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Journal of Democracy 15.4 (2004) 5-19

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Latin American Presidencies Interrupted


Almost 25 years have passed since Latin America began what has turned out to be the fullest and most enduring experience it has ever had with constitutional democracy. While dictatorships were the norm in the 1960s and 1970s—only Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela avoided authoritarian rule during those decades—today an elected government rules in every Latin American country except Cuba and Haiti. As David Scott Palmer notes, between 1930 and 1980, the 37 countries that make up Latin America underwent 277 changes of government, 104 of which (or 37.5 percent) took place via military coup. From 1980 to 1990, by contrast, only 7 of the 37 changes of government in the region took place through military interventions, just two of which can be fairly described as clearly antidemocratic in intent. The overall number of coups was the lowest for any single decade in Latin American history since independence in the early nineteenth century.1

The coups of the 1980s were confined to just four countries: Bolivia, Haiti, Guatemala, and Paraguay. Since 1990, only Haiti and Peru have seen elected constitutional governments successfully replaced by force. In 1989, Argentines witnessed their country's first transfer of power from one civilian chief executive to another in more than sixty years. In 2000, Mexico marked its emergence as a multiparty democracy after more than seven decades of one-party rule. Most Latin states have never had so many successive elected governments come to power without authoritarian reversals.2

Nonetheless, the euphoria that accompanied democracy's rise has begun to wane. Opinion polls show that Latin Americans still broadly [End Page 5] support democracy and prefer it to dictatorship by a better than four-to-one margin. Yet the same surveys reveal a growing dissatisfaction with democracy and a readiness to question the benefits and the performance of democratic governments.3

Particularly troubling is a continuing pattern of instability that affects governance at the highest levels. In country after country, presidents have seen their job-approval ratings plummet while those of legislators and party leaders have tumbled even more steeply. Many a president has left office trailing dashed hopes and enfeebled institutions, but at least has left according to schedule. Fourteen presidents, however, have not. This group has suffered the indignity of early removal through impeachment or forced resignation, sometimes under circumstances of instability that have threatened constitutional democracy itself. A fifteenth chief executive interrupted the constitutional order by closing the legislature.

In the past, militaries were at the heart of the problem. Ambition-driven generals might topple an elected president or bar the implementation of policies that the soldiers and their allies did not like. New figures and forces might gain admission to the military-run "game" of politics if they took care not to advocate anything that sounded too radical or populist. Officers would arbitrate among factions and decide when to call for new elections to restore civilian rule, and coups in turn always enjoyed the complicity of civilian elites.4 After Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba and set up a revolutionary-communist regime on the island in 1959, polarization intensified throughout the region and military juntas increasingly began to leave behind political refereeing in favor of full-blown "bureaucratic-authoritarian" dictatorship.5

Latin American democracy no longer faces threats from U.S.-supported local elites that fear any reform movement as a possible Soviet front. Military governments failed overwhelmingly to cope with the economic and social crises of the 1970s and 1980s. Toward the end of that period, U.S. foreign policy reacted to the winding-down of the Cold War by shifting from support for authoritarian regimes as necessary if distasteful bulwarks against communism to recognition that authoritarianism was thwarting the consolidation of legitimate governments. The United States joined other Western Hemispheric nations in creating mechanisms to stop any forcible disruptions of constitutional democracy.6 In what has been a sea change since the Cold War, Latin American militaries no longer mix openly in politics.



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