Latin America Democracy Although Democracy Has Flowered in the Region, It Remains Precarious. A Culture of Democracy Is Needed to Undergird Political Arrangements

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THE political advances of the 1980s in Latin America and the Caribbean were as encouraging in their way as the collapse of communist rule in eastern and central Europe. In country after country, military regimes and dictatorships have given way to freely-elected civilian governments.

But democracy in the Americas is still on trial. Fragile democratic institutions are being challenged by political and criminal violence, prolonged economic decline, deep social and economic inequities, and conflicts between military and civilian authorities. The gains of the past decade are not irreversible. In some countries, they are at grave risk.

Direct military takeovers are no longer the primary danger to democratic progress in Latin America, although they are still a threat in some nations. Today, the greatest risk comes from the gradual erosion of public confidence in elected governments that are unable effectively to address fundamental problems affecting national life: prolonged economic deterioration, intense civil strife, enormous disparities in income and wealth, unresponsive public institutions, continuing military interference in political affairs, and widespread crime and official corruption. These are the challenges that democratic leaders must confront if Latin America's political openings are to be sustained and deepened - and if democracy is truly to serve the people of the region.

Stunted by prior coups and military governments, political and civic organizations remain weak in most countries of the region. Yet effective democratic practice requires structured and dependable institutions, accepted rules of political conduct, and established legal procedures. In their absence, politics often become personalized and erratic.

Legislatures and judicial systems lack the autonomy, stature, and competence to carry out their constitutional functions. Presidents in Latin America, frustrated by delay and indecision, often use exceptional procedures to bypass the legislative process. In doing so, they debase the formal institutions of government, compromise legal norms, and undercut democratic legitimacy.

Political parties in many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean lack effective ties to regular constituencies and are often little more than vehicles for contesting elections and distributing patronage. They rarely offer coherent programs and are frequently manipulated to serve the personal ambitions of their leaders.

Democratic progress in Latin America is hampered by the lack of sustained citizen participation in political life. Few countries in the region boast a vigorous array of non-governmental institutions through which the demands of ordinary people can be expressed, mediated, and consistently brought to the attention of authorities. In much of the region, trade unions, business groups, professional organizations, and civic associations are weak, fragmented, and too narrowly based to play constructive political roles.

Free and independent media are vital to democracy, and press freedoms have expanded markedly in Latin America in recent years. …