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
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. …