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  • Democracy in the Americas
  • Patricio Aylwin (bio)

I believe that our hemisphere has a democratic vocation. Virtually every nation in the Americas has identified with democratic ideals since its establishment as an independent state. Our nations uphold the essential equality of all human beings, demand respect for human dignity, and endorse the sovereign right of all peoples to govern themselves. The independence struggle that each of our countries has waged has been a struggle for democracy. Nevertheless, history teaches us that, solemn declarations notwithstanding, democratic values have often been ignored or abused in many of our nations. We might describe the political history of our countries as the struggle to achieve, restore, and perfect democracy.

The agreements and declarations adopted at practically every meeting and conference of our national leaders testify to the ongoing nature of this struggle. It is enough to recall, for instance, the Santiago Accord on Democracy, adopted by the OAS General Assembly in June 1991; the Declaration of Principles and Action Plan set forth at the Summit of the Americas in 1994; and the Washington Protocol of 1997. At the top of the agenda for next month’s Hemispheric Summit is the preservation and strengthening of democracy and human rights.

Democracy is certainly alive and well today throughout our hemisphere. The governments of every nation in the Western Hemisphere save one are chosen at least formally through democratic elections. Although these elections are not always entirely transparent, [End Page 3] they are free, regular, and respectful of the rule of law. Governmental power is divided among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and human rights are substantially—if not perfectly—upheld. This is certainly cause for satisfaction.

The main question today concerns the future of our democracies. What are the strengths and the shortcomings of democracy in our countries today?

Although it is clear that democracy operates more or less imperfectly, it is also clear that there can be no time more propitious for democratic consolidation than the present. This is true for several reasons.

The first has to do with the global political context in which we find ourselves today. Our age is marked by the collapse of communist totalitarianism, the end of the Cold War, and the adoption of democratic forms of government in many nations, including those of the former communist world.

The second factor is the resulting collapse of the doctrine of national security, which since the 1950s encouraged authoritarian intervention by the armed forces in the public life of numerous Latin American countries. Nowadays, such interventions are no longer a latent danger.

The third factor is the culture of liberty and respect for human rights that tend to prevail throughout the world. The fourth is economic prosperity, which all the nations in our hemisphere are experiencing to a greater or lesser degree. All four of these factors are cause for relative satisfaction and confidence in the health of our democratic systems.

Democracy’s Shortcomings

Yet the fact that democracy is ascendant around the world today does not in itself ensure the stability, consolidation, or perfection of our democratic systems. In many countries, and especially in Latin America, democracy suffers from serious weaknesses and faces troubling threats.

These weaknesses or dangers fall into three categories that I shall term institutional, cultural, and structural. At the institutional level, it is clear that the formal juridical institutions of our democracies are imperfect. The rule of law does not prevail everywhere in its totality, and many countries lack balance among the branches of government. The presidency, for instance, often enjoys excessive power while the legislature remains correspondingly weak. Our electoral systems do not always ensure either the best or the most transparent representation, and the administration of justice leaves much to be desired. All of these observations involve the institutional sphere.

Because these institutional weaknesses are particularly obvious and worrisome, they tend to receive the most attention. Numerous [End Page 4] commissions are set up to study them. In practically every country in the Western Hemisphere, projects and studies have been launched to improve such things as the administration of justice. I believe, however, that cultural shortcomings are cause for even greater concern. To what...