The Precarious Sustainability of Democracy in Latin America

By Sunkel, Osvaldo | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, July 2007 | Go to article overview

The Precarious Sustainability of Democracy in Latin America


Sunkel, Osvaldo, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Abstract. This article examines the contrast between the expectations aroused by the establishment of democratic regimes and the poor results of neo-liberal economic policies, the consequent disillusionment and loss of faith in democracy and neo-liberal economic policies, and the reactions and responses that are currently taking place. Particular attention is paid to the surfacing of long-repressed and/or dormant sectors of the population in countries with large poor indigenous and/or black populations. This essay begins with some references to the sociopolitical, institutional, and cultural background inherited from colonial Latin America. It then refers to the development and modernization processes that took place during the second half of the 19th century and to the consequences of the Great Depression, which through a widened and more active role of the state in the economic, social, and international realms changed the Latin American development and modernization scenarios from the 1940s to the 1970s. This is followed by a reference to the consequences of the onset of the globalization process in the 1970s, the debt and development crises of the early 1980s, and the dramatic change from state-centric to market-centric economic policies, leading to the coincidence of the adoption of free market economics on the one hand and the establishment of electoral democracies on the other. The last section refers to the revival of the structuralist approach to development of the 1950s to the 1970s, renewed and updated in the light of a critique of its earlier shortcomings and of the new circumstances of the globalization process.

Resumen. Este ensayo examina el contraste entre las expectativas generadas por el establecimiento de regimenes democraticos y los magros resultados de la politica economica neoliberal, la consecuente desilusion y perdida de confianza en la democracia y en las politicas de liberalizacion economica y las reacciones y respuestas actuales. Se da una atencion particular al surgimiento de sectores que han estado largo tiempo latentes o reprimidas, en especial en paises con grandes poblaciones indigenas o negras empobrecidas. Este ensayo comienza con refercnais al contexto sociopolitico, institucional y cultural heredado de la epoca colonial. Se refiere luego a los procesos de desarrollo y modernizacion que tuvieron lugar en America Latina durante la segunda mitad del siglo XIX y a las consecuencias de la Gran Depresion, que a traves un papel mas amplio activo del Estado en los ambitos economico, social e internacional modifico la dinamica de desarrollo y modernizacion entre 1940 y 1970. Se abordan las consecuencias del inicio de la globalizacion en los anos setenta, la crisis de la deuda externa y del desarrollo en los anos ochenta y el cambio dramatico de las politicas estado-centricas a las politicas mercado-centricas, llevando a la coincidencia de la adopcion del libre mercado y del establecimiento de desmocracias electorales. La ultima seccion remite al resurgimiento del enfoque estructuralista de los anos 1950 y 1970, renovadas y actualizadas a la luz de las criticas de sus limitaciones originales y de las nuevas circunstancias dadas por el proceso de globalizacion.

Introduction

Since the 1980s, all Latin American countries except Cuba have, for the first time in history, achieved the political status of democracies, at least in the sense that their political authorities have been elected in relatively free and more or less fair elections (United Nations Development Program [UNDP] 2005). Moreover, in contrast to what was previously a frequent occurrence, no military coup has overthrown a government in the last two decades. Until recently, the common expectation was that democracy would take hold and flourish, reinforced by the simultaneous processes of globalization and adoption of neo-liberal policy measures to reduce the role of the state and expand that of the market. Democratization, globalization, and neo-liberalism were supposed to come hand-in-hand. …

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