Latin America: Democracies or Dictatorships?

By Armando Chagueceda

HAVANA TIMES – Political experts Scott Mainwaring and Anibal Perez Linan have published the translation of their book Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall, which was coedited by the Economic Culture Fund and the National Electoral Institute, in Mexico. The writers present a robust theory about the durability and mutation of political systems in Latin America, with an emphasis on the historic processes that took place in the last century.

Combining a statistical-analytical approach with long-term comparative analysis over a vast geographical area, they revisit existing theories – based on class, culture and development. They also criticize their traditional approach and propose an alternative view.

Both political experts outline the motivations and normative preferences of important political actors – both in government and the opposition. This is the key to understanding the evolution of Latin American politics. Ideas and values are just as important – sometimes even more so – than other resources, frameworks and political legacies.

Half-way down the road between a macrostructural perspective and microstructural analysis, Mainwaring and Perez find models of society and the power that these feed in moderate or radical systems, as well as an international climate that encourages some alternatives over others, and these are promising key factors. They allow us to discern whether it will be democratic (pluralist and competitive) systems of government or autocratic (decision-making and vertical) systems of government that shape Latin America’s political panorama in years to come.

When I read the original version of this monumental work, seven years ago, many of today’s political development trends in Latin America were only being hinted at. The region was a kaleidoscope of democracies with varying degrees of robustness, with hybrid systems – in the Andean region – and just one closed autocracy, in Cuba. Today, the political landscape is quite different.

Democracies have been rocked by repeated crises of disaffection and civic unrest, with uncertain outcomes. The authoritarian stain has spread, adding Venezuela and Nicaragua to the list of closed autocracies. Failed narco-states are beginning to appear in Central America. Populisms are multiplying, under different ideological flags, in our distressed republics. We’re in a bad way… and things are only going to get worse.

It’s clear that the unresolved legacy of social inequality, weak States, criminal violence and systemic corruption are giving space for radicals, as listed by Mainwaring and Perrez Linan, to gain ground in our republics.

The absence of foreign brakes – US military interventionism no longer exists, which preached on end by some liberals – allowing creole tyrants to abort both mass mobilizations as well as timid claims and transitional dialogues that advocated for democratization, in recent years.

Furthermore, unlike Mainwaring and Perez Linan’s coherent position – both in analysis and civic action – there isn’t a clear commitment to that comprehensive democracy that Guillermo O’Donnell suggested.

Surveys reveal not only a fair criticism of liberal shortcomings, but also a certain wager for undemocratic systems of government. Intellectuals within the region hold double standards themselves when it comes to vernacular authoritarian regimes. The three countries where civil rights are most restricted – Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – aren’t being put in the spotlight.

Declarations from the academic circles question conservative populisms and, even, defective democracies. There is now a tyrant bias among intellectuals that didn’t exist half a century ago, when the main dictatorships (mostly of the Right) were condemned outright.

With radicals gaining ground everywhere, with no effective way to collectively sanction them and academic schizophrenia with a heavy ideological bias, the landscape for Latin American democracies doesn’t look very promising in upcoming years. Unless citizens decide to take assertive action soon to defend democracy, neutralizing extremist movements.

The need to defend political democracy – looking for as much inclusion, development and justice as possible – is a pending matter within the region, which is now under the threat of being failed.

Read more from Armando Chaguaceda’s diary.