Magazine article World Affairs

Democracy in Latin America

Magazine article World Affairs

Democracy in Latin America

Article excerpt

HOW democratic are the other republics of America? How democratic are the people of these republics? These are not easy questions to answer for two reasons: First, because the answer must be different for each country and each presents a different situation; Second, because the answer depends also upon one's concept of democracy.

It is probably lair to say that Latin Americans as people are as democratic as Anglo-Americans. But their democracy is expressed in different institutions and patterns of behavior. Some Latin American opinions on the subject, like those of Jose Vasconcelos expressed in his Creole Ulysses, are derived from riding third-class or steerage on the big steamships which plied the Caribbean and the coasts of South America in the pre-war days. Others, because of unpleasant experiences with Anglo-Americans in Latin America or along the Mexican border, feel that they are more democratic because [they are] less class conscious than Anglo-Americans. A Brazilian, Haytian or Cuban observing Jim Crow conditions in the United States might well come to the same conclusion.

To a large extent our concept of democracy in the United States is an Anglo-American product, and especially a product of our own national history during the nineteenth century. We associate the term democracy with orderly elections, stability of government, universal secret suffrage, the federal system and even with certain legal sanctions for the protection of private property and individual economic enterprise which are part of the Anglo-American systems. Many of us of course, realize that democracy is more than this. From Jefferson on our leaders of democratic thought have pointed out the spiritual strivings and the social aspirations which constitute its essence, particularly the aspirations for a better and freer social order. They have seen that democracy is a complex of all these strivings intimately associated with powerful dynamic elements arising from the conquest of a new continent and from the industrial and technological revolutions of the past century and a half. Inevitably these economic changes broadened the basis of political participation in the nation-state as they opened up opportunities for ampler economic and cultural life to larger masses of people affected by these historical processes. A good deal of what we recognize as democracy in the modern world is just this broadening of the basis of political structure.

Democracy like dictatorship is not absolute. It exists in many different forms and degrees. It is a fact of history, not a proposition of theology. It is a pattern of political behavior, infused with strong spiritual elements, the essence of which is the belief in attainment of a better order of society and a better life through fuller and freer participation of the masses of men and women in its making.

To be sure, this pattern of political behavior in Latin America has often centered around concepts and institutions derived from Anglo-American democracy. Moreover, these factors of universal suffrage, orderly elections, a free press, and the federal system, have undeniably been a part of the history of democracy in Latin America as in the United States. All of the southern republics, at one time or another have labored to make over their government after the Anglo-American pattern, frequently without enough regard to the peculiar needs of their own people. In some countries indeed, such as Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Colombia, the effort has been surprisingly successful during the past forty years.

It is worth noting, if only in passing, that at various times in the history of the United States, particularly under the very frontier conditions which bred democracy, one or more, sometimes all of these traditional elements of the Anglo-American democratic pattern were lacking. Still democracy existed in the United States in the midst of the lawlessness of the frontier and of the turbulence of our basis-ruled cities at the turn of the last century. …

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