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  • Reviving Local Government
  • Eliza J. Willis (bio)
Local Government in Latin America. By R. Andrew Nickson. Lynne Rienner, 1995. 316 pp.

This book is an admirable contribution to the study of local government in Latin America, a subject that has been mostly neglected in writing on the consolidation of democracy. Recent books by leading scholars of Latin American politics contain no extended discussions of local or municipal government or intergovernmental relations. Yet reviving local government may prove as critical to institutionalizing democracy as building political parties, empowering legislatures, strengthening courts, or extending civilian control over the military. National governments throughout the region have presented decentralization and the reform of local government as a significant break with the past and a major step toward establishing more democratic societies. R. Andrew Nickson’s rich description of the current state of municipal government provides valuable insights into how far most Latin American countries have come toward achieving these goals.

Although some historians have celebrated the democratic legacy of local administration through town meetings (cabildos abiertos) during the colonial period, Latin America has no tradition of strong local government. Nickson shows that personalism, elitism, corruption, and a centralist tradition were the true inheritances of colonial rule. After centuries of centralization local government became “simply the plaything” of central authorities and powerful local economic elites. Even in the region’s four federal states (Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and [End Page 173] Venezuela), local governments had no exclusive areas of competence. Thus the familiar political-science distinction between federal and unitary forms of government had little meaning in practice. When centralization peaked in the 1970s, most blamed it on the prevalence of military rule. Yet elected governments in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela also showed the same centralizing tendencies, denying their citizens the basic right to elect mayors.

Since the 1980s, however, there have been signs of a significant revival of local government. Municipal governments now account for a growing share of total public expenditures. They enjoy new freedom in assessing and collecting local taxes. They receive an increasing share of total public revenues, and provide more basic services. In some cases, they have become the principal locus of development planning. The significance of local government looms even larger when one considers that by the year 2000, over 75 percent of all Latin Americans will live in cities of more than 20,000 inhabitants. The election of mayors, once a rarity, had become the norm throughout the region by 1994.

Despite the obvious importance of these changes, we have few studies of the current operation of local government. Nickson’s principal aim is to “fill the information gap on Latin American local government in the English-speaking world” (p. 3). The book’s first part provides a succinct yet comprehensive overview of features common to local governments throughout the region. In separate chapters Nickson examines their history, legal status, structure, functional responsibilities, finances, electoral systems, and internal organization. He also assesses the extent of citizen participation and the nature of intermunicipal relations. These chapters offer the best introduction to the core issues and key debates about local government in Latin America available in any language.

The second part of the book describes local government in 18 countries, including Brazil and all of Spanish-speaking America (except Cuba). Nickson organizes these country profiles according to the subject areas in the book’s first part, thereby facilitating comparisons across different countries.

Nickson is generally upbeat about the prospects for establishing more accountable and democratic governments at the local level. First, the prior orthodoxy—that the central state is exclusively responsible for the provision of services, collection of revenue, and development planning—has been firmly rejected. Though largely overlooked by North American scholars, the decentralization of service provision has been as much a part of state reform as the privatization of state-owned corporations. Second, Nickson credits the “new social movements” and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) of the 1980s with reviving municipal sentiment and promoting direct citizen participation in local government. Third, newly established intermunicipal associations have become a vigorous lobbying force defending the interests of local [End Page 174] governments in many Latin American countries. Finally, several international organizations are...

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pp. 173-177
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