Democracy and Its Discontents: Development, Interdependence, and U.S. Policy in Latin America

By Amstutz, Mark R. | Naval War College Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Its Discontents: Development, Interdependence, and U.S. Policy in Latin America


Amstutz, Mark R., Naval War College Review


Wiarda, Howard J. Democracy and Its Discontents: Development, Interdependence, and U.S. Policy in Latin America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. 367pp. $27.95

Two major approaches dominate comparative politics research-a universalistic, scientific approach that emphasizes similarities and regularities among the world's political systems, and a more traditional "area studies" perspective that emphasizes distinctive features of different geographical areas. The first approach (deeply influenced by the so-- called rational choice or public choice theory) seeks to develop social-scientific theories and hypotheses that can be empirically tested and verified. Traditional area studies, by contrast, seek to explain the behavior of political actors and governmental institutions based on the history, religious values, cultural traditions, and the social and economic structures of a particular region. For area studies specialists, understanding the politics of developing nations, especially non-Western states, is impossible without first studying their language, culture, and history.

Howard Wiarda, a political science professor affiliated with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, is a scholar of the traditional area studies school. Long regarded as a leading specialist on Latin America, Wiarda has written extensively and incisively on the politics and government of the Western Hemisphere, as well as on U.S.-Latin American relations. The book under review is a wide-ranging collection of previously published essays covering key issues in contemporary Latin American politics and relations with the United States. Some ofthe important themes discussed are legal and political traditions, the notion of the state, political reform, democratization, human rights, and U.S.-Caribbean relations.

As a traditional area-specialist, Wiarda writes that to understand Latin America's struggle for democracy "one has to go back to history." For him, this means understanding the region's distinctive traditions, social values, and cultural norms that have evolved since the Spanish conquest. Wiarda argues that Latin America's tradition of a strong state is rooted in hierarchical, elitist, and corporatistic values derived from the sixteenth-century tradition of neoscholasticism. More specifically, he asserts that since the Latin American democratic traditions have been based on Thomistic and Rousseauian ideals, the region's constitutional practices have resulted in centralized, organic, and corporatistic structures designed to carry out "the great and glorious ends of government. …

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