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The Fragile Democratic Consolidation in Latin America

By Miguel Angel Centeno


In 2006, democracy in latin america faces a paradoxical future. On the one hand, perhaps never in the continent’s history has democracy seemed so strong. For all intents and purposes, democracy as a political system is uncontested. In all countries, with the significant exclusion of Cuba, some process of alteration of power through electoral mechanisms has taken place. Many countries have enjoyed several cycles of elections. With the exceptions of Venezuela, Ecuador, and pre-Evo Bolivia, no serious opposition movement questions the electoral legitimacy of the ruling democratic government. Nowhere on the continent do we see a significant military threat. Voters and parties are playing by the system, losers are accepting defeat, and winners can feel reasonably confident that they will finish their terms.

On the other hand, democracy may also seem diminished. According to the latest Latinobarómetro report, the majority of voters feel dissatisfied with democracy (the exceptions are Chile, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this dissatisfaction is that it is not simply a reflection of economic or ideological discontent, but possibly a rejection of electoral democracy itself. The same survey showed that the majority of respondents in almost all of the countries agree that the market economy is the best path towards development. Even strong performance does not seem to convince people that democracy has contributed to this success. In Peru, for example, the last four years have witnessed relative domestic peace and annual growth above 5 percent. President Toledo should even be enjoying the continuing positive reflection of comparison to Fujimori, but 80 percent of Peruvians say that they are at least moderately unhappy with democracy, and fewer than one in 10 approve of their president. And it is not only domestic actors who are dissatisfied. Washington grumbles rather loudly about a “return to the left” in Latin America, while the global opinion media seem to be counting the days when our southern neighbor will return to its old ways.

And yet, the very same people who claim to have so little faith in the system continue to do the work that their democracies need. Outside of Central America, over 75 percent (and often higher) of eligible voters go to the polls. The results of these elections defy all historical prejudices and inspire admiration and hope: A woman was elected in Chile, an Indian in Bolivia, and a worker in Brazil. Democratic practices also seem to be unmasking those uncommitted to them: Roberto Madrazo may lose his position as the leader of the PRI, while “Chiche” Duhalde cannot win in Buenos Aires and Alan García’s and Ollanta Humala’s best days may be behind them.

Rather than inspiring confidence, however, Latin American democracy seems to elicit yawns. Few expect that elections will bring significant reforms. Claiming a commitment to cleanse corruption only makes cynics wonder about secret accounts and payoffs. The odyssey of Alejandro Toledo and Vicente Fox, from international cover boys to national jokes, is particularly telling.

Latin American democracy appears to resemble a classic bad marriage: It has lasted decades, has little chance of coming apart, and yet both partners are miserable. Like a bad marriage, Latin American democracy seems capable of maintaining a good front; the couple may even not part until death. But at the same time, neighbors and friends cringe at the overheard fights and catty asides. The only thing that seems to keep the unhappy couple together is the absence of alternatives: a leer from the pool boy or an invitation from the next-door divorcé could tear the family apart. In contemporary Latin America, the military has no desire to once again be blamed for a mess, labor is emasculated, and the elite is too busy counting money to bother wanting to change the system. But how long will these conditions last?

The problem is that what ails Latin America has little to do with democratic voting, and there is little that governments (of whatever stripe) can do about it. Democracy has brought about significant changes. Many would argue that democratic controls can prevent the kind of autocratic economic mismanagement of a Menem or a Salinas. Most importantly, the climate of fear in which the continent existed for many years has dissipated. (But, it has not disappeared: leftist intellectuals may be safe in the cities, but land reform campaigners in the countryside are not.) However, it is important to note the ways in which democracy has not significantly changed these countries. Latin America’s consolidation still faces four critical challenges, which if not met, represent a permanent threat to that continent’s consolidation. These are inequality, domestic economic leadership, state capacity, and international dependence.


It has long been known that Latin America is one of the most economically unequal regions on earth. Combined with the high levels of poverty afflicting the continent (40 percent poverty rates according to the World Bank, and higher in some countries), this means that huge numbers of people live in misery, while next door and in full view, extremely wealthy people enjoy a plutocracy. Theorists going back to Aristotle have noted that such conditions make for unstable democracies leading to oscillations between mob rule and oligarchic tyranny. While some of the democratic transitions have been accompanied by declines in levels of poverty (Chile), many of the most progressive regimes have been stymied in addressing problems such as land reform (Brazil). Other than in Venezuela under Chávez, there have been no consistent, much less successful, attempts at re-distribution. During the euphoria of the 1980s many seasoned observers warned that democracy would not necessarily lead to more just societies, and just as predicted, a palpable sense of frustration dogs the newly democratic regimes as large parts of the population see little direct benefit from their electoral power.

Nor has democracy witnessed a dramatic change in the behavior of economic elites. While in both Europe and East Asia the alliance between democracy and the bourgeoisie supported miraculous economic booms, in Latin America, democracies have not effected these kinds of changes. Saving rates remain low (despite the asymmetric distribution of wealth), taxation is something to be avoided, and there persists a general orientation towards the “North” little changed from the 19th century. No democratic transition has witnessed a resurgence of nationalist commitment or entrepreneurial energy (again, Chile may be an exception). The one great economic success of the neoliberal Washington Consensus has been the defeat of inflation, which has been a significant relief to the middle class and pockets of labor, but of arguably less importance to the bottom half of the population outside of the cash nexus.

The continuing rise of the number of people who are still dependent on the informal economy also indicates yet another challenge facing the transition democracies. Despite the various attempts at authoritarianism, no state with the exception of Chile began a new democracy with an efficient bureaucratic apparatus in hand. The result of this is that no matter its intentions, there is often nothing the state can do for anyone. First and perhaps most importantly, the state is not very good at getting money from its people. Those mechanisms that work best (like the VAT) are regressive by definition. What little money does come in, leaks through myriad holes in the pipeline. Corruption remains a problem and few democratically-elected presidents have left office without having raised eyebrows concerning their patrimony. Spectacular cases such as Collor de Mello set an unfortunate example that has too often been followed. The general disregard for legislators (consistently judged less satisfactory than executives in Latin American surveys) partly stems from the perception that they are nothing but avaricious and inefficient hacks. Delivery of services has not been enhanced by democracy, and what improvements do occur are often associated more with a charismatic leader (Menem, Chávez, López Obrador as mayor of Mexico City) than with a regime type.

Perhaps the most damaging challenge to democratic regimes has been the continuing crime wave in many of the large cities of the continent. No social ill is more likely to be blamed on democracy than public disorder. What is particularly devastating for the consolidation of democracy is that the poor are the most likely victims. One may not have been surprised by traditional elites’ disdain for a democratic order, but it is the poor that are most frustrated by their inability to live violence-free lives. Nor have democracies solved the classic 19th century liberal dilemma of civil rights. The rule of law remains largely hypothetical in many countries, which further erodes confidence in the government. Finally, measures that may be needed in order to establish public order may also conflict with the democratic ethos supposedly in command. Consider, for example, the fine line walked by Colombia’s President Uribe, who is charged with reestablishing the monopoly over violence while observing legal protocols.

The greatest underlying challenge for democracies is that the question of who commands the state is often irrelevant given the peripheral position of Latin America in the world system. Global marginality affects citizens in several ways. First, as many have commented, the last few years of economic growth have had more to do with the rise of commodity prices than with significant economic reform. There is relatively little that national governments, democratic or not, can do to affect the price of copper, soy beans, or oil. The budget deficits caused by the lack of taxable revenue, the shortage of domestic capital, and the fluctuating trade deficits, all make the Latin American democracies dependent on the continuing kindness of strangers in the global market. Leaders have to be careful not to upset perceptions of sober responsibility and often face constricted policy choices as a result. Most importantly, the relative value of citizenship in these countries has diminished as the importance of the roles played by emigration and resulting remittances have increased. For many Mexican citizens, for example, the most important thing the state can do is to help them cross the border and to survive in the United States. Yet even someone with the obvious advantages of Vicente Fox, who should be very attractive to the United States, has managed only a little better than his undemocratic predecessors. Is it any surprise that so few Mexicans in the U.S. have bothered to register for the 2006 presidential elections? For many Latin Americans, it is the views of North American or European legislators that really matter. The fortunes of pro- or anti-immigrant groups in the destination countries may be of greater relevance than who sits in the home Congress.


The discussion concerning the Latin American “shift to the left” has partly obscured important divisions. It is true that aside from Uribe and Fox (and perhaps Lourdes Flores in Peru), the most recent electoral victories have gone to the left of the spectrum. It is important to remember, however, how many times in the last two decades “leftist” lions have left office reformist or even conservative lambs. The colors on the campaign posters seem to make less difference in Latin America than in other parts of the world.

But can we really speak of a left whose tent is as big as to include Bachelet and Chávez? It appears we can speak of two different democratic responses. The first is better called “populist” than leftist. These governments appear less interested in assuring national control over the means of production than in channeling revenues for social services. They are not so allied with the traditional working class as with the millions in shantytowns without employment, and they seem less interested in creating electoral party machines than in either permanent revolutions or the popularity of a charismatic leader. Chávez’s Venezuela and Kirchner’s Argentina are obvious examples. The case of Evo Morales will be particularly interesting given the indigenous and rural claims of his mandate. For these governments, the challenges facing Latin American democracies may require the circumcision of democratic niceties and norms. Certainly in the case of Chávez there is little doubt which he would choose if presented with the classic dilemma of democracy or social justice.

The second wing of the left we can call “reformer,” and is represented by Lula in Brazil and Bachelet in Chile. The most obvious difference between reformers and the populists comes in political discourse. The reformers tend not to name their enemies, and to make conciliatory gestures. Relations with both global and domestic capital are much friendlier and greater attention is paid to the development of electoral institutions. In these cases, the preservation of democratic channels supersedes temptations to reform social and economic orders.

Which strategy better assures the future of democracy? Populism appears to produce more immediate social results (but again, one needs to wonder if chavismo would even exist without $65 per oil barrel or how long Kirchner can keep up subsidies). Reformism frustrates popular aspirations, but arguably runs less of a risk of an authoritarian backlash, and promotes the institutionalization of practices that may produce results in the long run. The case to watch will be that of López Obrador. If he wins in Mexico, there will be pressure to repair the national social safety net. But so much of Mexico’s economy now depends on the good will of the United States, that he will be at least tempted by a more pragmatic approach.

In the end, no one can have the utopian expectations of democratic rule that we saw in the “people power” 1980s. Much as in the Philippines, democracy in Latin America has not resolved the historical dilemmas that haunt the continent. Until these historical problems are addressed properly and without rhetoric, democratic consolidation will remain elusive. Barring that, and looking at the continent realistically, perhaps the best thing that could happen is to lower expectations. It is indeed true that votes in and of themselves do not feed the hungry, heal the sick, or educate the ignorant. It may be a step forward for Latin America’s democracies when they are no longer expected to do so.

Miguel Angel Centeno is Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University. He is the Director of the Princeton Institute of Regional and International Studies. He is currently working on two books: Mapping Globalization and The Victory of the Market and The Failure of Liberalism in Latin America.

See also: Democracy, Elections