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  • Tensions and Trade-Offs in Latin America
  • Michael Shifter (bio)

In January 1996, the Financial Times called attention to a growing anticorruption movement and a turn toward cleaner politics that it discerned in Latin America. “Democratic institutions,” its editorial noted, “are sputtering into life.” 1 The region’s press organs and civil societies were increasingly asserting their independence, holding politicians accountable as never before.

Late in the same year, The Economist pointed to a “malaise” in Latin America. The British weekly detected signs of a “backlash” against market reforms, and cited evidence of growing cynicism and discontent over the region’s deteriorating social and institutional fabric. The magazine’s recommended response: “Make both governments and markets more efficient.” 2

These differing views of the region’s fundamental challenges underline a key question that Latin American governments must face. Should they tackle their problems by emphasizing deeper democratization, or should they stress the pursuit of greater efficiency? Of course, these may sometimes amount to the same thing, so that pursuing one means pursuing the other. Making public institutions more democratic, for instance, may also make them more efficient. Yet this is not necessarily the case. In 1992, Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori’s urgent concern with attaining greater efficiency (which he understood to require the concentration of power in the executive, the closing of Congress, and marginalization of political parties) did not coincide with deeper democratization. Conversely, the Brazilian government has [End Page 114] sacrificed a certain amount of efficiency over the last several years in order to cultivate consensus-building and the advancement of democratic politics. In 1997, it is still unclear what will be the long-term consequences of the different approaches adopted in Peru and Brazil, respectively.

The ideal, of course, would be to strive for Latin American governments that are both highly democratic and highly efficient. A third desirable characteristic is stability. In particular, as The Economist implied, there is a relationship between performance and stability. If Latin American governments keep failing to address the problems that concern their citizens the most, their long-term viability may be jeopardized.

Improving the quality of democracy may not necessarily enhance efficiency and help deliver the kinds of benefits that citizens demand. It may not ensure stability, either—at least in the near term. Yet the case for deepening and upgrading Latin American democracies is compelling. For all of the disappointments that it held, the recently completed phase of transitions from authoritarianism to democracy showed that important values are served by the combination of a well-framed constitution and periodic elections. Liberty, justice, equity, representation, and participation, for example, will all tend to increase under such a regimen, preparing the ground for enduring democratic rule.

To better comprehend the tensions, trade-offs, and ambiguities involved in the pursuit of democracy in Latin America, it is useful to address three separate, but related, questions: How democratic is Latin America? How effectively are the region’s governments performing? And how stable are they?

How Democratic Is the Region?

On 24 March 1996, Argentines marked the twentieth anniversary of the Western Hemisphere’s last full-blown, successful military coup against an elected, civilian government (the case of Haiti excepted). The government of generals and admirals that brought repression to Argentina collapsed after losing a war against the British in 1982. For a region with a tradition of military takeovers and a reputation for political instability, the last two, virtually coup-free, decades are worth contemplating—and celebrating.

Skeptics, of course, could counter by citing the April 1992 autogolpe (“self-coup”) in Peru; unsuccessful coup attempts in Argentina, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Paraguay; and Ecuador’s constitutionally dubious “congressional coup” of February 1997, in which the military served as final arbiter. They could also underscore the shakiness of some constitutional regimes, or point to the excessive political prerogatives [End Page 115] enjoyed by military establishments even in a highly stable democracy such as Chile.

Nonetheless, the significance of 20 years without a coup is more than just symbolic. There is now a well-established norm of civilian, constitutional government in the hemisphere, buttressed by a more vigilant regional and international community. With some exceptions (notably Cuba...

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