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  • Latin America’s Four Political Models
  • Kurt Weyland (bio)

The democratic wave that has swept Latin America since the mid-1970s poses some important questions: How have thinkers in the region adapted the principles of democracy to the specific problems and needs of their underdeveloped continent? What models of democracy have Latin American theorists developed? What social and political forces have embraced these different models and tried to institute them? And finally, what models have prevailed in the major countries that have recently undergone a transition to democracy?

How these questions are answered will determine both the quality and the long-term prospects of Latin America’s new democracies. Drawing on the work of Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl, this essay analyzes the special challenges that democracies in the region are currently facing, and then elaborates a classification of models of democracy, each of which copes with these challenges in a distinct way. The opportunities and constraints captured in this classification not only inform debates among democratic theorists, but also condition the institutions and practices that actually prevail in different countries.

These important topics have not yet received the scholarly attention they deserve. While political science has analyzed in great depth the variants of democracy prevailing in the First World, most studies of the recent democratic transitions in Latin America have applied a minimalist notion of democracy. 1 Such a definition, which focuses only on the basic distinction between authoritarian and democratic rule, was appropriate for analyses of regime change. But now, after the basic rules of democracy have been established, the question of the kind and quality of democracy becomes important. Analysts need to look beyond the [End Page 125] minimal distinction between authoritarian and democratic rule to ask which types of democracy are being considered and instituted in Latin America.

Have intellectuals and political actors in the region designed their own variants of democracy by adapting notions developed in the First World to meet the needs of underdeveloped countries? Two special challenges facing democracy in Latin America could prompt such modifications. The first is posed by the region’s deep social inequalities and widespread poverty, while the second comes from the inordinate influence wielded by entrenched “powers-that-be,” especially private business interests and the military.

Two Challenges to Democracy

In Latin America, the level of income inequality and the extent of exclusion from the mainstream of development (“marginality”) have been significantly higher than in the First World in comparable time periods. As a result, demands for social reform tend to arise immediately with the installation of democracy, especially because the prosperity of the First World has raised expectations among the less well-off (the “popular sectors”). Poverty and inequality thus pose more urgent problems for democratic stability. The immediate extension of social protection may also be necessary for ensuring full citizenship. Without social guarantees, many of the poor are virtually forced into clientelist submission to elites, who provide minimal benefits in return for obedience. The quality of democracy and indeed its very survival in the long run may require that poverty be reduced and popular hopes for social improvements be satisfied.

What political mechanisms can bring about such equity-enhancing change? The most important agents—parties, interest associations, social movements, and political leaders—all face a crucial trade-off: The broader the popular support for any given reform effort, the lower its organizational strength tends to be. While large numbers of poor people exist in the informal sector, many of them—both in urban and rural areas—are difficult to organize. Compared to these marginals, formal- sector workers have higher organizational capacity, but are often much fewer in number and “relatively privileged.” 2 Theorists of reform must therefore choose among three different segments of the less well-to-do strata when seeking support for equity-enhancing efforts: formal-sector workers, who join trade unions; activists among the poor in the informal sector, who participate in social movements; and the great mass of the poor, who remain unorganized.

Given the trade-off between the breadth and the organizational strength of support for social change, friends of democracy in Latin America differ among themselves on the best strategy for...

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pp. 125-139
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