system “outstanding” and a model of technological prowess, transparency, and efficiency—no small feat considering that Brazil’s electorate exceeds 110 million people.7
Another key indicator is that Latin American political life has never been more inclusive and participatory. The wave of democratization that began in the late 1970s can rightly be credited with mobilizing and enfranchising previously underrepresented social classes, minorities, and ethnic groups. In Brazil, an ostensibly democratic regime that was ousted by a military coup in 1964 denied the franchise to illiterates (a vast portion of the population) and banned the Communist Party, egregious violations redressed by a subsequent democratic regime that came to power in 1985. In several Andean countries, indigenous peoples acquired full political rights for the first time with the enactment of new democratic constitutions in the 1980s and 1990s.
The new democratic era has also witnessed the decentralization of political au-thority.8 In 1989, Venezuelans voted for governors for the first time in their co un-try’s history. In 1994, residents of Buenos Aires went to the polls for the first time to elect a mayor; Mexico City residents voted for mayor for the first time in 1997. In Brazilian cities governed by the Workers’ Party, such as Porto Allegre and Betim, citizen participation in local government has increased dramatically with the introduction of “participatory democracy” programs that allow ordinary people a voice in local government, including setting budgetary priorities.9
Democracy in Latin America has also never been more resilient, if not always stable. Almost all the new democracies have survived painful programs of economic restructuring aimed at reducing the role of the state in the economy and simultaneously incorporating market-enhancing mechanisms, such as privatizing state enterprises.10 Many have also experienced political crises that in the past might have put democratic governance in mortal danger. In 1994, the Brazilian Congress impeached President Fernando Collor de Mello on charges of corruption (a first for any Latin American country) without precipitating the crisis that many predicted. In 1999, Chile elected its first left-wing government of the post-Pinochet era without provoking the political rancor and polarization many feared. In July 2000, Mexico ended 71 years of one-party, authoritarian rule and has since surprised many at home and abroad by evolving into a stable and lively two-party democracy.
To be sure, “democratic persistence” is not to be confused with “democratic consolidation,” that seemingly elusive status that makes democratic institutions immune to decay and collapse.11 Consider recent events in the Andean region (Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia) where reckless populism, guerrilla activity, left-wing insurrections, and military coups serve as a
powerful reminder that Latin America’s familiar political demons have hardly been exorcised. Less obvious, but just as disturbing, is the rise of “illiberal,” “restricted,” and “delegative” democracies.12 This mirrors the near-regal powers aggregating in many presidencies, the weakness of legislatures and other institutions, and the tenuous adherence to the rule of law. These conditions allow for the incongruous coexistence of formal democratic rights (such as free and contested elections) with gross civil and human rights violations.13
An American Foreign Policy Success?
U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the hemisphere. During the late 1970s, Carter quadrupled the budget of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and in his travels to Latin America he encouraged military leaders to transfer power to democratically elected leaders.14
By contrast, the Reagan administration cultivated cordial relations with South American military leaders. The first Latin leader invited to the Reagan White House was Gen. Roberto Viola of Argentina, whose regime was credibly held responsible for thousands of desaparecidos (the disappeared), a euphemism for murder. Reagan officials paid courtesy visits to Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, whom they regarded as a staunch Cold War ally. It was only after the collapse of the Argentine military junta in 1983, following the Malvinas (or Falklands) War, when the push for democratization throughout South America attained momentum, that Washington began pressuring Pinochet to hold free elections. Throughout the late 1980s, the United States was militarily involved in Central America, ostensibly with the intent of protecting democracy, even though the regimes it propped up included those of El Salvador and Honduras, democratic in name only.15
As to Washington’s role since the 1990s, the record is mixed. During the administration of the senior George Bush, the United States assisted in negotiations that ended civil wars throughout Central America and paved the way for free elections. The Clinton administration gave further credibility to U.S. support for democracy by discouraging elected leaders, such as Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Jorge Serrano in Guatemala, from assuming dictatorial powers. President Clinton also intervened militarily in Haiti to restore the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
For its part, the second Bush administration has generally ignored Latin America, something of a surprise since as a candidate in 2000, George W. Bush touted his friendship with President Vicente Fox of Mexico as evidence of his capacity to work with other world leaders. “America has no closer relationship,” said Bush about Mexico back in 2001, adding that the cowboy-looking Fox was “obviously a closet Texan.” Bush pledged to put Latin America first on his foreign agenda, even at the expense of long-standing allies in Asia and Europe. However, little progress has been evident on issues of prime concern to Latin American governments: drugs, immigration, and trade. This point was implicitly underscored in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, which did not contain a single mention of Latin America. It has not helped that the Bush administration nominated Otto J. Reich, a highly controversial figure in Latin American diplomatic circles, as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. During the Reagan administration, Reich headed the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which was accused of engaging in prohibited covert propaganda against Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime. This background earned Reich widespread condemnation in Latin American capitals. Oscar Arias Sanchez, the former president of Costa Rica and winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, called Reich’s designation “a real setback in hemispheric cooperation.”16 Juan Gabriel Valdés, a former ambassador to the United States and a conservative member of the Chilean senate, remarked to the Chilean daily El Mercurio that Reich’s “terrible record offends the political sensibilities of every Chilean.”
On Reich’s watch, the White House all but cheered when on April 12, 2002, military leaders briefly deposed the leftist Hugo Chávez from the Venezuelan presidency and moved quickly to offer support to the interim president, thereby violating the Democratic Charter of the Americas approved by the United States and virtually every Latin American nation, save for Cuba and Venezuela, on September 11, 2001, which called for collective support by democratic governments against military coups.17 Sensing its misstep, the Bush team rapidly reversed course. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that “defending democracy by undemocratic means destroys democracy.” The United States joined with Latin American governments in supporting a resolution at the Organization of American States condemning the violation of the constitutional order in Venezuela. But Washington’s credibility as a friend of democracy in Latin America had been seriously damaged.
More recently, there have been other missteps by the Bush White House. In the run-up to Brazil’s 2002 presidential election, the Bush administration waged an ill-judged campaign against the eventual winner, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the left-leaning Workers’ Party. On the eve of the election, Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill questioned the capacity of Lula to manage the economy, sending the Brazilian currency into a free-fall. Lula’s inauguration, greeted around the world as a sign of the maturity of Brazilian democracy, received lukewarm recognition from the White House. O’Neill also told beleaguered Argentine leaders that they had only themselves to blame for the economic implosion of 2001, even though Argentina had been the most faithful pupil of the so-called Washington Consensus, the set of economic prescriptions that international financial institutions have been offering the developing world since the early 1990s.
Equally ill-gauged was the arm-twisting by the Bush White House in spring 2003 in seeking support from Chile and Mexico, two Latin American members of the U.N. Security Council, for a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Washington seemed to expect leaders of these countries to ignore popular sentiment, which in both cases was overwhelmingly against the war. Having resisted Washington’s overtures, Chile was told that its application for a free trade agreement with the United States (currently ending review by the U.S. Congress) would be delayed indefinitely. More ominous was Bush’s reaction to Vicente Fox’s failure to support the United States. He hinted at “discipline” and “a backlash from Congress and the American people.”
The economic upswing of the 1990s, which followed the hyperinflation, rampant unemployment, and massive reductions in social services that characterized the “lost decade” of the 1980s, gave Latin America a veneer of prosperity. But the situation of the ordinary citizen has hardly improved. According to the International Labor Organization, the minimum wage declined by 30 percent on average in 13 out of 18 countries between 1980 and 1997. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that a third of Latin Americans were below the poverty line in 1995, up from a quarter in 1982. Dramatic disparities in the distribution of wealth (for example, according to World Bank figures, the top 20 percent of Brazilians earn 26 times more than the bottom 20 percent) translate into widespread poverty, illiteracy, and crime.
Since the early 1980s, Latin American political institutions have been characterized by decay. This is best seen in the state of political parties, which are viewed by the public as corrupt and unresponsive. According to 2002 survey data, the proportion of citizens expressing confidence in political parties ranges from zero percent in Argentina to 15 percent in Brazil to 30 percent in Uruguay.18 In the face of this rejection by the general public, it is hardly surprising that once robust political parties in Venezuela, Argentina, and Peru have disintegrated, occasioning what has been termed a “crisis of political representation.” This, in turn, facilitated the rise of such “neopopulist” leaders as Argentina’s Carlos Saúl Menem, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who promised “to solve national problems virtually singlehandedly and without political parties.”19
The transition from authoritarianism to democracy throughout Latin America gave rise to civil society organizations and activism—from trade unions to civic groups to social movements and nongovernmental organizations of every kind and purpose. These groups played a starring role in transition politics by directly challenging authoritarian regimes, as the trade unions did in Brazil, or by slowly undermining them, as Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, with their quiet protests against the repression and violence of the military regime, did in Argentina. Other groups, such as Chile’s Participa and Argentina’s Conciencia, did much to prepare citizens, especially the poor and previously disenfranchised, to participate in democracy. Recently, however, civil society has been “in recession” and once robust grass-roots movements have become moribund. In post-transition Brazil, for example, urban neighborhood associations aimed at improving the lives of the poor succumbed one by one, defeated by bureaucratic impediments on one hand and drug dealers on the other. The dense network of civic institutions— soup kitchens, food-purchasing clubs, nonprofit clinics, and neighborhood commissions—that developed in the decade before Uruguay’s democratic transition in 1985, has since dissolved, a consequence, among other things, of a lack of financial resources and an inability to sustain citizen participation. The influence of the shantytown movement that arose in Chile in the late 1980s, and which had as its objectives not only the improvement of urban living conditions but the defeat of the Pinochet dictatorship, peaked with the massive general strike in 1986 that was pivotal in moving the country toward democracy. Exhaustion set in soon thereafter, and the movement petered out.20
According to Marta Lagos, the director of Latinobarómetro, the 2002 data also reveal an incipient and significant trend: Latin Americans have started to distinguish between bad governments and the benefits of democracy itself. “The reaction of Latin American citizens to failures of economic and political performance,” she adds, “has been one of dissatisfaction with the way in which democracy is working, and a readiness to throw poorly performing parties and leaders out of office, but not abandonment of faith in democracy itself.” Helping to sustain faith in democracy is the high premium placed on political and civil liberties. According to Lagos, “Latin Americans do not appear willing to give up what they have gained in terms of freedom of expression and other civil liberties.”22
Latin America’s newly found attachment to democracy, however imperfect and unlovely it may be, is rooted in a process of political learning emanating from prior democratic failure. The political elites that reconstructed democratic politics in Latin America appear determined to avoid the ideological polarization of the past (whether provoked by the right or the left), which often reduced politics to a zero-sum game. This new approach to democratic politics is characterized by a judicious pragmatism, often bordering on an obsession with political consensus. It finds expression in social and political pacts aimed at solving national problems—including those linked to the transition out of decades of military rule— in as nonconfrontational a manner as possible. Such consensus-driven politics, observes the noted Chilean scholar Arturo Valenzuela with respect to post-transition Chile, flow from “cooperation fueled by fear of an authoritarian reversal.”23
The fear of a return to authoritarian rule is reinforced by the collective memory of military violence and state terror. This has been internalized and ritualized most intensively in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, countries where the military excesses of the 1970s and 1980s were most severe. In Argentina, for example, a military-sponsored dirty war against so-called enemies of the state is believed to be responsible for the “disappearance” of as many as 30,000 people during the years 1976–83. Nunca Más (Never Again), the report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, is the work of numerous civil society organizations devoted to honoring the memory of the victims of state repression and preventing similar occurrences from happening again. Similar accounts in Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile have also created a historical narrative of state abuses, thereby contributing to the work of civil society in assimilating the lessons of dictatorship.
The revalorization of democracy in Latin America is also revealed in the ideological reconstruction of political forces in the post-transition era. During the 1960s and 1970s, the behavior of many on the right conspired to create what political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan refer to as “Brumairean moments”—episodes in which the upper classes and the bourgeoisie, being either incapable or unwilling to respond to the pressures from below, relinquished their claim to the right to govern and abdicated to the military.24 The price paid for becoming an accomplice in the establishment of military rule was indeed high. Politically, the military monopolized key positions within these regimes, thereby frustrating the ambitions of many would-be politicians. As Kurt Wayland of the University of Texas notes with reference to Brazil, “a key lesson civilians learned from the long period of authoritarian rule is that knocking at the barracks’ door could be very risky, imposing considerable costs on the political class as a whole.”25
Even higher was the human price paid by many on the right for supporting military rule. In Argentina, having supported the installation of a military regime in 1973, the most privileged social groups found it difficult to control the authoritarian forces they had helped unleash. The business community and the upper classes were unable to escape the mayhem of indiscriminate violence and state terrorism engendered by the military government. It is estimated that 55 percent of all the disappeared in Argentina were white-collar employees, professionals, academics, and students.26 This traumatic experience is central to understanding the support that the business community and other conservative groups, including the Catholic Church, now profess for democracy. They learned from their experience of military rule that—in the words of Linz and Stepan—“in the long run they were better off advancing their personal and material interests within a framework of the rule of law and of periodic elections.”27
A more complex process of political learning has taken place within the Latin American left.28 The left has traditionally been ambivalent (if not downright disdainful) of democracy, which, in classic Marxist fashion, was deemed a tool of the bourgeoisie for exploiting or coopting the masses. Consequently, many on the left for decades regarded democracy not as a goal unto itself but rather as a vehicle for achieving a radical transformation of society. This appears to have changed significantly in the last decade. Today, according to Linz and Stepan, procedural democracy has come to be seen on the left “as an indispensable political formula that is a valuable norm in itself and as a political arrangement that offers both protection against state terrorism and some hope of electoral progress toward social and economic democracy.”29
Certainly, the terror and violence of military rule was a factor in bringing about the left’s re-thinking. It forced labor leaders and intellectuals (primary targets of the military repression) to appreciate that the very existence of civil society is predicated upon basic civil and political protections. As Francisco Weffort, a former secretary general of Brazil’s Workers’ Party, realized: “The discovery of the value of democracy is inseparable, within the opposition, from the discovery of civil society as a political space…. The terror years produced a real political miracle by undermining traditional ideas on the relations between State and society. And the concept of politics was placed on its true foundations.”30
Cementing the appeal of democracy within the left was the demise of communism, which began to unravel as the Latin American left was facing the reemergence of democracy. By the late 1980s, neither the Soviet Union nor its Latin satellite (Cuba) provided an attractive political or economic model. With few exceptions (notably Colombia and Peru), the constellation of left-wing guerrilla movements that once crowded the Latin American universe appears to have receded into history. Indeed, revolutionary movements that once denounced liberal democracy as a political tool of the bourgeoisie are now embracing it. Witness the case of the Tupamaros in Uruguay, a former guerrilla movement that reinvented itself as a legitimate political party in the late 1980s.
The ideological transformation of the political elite is also reflected at the mass level. And this may explain, to a significant degree, the lessening of class tensions within the Latin American electorate even in the face of widening social and economic disparity. According to Latinobarómetro data, the majority of Latin Americans see themselves as being on the center-right. For some countries, this represents a dramatic watershed in ideological identification. Chile, historically home to Latin America’s strongest left-wing parties, as well as robust right-wing groups, is a telling case. In 1958, only 17 percent of Chileans saw themselves as being in the center, while 31 percent said they were on the right, and 24.5 percent said they were on the left. Forty years later, the picture had changed significantly: in 1998, 49 percent of Chileans claimed to be in the center, while 16 percent said they were on the right, and only 11 percent saw themselves as being on the left.31
The Politics of Fear
Latin America’s democratic experience also suggests that people’s attachment to the democratic process is stronger and more complex than generally suspected. This may well be because the legitimacy of democracy rests not only on the economic and political performance of democratic governments (as generally thought) but also on political perceptions among the general public about its alternatives. Throughout much of Latin America, authoritarian rule appears to have been fully discredited, with most countries having learned painful lessons about military government. In sum, there has been a gradual and painful process of political learning. As the Mexican historian and political commentator Lorenzo Meyer puts it: “Democracy needs a memory to learn from the past what to avoid and what to acquire.”32
While the fear of returning to authoritarian rule may contribute to the persistence of democracy, it can also inhibit the deepening of democracy. The fear of rocking the boat too much may well prevent Latin American societies from undertaking some of the key social and political reforms that could ensure the consolidation of democracy. This is especially the case when it comes to managing the military, the one actor in Latin American politics with the means to derail democracy. The reluctance of civilian leaders to confront their militaries—both as to their current power and/or past mis-deeds—for fear of triggering an authoritarian reversal has exacted a high toll on the quality of democracy that Latin America enjoys today.
In Brazil, civilian politicians’ fear of a military revolt has thwarted important institutional innovations, such as the passage of a constitutional amendment that would have created Latin America’s first parliamentary democracy. This type of political system (the answer to Latin America’s governing problems in the minds of many) would have diminished the power of the presidency and limited the traditional access to the president that the military was used to. The same fear has frustrated attempts to eliminate the constitutional provision that gives the military a role in keeping domestic order, which helps explain the widespread human rights abuses in the post-transition period. In Chile, the so-called leyes de amarre, the legal and political restrictions on political competition instituted by the Pinochet regime before its departure in 1992, remain in place largely because of the unwillingness of the political class to confront the military. In Argentina, the military and other conservative actors have promoted a culture that subscribes to the motto “silence is health,” which has kept the lid on the issue of justice for the thousands of past victims of military violence.
Exorcising the fears about the past without breaking the new consensus on democracy that has developed over the last three decades will be a key challenge for Latin American democracy in the years to come. This reality, however, should not distract us from appreciating the persistence and, indeed, maturity of democratic governance evident in this region. It testifies to our prevailing pessimism that most of what is said and written about present-day Latin America tends to dwell on the many shortcomings in the region’s political life. In a world beset by freedom’s foes, the sheer determination of the Latin American public to remain supportive of democracy is inspiring, and a reason to be optimistic about its continuing progress.
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