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

By Paul W. Drake | Go to book overview

Chapter 7
The Tsunami of Neoliberal Democracies,
1970s–2000s

Previous waves of democracy had rolled over Latin America, but never before had a tsunami flooded the entire region. From the late 1970s to the 2000s, Latin America became more democratic than ever before, but not because of any massive institutional engineering. The basic formal political rules and organizations for these democracies did not change much, but behavior did. Why did these enormous democratic regime transformations occur and endure?

Although the Latin Americans revised some constitutions and adopted several new ones, they maintained most of the key features from the past, along with an amplified emphasis on social rights. A majority of the political systems remained centralist rather than federalist. However, more decentralization than ever before, mainly to municipalities rather than provinces, became the biggest institutional innovation in the era.

Many political scientists advocated converting to parliamentary systems, but no country followed that advice. Presidents became even more powerful, despite the long-recommended fortification of not only sub-national governments but also legislatures and judiciaries. A few of the chief executives acquired the right to be reelected immediately. They exerted more control over the armed forces and almost never succumbed to military ouster. The new democracies restored civil liberties and human rights but continued to abuse them.

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