Democracy in Latin America: A Review of Recent Literature

Article excerpt

Jorge I. Dominguez and Anthony Jones, editors

The Construction of Democracy: Lessons from Practice and Research

Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007, viii + 253 pp.

Paul W. Drake

Between tyranny and Anarchy: A History of Democracy in Latin America, 1800-2006

Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009, xiii + 330 pp.

Frances Hagopian and Scott P. Mainwaring, editors

The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, xviii + 413 pp.

Gretchen Helmke and Steven Levitsky

Informal Institutions and Democracy: Lessons from Latin America

Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, viii + 351 pp.

Peter H. Smith

Democracy in Latin America: Political Change in Comparative Perspective

New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, xiv + 380 pp.

A wave of regime transitions from the late 1970s through 2000 swept Latin America from a circumstance in which most of the region was governed by authoritarian systems to one in which democratic rule extended nearly everywhere, with the sole exceptions of Cuba and, by some accounts, Haiti. This striking empirical fact constitutes the point of departure for each of the five books under review, as all of them seek in various ways to identify the causes of (re-)democratization, the nature and extent of the changes that have taken place, and the factors shaping the characteristics and quality of democracies. These works shed light on a period of intense political transformation in the region, and the volumes by Paul W. Drake and Peter H. Smith, in particular, situate the Third Wave of democracy in the longue duree trajectory of political life in the region. Taken together, these five studies testify to the richness of contemporary scholarship on democracy and highlight the continued place of Latin Americanists at the forefront of disciplinary innovation in comparative political science.

Three distinct moments can be identified as we take stock of Latin American democracy over the past three decades. First was the period of transition. This began as early as the late 1970s in Ecuador and Peru, continued with the demise of military dictatorships in the Southern Cone and Brazil during the 1980s and the Central American peace accords of the early 1990s, and concluded with the 2000 electoral defeat of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) in Mexico. A second moment consists of neoliberal transformation, spanning much of the 1980s and 1990s and into the present decade. From Mexico in the north to Argentina in the south, leaders of Latin America's fledgling democracies grappled with the challenge of promoting integration into the global economy amidst widespread societal resistance to the patterns of exclusion exacerbated by neoliberal policies. The infancy and adolescence of democracy coincided virtually everywhere with deteriorating poverty rates and the intensification of longstanding social inequalities. In some settings, policy paralysis resulted, to the detriment of regime performance, but virtually everywhere public support for democracy as a system of rule remained higher than at previous points in Latin American history. Finally, we arrive at the first decade of the new century, during which renewed pressures for social inclusion would influence the course of democratic politics across much of the region. In South America, buttressed during the middle years of the decade by a vast influx of revenue derived from the high prices of commodities on the world market, governments of varying stripes sought to promote greater equity and strengthen the influence of the state over the economy. The fate of the diverse strategies deployed to these ends remains uncertain, however, and that uncertainty has been accentuated by the still unfolding impact of the worldwide recession that began to affect the region in 2008. …