By June Carolyn Erlick
Ellen Schneider's description of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in her provocative article on Nicaraguan democracy sent me scurrying to my oversized scrapbooks of newspaper articles. I wanted to show her that rather than being perceived as a caudillo—the traditional Latin American populist strongman—Ortega had been seen as the moderate representative of the terceristas, a softspoken poet-guerrilla known for his jailhouse poem, "I Never Saw Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion."
Leafing through the yellowed clippings, I stumbled across one of my articles published in the Boston Globe on Christmas Day, 1978, from Caracas, Venezuela. "Venezuela is one of only two South American countries which presently have free, civilian elections. The other is neighboring Colombia."
How much more has changed, I thought, besides miniskirts and Daniel Ortega's image. Of course, even then, back in 1978, we reporters knew democracy went beyond free, civilian elections. Democracy—at the very minimum—was the right to vote, the right to express one's opinions, and the right not to die or disappear for one's political—or imagined—political stance.
Yet we knew that Colombia and Venezuela were ruled by alternating political parties of the elite and, as I pointed out in that long ago article, that despite the oil boom, 75 percent of Venezuelans suffered from some degree of malnutrition. Latin America now has elected governments in nearly every country. Despite ever-present authoritarian temptations and continued social inequity, democratic institutions are being created and consolidated.
In these pages, you will find many definitions of democracy and many perspectives on its successes, failures, and challenges in Latin America. Perhaps what all the authors have in common is the vision that democracy is a process, not an election. As author Linda Jo Stern so eloquently states, "Democracy is like friendship—it must be nurtured, accountable and strong."