The Growing Threat to Democracy in Latin America

By Schulz, Donald B. | Parameters, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Growing Threat to Democracy in Latin America

Schulz, Donald B., Parameters

Does democracy have a future in Latin America and, if so, what is it? Only a few years ago, such questions seemed absurd. Democratic governments existed almost everywhere in the region, Cuba being the notable exception. Nowhere in the Third World did the vision of a "New Democratic Order" appear more promising.

But things change. If we learn anything from history, it should be that bad times always return. Today, anti-democratic trends are on the rise, making this a propitious moment to assess their implications both for the region and for US interests and policy. Accordingly, this essay will cover a lot of ground. This is a big subject, as well as an important one, and it will be addressed here in several parts. The first section will pose three themes and a number of questions related to the growing danger. Second will be a discussion of the syndrome of "authoritarian democracy," which poses one of the primary threats to Latin American democracy in the years ahead. Part three will offer some policy recommendations for both US and Latin American leaders before finally turning to a brief forecast of the future.

The Growing Threat

The first theme concerns the importance of democracy for US interests. Unfortunately, terrorism cannot be restricted to the violence of non-state actors. Latin American history is replete with episodes of state terrorism. Often, indeed, state terrorism has been a major contributor to the rise of guerrilla movements, as for instance in the Central American wars of the 1970s and 1980s. [1] In those cases, democratic transitions became a critical factor in defusing civil war. Today, democracy continues to serve as an important legitimizing force, inhibiting both state and non-state terrorism. Its decline would have ominous implications for the region's political stability.

Second, democracy is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It is not a matter of either you have it or you don't. Rather, there are all shades of democracy, ranging from purely facade democracies, such as the now-demised Fujimori regime in Peru, to formal or procedural democracies, where you have relatively free and competitive elections and the institutional forms of democratic governance, but where other important aspects--e.g., a free press, respect for human rights, strong and effective legislative and judicial institutions--are missing. Then there are what might be called substantive democracies, where you find not merely forms and procedures but also human rights, a free press, effective legislative and judicial institutions, military subordination to legitimate, elected civilian authority, a healthy, autonomous citizen participation in politics--all the things, in short, that serve as a check on the abuse of power and give meaning to the concept of popular sovereignty or self-government.

The question, of course, is how do nations move from a facade or procedural democracy to more substantive democracy? How do they broaden and deepen democracy? How do they foster democratization?

A third theme is the notion that Latin American democracy is currently in some trouble. Historically, the region has gone through a series of cycles in which periods of democracy have alternated with periods of authoritarianism or dictatorship. And the question now is whether the present cycle of democracy is coming to a close. Has democracy reached high tide? Is it beginning to recede? Last year's troubled electoral process in Peru is only the most dramatic indication that something is terribly wrong. The rampant political and economic instability that Ecuador has been experiencing is another bad sign. In January 2000, the military there launched a coup, the first successful military overthrow of an elected civilian government in South America in almost a quarter century. Serious problems have also been plaguing Haiti, which has recently witnessed deeply flawed elections and now seems poised to descend into dictatorship and perhaps chaos.

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