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  • Public Opinion in New DemocraciesLatin America’s Smiling Mask
  • Marta Lagos (bio)

In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the way in which democracy has become rooted in Latin America, one must consider not only the formal and institutional bases of politics, but also the nonrational or prerational cultural traits that form such an important part of the region’s soul. During the last half-century in particular, writers from Mexico’s Octavio Paz and Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez to Argentina’s Julio Cortázar and Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa have sought to describe this soul. Their works offer insights into the deeper attitudes toward life and society that lie beneath political beliefs and behavior. In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Paz described the Mexican soul and in the process touched on problems that affect the whole region and underlie the process of democratic consolidation in Latin America today:

The North Americans are credulous and we are believers; they love fairy tales and detective stories and we love myths and legends. The Mexican tells lies because he delights in fantasy, or because he is desperate, or because he wants to rise above the sordid facts of his life; the North American does not tell lies, but he substitutes social truth for the real truth, which is always disagreeable. We get drunk in order to confess; they get drunk in order to forget. They are optimists and we are nihilists. . . . We are suspicious and they are trusting. We are sorrowful and sarcastic and they are happy and full of jokes. North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate. They are activists and we are quietists; we enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions. . . .

What is the origin of such contradictory attitudes? It seems to me that North Americans consider the world to be something that can be perfected, and that we consider it to be something that can be redeemed. 1

[End Page 125] Given the history of the region, with its legacy of Spanish (as well as Portuguese) colonialism followed by the rule of large landowners and the prevalence of poverty and authoritarianism, it is not surprising to recognize the origin of the common tendencies that Latin Americans have developed as a consequence: to remain silent regarding their true feelings and intentions, and to emphasize appearances. Silence and appearance—the twin progeny of distrust—have historically been crucial tools for survival. The habits of keeping silent and maintaining appearances underlie the attitudes, opinions, and behaviors that are at the center of the Latin American soul. Paz describes this attitude as a “smiling mask.” 2

The data presented below will show that deeply rooted sociocultural traits remain highly relevant to democracy in Latin America. The region has many a democracy that belies social-science generalizations about the prerequisites necessary for that form of government. One could say that in some cases, democracy itself is a kind of smiling mask that has learned to survive through silence about lingering authoritarian institutions and practices (as in Chile), or through the appearance of a party system with effectively one party, as in Mexico.

Latin American democracies have had to come to grips with myriad institutional and political problems: the organization of parties, the recruitment of younger generations into key elites, the fostering of stable, nonpatrimonialist public administration, and the like. Brazil and Venezuela have weathered corruption scandals serious enough to have brought down presidents. More recently, Ecuador has worked its way through a constitutional crisis in which Congress deposed a populist president, Abdalá Bucaram, who was leading the country into deep political and economic turmoil.

More than a few Latin American democracies have had to grapple with grave economic problems left behind by outgoing military regimes. Acting against a background of excessive public spending, inefficient systems of taxation, and cumbersome state structures, many newly democratizing or redemocratizing countries have turned to economic reform, privatizing state-run companies and making the government more of a regulator than an owner. Along with privatization, Latin American democracies have embraced market liberalization and the elimination of commercial barriers in their quest to achieve higher economic growth and lower inflation.


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pp. 125-138
Launched on MUSE
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