Past Successes, Present Challenges: Latin American Politics at the Crossroads. (Democracy)

By Munck, Gerardo | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Past Successes, Present Challenges: Latin American Politics at the Crossroads. (Democracy)


Munck, Gerardo, Harvard International Review


As it enters the 21st century, Latin America is marked by the co-existence of democratic regimes alongside a range of deeply disturbing political and socio-economic factors, from rampant corruption and widespread violence to wrenching inequalities. This configuration is quite unique. Latin America is a world of stark contrasts, historic achievements, and colossal challenges. On the one hand, modern Latin America bears the distinction of being the most consistently democratic region outside the advanced industrial world. On the other hand, Latin America is characterized by negative features that contrast sharply not only with the wealthy Western European and English-speaking democracies but also, in some aspects, with other regions in the developing world. For example, one long-standing feature of Latin America is its infamous distinction as the most unequal region in the world.

This characterization has significant implications for ongoing discussions about the question of democratic governance. Specifically, it offers an essential baseline to the discussion of future scenarios facing Latin America, and it breaks with the all-too-common teleological view that sees Latin American countries as traveling along the path blazed by Western European democracies. By emphasizing democratization at the expense of other desirable changes toward good governance, peace, and inclusive prosperity; this characterization suggests that efforts to think about democratic governance in Latin America fail to note the distinctiveness of Latin American realities, and thus have limited use. Even more problematic, these approaches can lead to misguided analyses and policy suggestions.

Confronting the current reality of Latin America and leaving aside empty hopes of replicating the path followed by successful European cases is a sobering exercise, providing little ground for optimism. Unfortunately, the odds are tilted toward a continuation or worsening of the situation in Latin America. However, this exercise does point to two important suggestions. One is that the unfolding of an optimistic scenario hinges on the active construction of an alternative but realistic vision in addition to a social force capable of overriding powerful actors who have a stake in perpetuating current arrangements. A second is that the path to such an end runs through the institutions of democratic regimes and will only open inasmuch as Latin Americans engage in a profound re-evaluation of politics.

Historic Achievements

Starting in the late 1970s, well before the collapse of communism in the East, Latin America underwent a vast and positive political transformation. Closed and repressive, military political regimes in South America came to an end with the re-establishment of democratically elected regimes. The war-torn societies of Central America moved toward peaceful conflict resolution and began what was in most instances their first real experience with democracy. The gradual political opening in Mexico culminated in 2000, when there was a changeover in the party holding the presidency for the first time in over 70 years. Thus, as the 21st century began, Latin Americans could claim several remarkable political achievements. A region that in the late 1970s was overwhelmingly under the control of authoritarian rulers--at that time, only Costa Rica, Colombia, and Venezuela bucked the trend--had become almost entirely democratic.

Exceptions to this generalization exist and should be noted. Most obviously, Cuba is still undemocratic, and the democracies installed in the Andean region in the 1980s were severely threatened and even collapsed during the 1990s. But the broad trend is still strong. Never before have so many Latin American countries been democratic, and never before have Latin American democracies proven so durable. Moreover, the consensus that democracy is the preferable form of regime has never been so widespread and so deep. …

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