Latin America’s Durable But Poor Quality Democracies

Poor-Quality Democracies
Clash between protesters and police in Lima, Peru following the removal of President Pedro Castillo. Photo from Voice of America.

By Gerardo L. Munck

Poor Quality Democracies

Democracy has become the norm for the first time in the entire history of Latin America. Competitive elections based on universal suffrage for top political offices are held as a matter of routine. The peaceful alternation in power between incumbents and the opposition has become a common feature – it has occurred in all countries in the region but Cuba and Venezuela since 2000. Democracy has become institutionalized in Latin America.

Yet Latin America has many problems of democracy, that is, problems linked to the attainment, maintenance, and improvement of democracy. The gravest problems relate to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, the three dictatorships in the region. Recent developments in El Salvador and Guatemala as well as in Peru are a matter of great concern. But the most common problems of democracy, affecting roughly 90% of the region’s population, pertain to the poor quality of the region’s democracies.

Here is an incomplete list of relevant problems. Vote buying is common. Social activists and politicians have been threatened and killed in some countries. Money from various sources, in some cases including organized crime, plays a role in elections and policy-making. A few incumbents constitutionally banned from reelection have run for office. Some opposition leaders have been prevented from running for office. Elected leaders have been displaced from office in dubious circumstances. A sense of disconnect between citizens and parties that fuels credible claims of a crisis of political representation.

A Mixed Record

Further, this depiction covers only part of the scope of democratic politics. Democracy is a kind of political regime, that is, a set of procedures that regulate how government offices are accessed and how government decisions are made. Indeed, counter to many proposals to conceptualize democracy in substantive terms and to extend the reference of democracy to encompass the state or society, democracy is merely a form of government. But politics is not only about inputs, about citizens having or not having a voice in government.

Citizens care about the outcomes caused by politics and evaluate their democracies in terms of their record regarding the delivery of certain goods, things such as the generation of sustainable economic growth, the reduction of economic inequality, access to a quality education and health care, and public goods like security and a clean environment. And in this regard, the record is mixed.

Latin American democracies have made some gains since the wave of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g., regarding the pollical inclusion of women, transitional justice, and social policy). But they have not responded with vigor to other problems, such as the high levels of economic inequality; the prevalence of political, administrative and judicial corruption; and the lack of citizen security. Thus, in addition to their problems of democracy, Latin American countries face what could be called problems for democracy – problems that citizens hope their democracies will address and that democracies realistically could resolve.

Problems of and for Democracy

The various problems of and for democracy are substantial when considered in isolation. For example, simply taking one of them and setting out to address it (e.g., reducing economic inequality) is a daunting task. However, the full extent of the challenge of progressive change is only grasped when one understands that the relationship between problems of and for democracy is one of reciprocal causation.

This causal connection can be elaborated as follows. The region’s poor quality democracies do not consistently create an incentive for politicians to support the policies and carry out the reforms needed to deliver what citizens want. For example, politicians are not punished for simply ignoring the evident problem of economic inequality. They also rarely incur a cost for not taking steps to reform the state so as to eliminate favoritism or outright corruption in the allocation of public works, even though such uses of public resources reduce the provision of public goods.

In turn, the failure to deliver has negative consequences for democracy. For instance, because economic inequality is not reduced, concentrated economic power continues to undermine the ideal of political equality that is central to democracy. Since the state does not guarantee public security, civil society activists and politicians are intimidated and killed. More broadly, the failure to deliver on campaign promises eats away at the credibility of politicians and fuels a crisis of representation.

Latin America’s democracies are thus caught in a trap and have no easy or obvious path forward. Problems of democracy prevent the elimination of problems for democracy, and unresolved problems for democracy block the possibility of reducing problems of democracy.

Enduring, but Poor Quality Democracies

This self-reinforcing relationship is not deterministic. Actors have agency and on a regular basis they have sought to alter the dynamics of politics, sometimes to improve the situation, other times to worsen it. Nonetheless, a range of powerful social actors, political forces on the Right and the Left of the political spectrum, and state agents have an interest in maintaining this system. Thus, Latin America has poor quality democracies, but these democracies are enduring.

This view of democratic politics in contemporary Latin America is at variance with some common accounts.The literature that focuses on short-term trends is full of analyses that celebrate upturns or fret about downturns. But improvements are regularly shown not to be sustainable, and declines are most of the time revealed to be part of a cyclical process with ups and downs. Commentaries are also full of claims about how either the Right or the Left are largely or entirely responsible for problems related to democracy. Yet, the historical novelty of Latin America in the twenty-first century is that actors from across the political spectrum both play by and bend the basic rules of democracy.

Counter to these interpretations, contemporary Latin America has durable poor quality democracies and that the current political equilibrium has a broad social and political underpinning. Latin America has broken with the pattern of conflicts, inaugurated with the transition to mass politics in the 1920s and 1930s, that led to the rise of short-lived democracies. Like their European counterparts, Latin American democracies have proven their durability. And yet, their poor-quality still marks a stark contrast with Europe.

About the Author

Gerardo Munck is professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California (USC). His most recent books are: Latin American Politics and Society: A Comparative and Historical Analysis (with Juan Pablo Luna); Critical Junctures and Historical Legacies: Insights and Methods for Comparative Social Science (co-editor with David Collier); and A Middle-Quality Institutional Trap: Democracy and State Capacity in Latin America (with Sebastián L. Mazzuca).

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