Latin America is composed of those twenty-one republics of the New World formed from the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Often former British, French, and Dutch colonies in or bordering on the Caribbean are included in the definition, although by culture and historical experience they are distinct. Because the scale of the nations ranges from continental-scale Brazil, with more than 190 million people, down to Panama, with about three million, generalizing about politics in the region proves challenging. However, the twenty-one nations speaking Spanish and Portuguese share the historical record of Iberian rule, including the culture the colonizers and colonized forged together during nearly three centuries of colonial rule; a common effort to achieve late economic development; and two centuries’ experience of the economic, political, and now cultural influence of the United States. Political ideas and practices initiated in one or more countries of the region often diffuse across the continent due to these shared characteristics and the common familiarity with the Spanish language.
As of 2008, all of the Latin American states except Cuba had adopted electoral democracy. However, only Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela can boast a half century of democratic rule, and Colombia’s record of civil war and Venezuela’s constitutional discontinuity leaves only Costa Rica with an unambiguous record of more than fifty years of democracy. Independence came to Latin America as the result of the disruptions in colonial rule caused by the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815). Although conservatives attempted to preserve most features of the colonial political regime—an established church, an inward-oriented economy based on the hacienda (a largely self-sufficient landed estate), and a highly stratified society based in part on racial distinctions—liberals in favor of free trade and universalistic norms won out after intense postindependence struggles. Nineteenth-century liberalism tended to be restricted to property holders and educated members of Latin American societies, however. Hence, most Latin American nations began the twentieth century governed by limited, oligarchical democracies, most of which fell to military coups in the 1930s. Democracy returned to the region in a populist, mass-based form after the Second World War (1939–1945), but it again succumbed to military rule in the 1960s and early 1970s before resurfacing in the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars such as Karen Remmer and Kurt Weyland consider today’s democratic regimes more stable but less inclusive and responsive than the democracies of the postwar era.
Contending Modes of Explaining Latin American Politics
Social scientists seeking to explain the rise and fall of democracy in the region and the public policy choices made by Latin American governments have typically approached the topic from four different approaches. A long-popular mode of explanation emphasizes Latin America’s Iberian heritage, including the centralist traditions of its colonial administrations and the domination of the intellectual sphere by the anti-Reformation Catholic Church. Frequently, those writing about Latin America from a culturalist perspective, such as Howard Wiarda and Claudio Véliz, draw sharp contrasts between North America, with its British and Lockean liberal heritage that spawned democracy and freewheeling capitalist development in the United States, and Latin America’s tendency toward authoritarianism, patrimonialism, and corporatism in the political sphere, along with a rigid, hierarchical class system and a preference for mercantilist policies that have hindered economic development. Culturalists typically draw pessimistic conclusions about the prospects for democracy’s quality and longevity or for rapid economic development in Latin America, or they conclude that inequality and undemocratic practices reflect cultural preferences. Political scientists studying Latin America in the 1950s (e.g., William Stokes and Merle Kling) argued that political violence in the region was rooted in its political culture. More recently, Lawrence Harrison attributed Latin America’s difficulties in achieving democratization, economic development, and social justice to its Hispanic political tradition.
North American scholars uncomfortable with culturalist modes of explanation adopted modernization theory’s more optimistic perspective in the 1960s and 1970s. Modernizationists such as Martin Needler saw in Latin America’s rising middle classes and the region’s more educated youth the basis for an emerging commitment to democracy and the adoption of the North American economic model. Events in the region proved unsupportive of modernization theory’s optimistic predictions, however, and Guillermo O’Donnell’s critique, the theory of bureaucratic authoritarianism, drew heavily on dependency theory to propose that in the context of late industrialization, economic modernization could be inhospitable to democracy. Dependency theory, the third approach, although influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin, grew out of the reflections of Latin American intellectuals on the constraints posed to democratic politics and economic development given the region’s place in the global capitalist economy. Dependency writers put emphasis on class conflict as the driving force in Latin American politics, including the transnational character of ruling class interests and the role of the United States in perpetuating the dominance of economic elites. For these theorists, understanding the historical roots of contemporary underdevelopment and nondemocratic practices is central.
Since the early 1990s, scholars studying Latin American politics have sought to draw on the insights of the new institutionalism in political science to explore electoral politics and party system development, executive-legislative relations, and federalism and decentralization in the region. Although recognizing and sometimes lamenting the prevalence of presidential regimes in Latin America, these scholars have tended to draw out the differences among the cases in the region as much as their similarities in contrast to the rest of the world. Scott Mainwaring and Matthew Shugart, for instance, argue that the strength of presidents rests on both specific constitutional authority and partisan powers, and hence that presidents vary considerably in their capacities across Latin America. Institutionalist scholars have created a rich body of empirical research on the operation of Latin American political systems.
Cycles of Democracy and Authoritarianism
Many scholars have observed the cycles of democracy and dictatorship noted in this article’s introduction. Modernization and dependency thinkers both have sought to connect Latin America’s political evolution to phases in its economic development. In this approach, the mercantilism that characterized the Spanish empire and that conservatives sought to reconstitute in the newly independent republics in the nineteenth century—with its limitations on free trade and its desire to control the economic activities of individuals—made the emergence of liberalism—with its preference for separation of church and state, for representative institutions, and for federal structures—difficult. Those favoring an outward-oriented, free-trade strategy of development prefer red democratic institutions, but with representation limited to those holding property. Oligarchical democracies emerged to accommodate this largely landholding or natural resource–extracting, export oriented elite in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, while in other countries “order-and-progress” dictatorships promoted their societies’ integration into the globalizing international economy of the late nineteenth century. Mexico’s Porfirio Díaz, nominally a liberal, led the region’s most successful order-and progress regime from 1876 to 1910, profoundly integrating the Mexican economy with that of the United States while suppressing the resistance of peasants, miners, and indigenous peoples who were marginalized in the process.
The success of the export-import economic model beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century produced an emergent urban middle class as well as a growing working class. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the oligarchs met demands for political inclusion by these rising classes by co-opting the middle class through the modest expansion of the franchise while continuing to exclude workers and peasants from the ballot by restrictions based on property, literacy, or citizenship. Even so, middle-class parties such as the radicals in Argentina and Chile gained power, threatening agrarian elites’ control of their societies. Labor mobilization brought incipient class conflict in the 1920s. Tensions caused by the difficulties of integrating these new actors into the political game in oligarchical democracies came to a head with the onset of economic crisis, during which traditional agrarian elites turned to the military to help them preserve the export-import model by excluding the rising urban middle class and the nascent working class from power. Governments in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru fell to the military at the Great Depression’s outset.
The depression and the Second World War (1939–1945) had the consequence of provoking many trade-dependent countries to adopt import-substituting industrialization (ISI), with varying degrees of success. The global prestige of democracy at the war’s end helped diffuse competitive regimes to Latin America, with most of the larger nations adopting or readopting democratic regimes. The small nations of Central America (other than Costa Rica), Haiti, and Paraguay remained ruled by despots, however. The combination of ISI and democracy created the conditions in which populist leaders could easily emerge. Populists built coalitions of the beneficiaries of industrialization—industrialists and the urban middle and working classes who would staff their firms—and led their followers against the landed elites who allegedly stood in the way of both modernization and justice for the people. Prominent populists like Argentina’s Juan and Eva Perón and Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas defined the terms of political discourse in their nations for many decades after they were forced from power by militaries who felt threatened by popular political agitation. Populist coalitions also contained the seeds of their own demise because they included both industrial employers and their employees; populist leaders found it difficult to resist turning their mass followings against industrialists once ISI had initial success. Those industrialists joined landed elites in inviting the military to end the populist experiment in the 1960s.
Unlike the military regimes that ruled in the 1930s, those that seized power in the 1960s and early 1970s settled in to rule as institutions, with the goal of ridding their nations of what they saw as feckless populist politicians and the subversives that their rhetoric encouraged. Harsh anticommunist regimes emerged in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, while in Peru a progressive military enacted preemptive land reform in an attempt to undermine the bases of rural rebellion. These regimes outlawed parties and generally sought to depoliticize their societies. They saw limitations to the ISI model, particularly in that domestic demand for consumer goods was restricted to the size of the internal market and ISI had not reduced dependency on rich nations like the United States but instead had replaced imports of consumer goods with imports of capital goods and industrial inputs. These bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes set about pursuing economic policies that would be inviting to foreign investors and permit a “deepening” of the industrial structure, including suppressing labor unions and relaxing restrictions on foreign investment. Arguably, only Brazil succeeded in building a deeper industrial structure, which owes much to the scale of its internal market compared to other countries in the region. Recognizing the limitations of its internal market, Chile promoted export diversification, although mostly of primary products.
These harsh military regimes killed or disappeared tens of thousands of their populations. In this respect these regimes were no different from the personal dictatorships of Central America and the Caribbean, where despots like the Somoza family in Nicaragua or Haiti’s Duvalier family or the militaries of El Salvador and Guatemala killed thousands of rebels and suspected insurgents. Across the continent human rights and democratic movements began to demand that the military release political prisoners or reveal what happened to those who disappeared. The most prominent example of such movements was Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Underlying the military’s decision to leave power in the 1980s was its own inability to manage the economy, but in the event a variety of circumstances brought democracy back to Latin America, including Argentina’s failure in its war with Britain over the Falklands (Malvinas) in 1982 and General Augusto Pinochet’s loss in a plebiscite about remaining in power in Chile in 1988.
Though many observers expected the new democracies that emerged in the 1980s to be fragile, they have proved more durable than earlier experiments in democracy in the region. Most Latin American militaries, discredited but for the most part not prosecuted for their human rights abuses, have preferred to stay on the sidelines. The depoliticization the military sought to achieve was accomplished to a considerable extent, so that popular political participation in the early 2000s tends to be low, in activities ranging from signing petitions to confrontational acts like blocking traffic, occupying buildings, or taking part in unauthorized demonstrations. Mexico, which has not had a military regime since the end of its revolution in 1917, became democratic by means of a protracted transition in which the opponents to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) built up the nation’s respect for electoral democracy as the opposition built its own capacities to govern. Democracy has proved more fragile in countries that avoided the bureaucratic-authoritarian phase; two examples are Colombia and Venezuela, with the former struggling with a long civil war having roots going back to the 1950s and earlier and the latter experiencing a failed military uprising whose leader, Hugo Chávez, was elected in 1998 as a populist president after his release from jail and has rewritten the constitution to allow him to remain in power until at least 2012.
Features of Latin American Politics
A key characteristic of Latin American politics has been a preference by elites for corporatist interest inter mediation. Some scholars, such as Wiarda, trace this inclination to the organic statist political philosophy inherited from early modern Spanish philosophers, such as Francisco Suárez and Francisco de Vitoria. Others, such as Alfred Stepan, emphasize a more instrumental use of corporatist theory by elites to allow political and economic leaders to better control the organizations of the peasantry and the working class. Prominent examples of corporatism in the Western Hemisphere include the sectorial organization of Mexico’s PRI, corporatist labor legislation under Vargas’s Estado Nôvo and the military regime (1964–1985) in Brazil, and the Peruvian reformist military’s effort (1968–1975) to coordinate the political participation of land reform beneficiaries.
Clientelism is another common feature of politics in the region. Political machines such as Mexico’s PRI and the Argentine Justicialist (Peronist) Party have often employed patronage targeted to individuals and small groups as carrots to attract electoral support. Within such parties, political recruitment and upward mobility have taken place via tight patron-client relations. In many contexts, rural Brazil being a prominent example, local economic elites serve as patrons to their social inferiors, often intervening with local or national authorities to secure private goods for their clients, cementing their local power in the process. Although progressive political activists recognize that clientelism can entrap their organizations in a reliance on patrons for discrete material benefits rather than an improvement of the structural relationships of power, patron-client relations prove difficult to circumvent in societies in which the state lacks the resources or the will to provide universalistic benefits. Because clientelism emphasizes the distribution of discrete benefits from the state to individual beneficiaries and indirectly contributes to the sense that politics involves the private appropriation of public resources, the perception of corruption is widespread among citizens of Latin American countries and those outsiders doing business there.
Scholars like Véliz, Wiarda, and Richard M. Morse place great emphasis on centralism as a key enduring feature of Latin American politics. Concentrated centralized power manifests itself in three ongoing struggles in the region. First, in the mid-twentieth century, urbanization, partly promoted by ISI, aggravated tensions between rural elites and the urban coalitions put together by populist leaders. In many Latin American countries, that urban-rural divide is accentuated because of the concentration of the urban population in the capital city—for example, Buenos Aires (Argentina), Caracas (Venezuela), Lima (Peru), and Santiago (Chile). Urban-based elites promoted land reform (Chile and Peru) and imposed high export taxes on agricultural products (Argentina) that prompted sectoral conflict.
Second, the proponents of centralized power have at times made formal federalism a fiction. From the time of independence, advocates of federalism and state and municipal autonomy have struggled against those favoring the centralization of state power. The military and other nondemocratic rulers, including Mexico’s PRI, have tended to erode the autonomy of state and local governments. Democratic regimes have often coincided with the reassertion of decentralized authority. Since the 1980s, the World Bank and other multilateral organizations have promoted decentralization to overcome the barriers to development posed by excessively centralized bureaucratic power. The larger countries, especially Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have had more effective federal structures than the smaller countries of the region.
Third, centralized rule has often come at the expense of indigenous peoples’ autonomy. Indians have occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of social status since the conquest by Europeans. Liberal constitutions have made little or no allowance for the special circumstances of indigenous groups. Even post-revolutionary regimes that have celebrated the indigenous heritage of their populations, such as Mexico, have tended to treat Indians no differently legally than other poor people while the reality of racism has made their conditions the worst of all social groups. The 1992 Columbian Quincentenaries’ gave focus to a hemisphere wide social movement of indigenous peoples seeking to claim constitutional rights to autonomy within their communities. Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu, recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, emerged as the most successful proponent of indigenous rights. The 1994 uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in Chiapas, Mexico, effectively promoted the cause of indigenous autonomy internationally, although the Mexican state proved unwilling to grant special status to indigenous groups. More recently, Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, rose to power partly on the basis of an appeal to ethnic solidarity among indigenous Bolivians.
While populism defined the politics of mid-twentieth century Latin America, the inclination to populist-type relations between charismatic leaders and the masses has often reasserted itself throughout the region’s postcolonial history. Salvador Allende’s socialist regime in the 1970s had distinct populist features, including the adulation of the leader and a redistributionist ideology. In the 1990s and 2000s, Argentina’s Carlos Menem, Bolivia’s Morales, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, and Venezuela’s Chávez, have developed populist-type relations between themselves and their followers. These individuals have at best paid lip service to constitutional procedures and the rights of minorities, with Chávez, Fujimori, and Morales all convening constituent assemblies to write new constitutions in which executive prerogative was increased while institutions that might protect minority interests were weakened or eliminated. Populists claim to be the voice of the people yet often refuse to accept the verdicts of democratic institutions. Prominent examples include Fujimori’s closing of the Peruvian congress in 1992 when that body refused to grant him the powers he sought to pursue the Shining Path rebels or to radically restructure the economy, and the refusal of Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador to accept his presidential electoral defeat in 2006 despite rulings against him by the nation’s independent electoral agency and its electoral tribunal.
Institutions of Governance
Latin American nations have chosen presidential forms of democracy. Serious suggestions to replace presidentialism with parliamentary regimes have been few; the most recent attempt, which came when Brazil wrote a new constitution in 1988, met defeat by old-time politicians. Because many Latin American countries have multiparty systems, often abetted by proportional representation, presidents can come to power with nothing near a majority of the popular vote, as Allende did in Chile in 1970 (36.6 percent) or Felipe Calderón in Mexico did in 2006 (36.7 percent). The Allende example encouraged many newly democratizing regimes in the hemisphere to adopt runoff elections so that a new president could claim to have taken a majority of the vote in a popular election.
Multiparty systems also lead to legislatures in which no party has a majority. While a strong coalition has allowed Chile’s center-left Concertación parties to rule as if a majority party, few parties in any of the larger Latin American countries have held majorities when one of their leaders sat in the presidency. Building coalitions to govern proves extraordinarily difficult for this reason, and frequently presidents do so on an issue-by-issue basis, with legislators requiring various types of payoffs for their support. Not surprisingly, in those countries that allow them, the presidential decree has found frequent use.
Only Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela are federal republics. In the former two countries, however, state-level actors have proven to be key veto players, with governors embarking on fiscal strategies that have undermined central government efforts at financial discipline, helping to precipitate, for example, the Argentine economic crisis in 2001 and 2002. Mexican and Venezuelan federalism has been less robust, although Mexico’s National Action Party embarked on a successful strategy in the 1990s of taking power nationally by winning governorships and ruling effectively in those states.
Weak judiciaries and the failure of legislatures to hold presidents accountable have yielded what many regard as low-quality democracies in the period since the military ceded power in the 1980s. Even where judicial review formally exists, courts without effective independence have failed to check executive power. In many countries, notably Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, narcotics traffickers have corrupted the police and the courts, often killing those law enforcement officials who refuse to be compromised. The weakness of legislature and the courts in the face of presidential power has created what Guillermo O’Donnell labels “delegative democracy,” in which presidents rule virtually unchecked during their terms of office.
Revolution and Social Movements
While the bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes of South America effectively eviscerated national urban guerrilla movements, the revolutionary tradition has proven deep-rooted in the Andes and Central America. Fidel Castro’s success in taking power via guerrilla insurrection in Cuba in 1959 has since inspired similar attempts across the hemisphere. Peru nearly succumbed to the Maoist Shining Path before Fujimori’s government arrested the movement’s leader in 1992. Colombia has fought a four-decade struggle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 1979, guerrillas toppled the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, setting an example that Salvadoran and Guatemalan revolutionaries sought to emulate. Revolutionary movements in the hemisphere often expressed ideological sympathy with socialist regimes, communist China, or the Soviet Union, and thereby incurred the enmity of the United States, which committed considerable resources to defeating rebels in Central America in the 1980s, including overturning the Nicaraguan regime.
Those eschewing violent revolution have turned to social movements to promote political change. A continent-wide indigenous rights movement has won land demarcation agreements from the Brazilian government, contributed to the downfall of two Ecuadoran presidents, and brought Morales to the presidency in Bolivia. Rebels in Mexico’s state of Chiapas have capitalized on indigenous rights themes as well as the ant globalization movement. During the economic crisis that gripped the hemisphere in the 1980s, many neighborhood-level popular movements emerged in the slums of the continent’s largest cities—Lima, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, among others—and banded together in broader social movements to demand utility services, subsidies on staple goods and public transportation, and democracy. The hemisphere’s largest social movement, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, has seized underutilized lands and settled them with thousands of landless families who then cultivate them cooperatively. Political parties and formal representative institutions often ignore social movements, but those movements have succeeded in calling attention to the deficits of contemporary Latin American democracy.
- Camp, Roderic Ai, ed. Democracy in Latin America: Patterns and Cycles. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1996.
- Castañeda, Jorge G. Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War. New York: Knopf, 1993.
- Collier, David, ed. The New Authoritarianism in Latin America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979.
- Collier, Ruth Berins, and David Collier. Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- Diamond, Larry, Jonathan Hartlyn, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds. Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999.
- Domínguez, Jorge I., and Michael Shifter, eds. Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
- Gibson, Edward L., ed. Federalism and Democracy in Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
- Hagopian, Frances, and Scott P. Mainwaring, eds. The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
- Mainwaring, Scott P., and Timothy R. Scully, eds. Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995.
- Mainwaring, Scott P., and Matthew Shugart, eds. Presidentialism and Democracy in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Needler, Martin C. Political Development in Latin America: Instability, Violence, and Evolutionary Change. New York: Random House, 1968.
- O’Donnell, Guillermo A. “Delegative Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 5 (January 1994): 55–69.
- Modernization and Bureaucratic-authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics. Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1973.
- Remmer, Karen. “New Wine or Old Bottlenecks? The Study of Latin American Democracy.” Comparative Politics 23 (July 1991): 479–495.
- Roberts, Kenneth M. Deepening Democracy? The Modern Left and Social Movements in Chile and Peru. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.
- Smith, Peter H. Democracy in Latin America: Political Change in Comparative Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Stepan, Alfred. The State and Society: Peru in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978.
- Stokes, Susan C. Mandates and Democracy: Neoliberalism by Surprise in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Teichman, Judith. The Politics of Freeing Markets in Latin America: Chile, Argentina, and Mexico. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
- Véliz, Claudio. The Centralist Tradition of Latin America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.
- Weyland, Kurt. The Politics of Market Reform in Fragile Democracies: Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.
- Wiarda, Howard J. “Toward a Framework for the Study of Political Change in the Iberic-Latin Tradition: The Corporative Model.” World Politics 25 (January 1973): 206–235.