Democratic Representation in Latin America: Old and New Challenges

By Perez, Andres | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Democratic Representation in Latin America: Old and New Challenges


Perez, Andres, Canadian Parliamentary Review


With the sole exception of Cuba, all contemporary Latin American countries function within the framework of democratic electoral systems. These democratic systems provide citizens with an unprecedented capacity to elect their governments and representatives. For some this fact represents a definitive triumph of democracy over tyranny in an area of the world that has been typically portrayed as the land of Generales, Comandantes, and Caudillos. For others electoral democracy in Latin America is simply an illusion; a historical irrelevancy that does not change the reality of poverty and inequality in the region. This article argues that the consolidation of democratic rule in Latin America requires the dismantling and transformation of some historical and cultural embedded patterns of relations between state and society. However, it is not only these historical and cultural patterns that Latin Americans have to overcome to consolidate democratic institutions. They also have to conquer a future that, because of the forces of globalization, will not always be favourable to democracy. This future belongs to "globalization."

Andres Perez is professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

David Held has pointed out that democratic theory and practice assumes the existence of "a `symmetrical' and `congruent' relationship between political decision makers and the recipients of political decisions" (1). It is through this relationship between decision makers on the one hand, and the population affected by political decisions on the other hand, that the democratic principles of popular sovereignty and representative government are realized. People in democratic societies control the process whereby the state shapes their collective future by influencing the formulation of political and policy decisions.

The development of a congruent and democratic relationship between state and society in Societies with Consolidated Democratic Institutions (SCDIs) is the result of long and often painful historical processes. The two most important dimensions of these processes are:

* the constitution of sovereign states with the capacity to influence and sometimes control the factors that determine the historical evolution of national societies;

* the development of civil societies with the capacity to condition the functions of the state. The principle of sovereignty allowed states to create and shape independent national histories, while the development of civil societies created the conditions for the democratization of the sovereign power of the state, and the emergence of representative governments.

If the development and consolidation of sovereign states and effective civil societies are the two key characteristics of the evolution of state-society relations in SCDIs, the development of dependent states and vulnerable and fragmented civil societies are the central characteristics of the political history of Latin America.

Latin American states developed only a very limited capacity to control the main factors that shape their historical evolution. Political dependency on foreign powers, and economic dependency on foreign markets and foreign sources of capital and technology severely limited the capacity of Latin American states to effectively exercise the sovereignty that they attained when they achieved independence from Portugal and Spain.

Similarly, the evolution of civil societies in Latin America, never produced structures of citizenship rights that would allow the national populations of these countries the power to condition the functions and priorities of the state. Three principle factors explain the reasons why the notion of "we the people" never found fertile soil in the Latin American region: The exclusionary nature of the colonial state structures that were inherited from Spain and Portugal; the persistence of systematic marginalization of indigenous societies after independence; and the possibilities that the external dependency of the state offered to national elites to utilize external sources of political and economic support to maintain their positions of power. …

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