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  • Latin America’s Imperiled ProgressThe Surprising Resilience of Elected Governments
  • Scott Mainwaring* (bio)

This essay strikes a somewhat different balance from most of what has been written on democracy in Latin America in the past 20 years. To put it simply, I am more struck than most observers by the positive political achievements of the past 20 years, and by the resilience of Latin America’s elected governments in the post-1978 period. Since 1978, a sea change that has not been sufficiently appreciated has occurred in Latin American politics.

In 1978, the outlook for democracy in Latin America was bleak. Only three countries—Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela—could be considered democracies. Chile and Uruguay, the two countries in the region with the strongest democratic traditions as of 1973, had succumbed to harsh military dictatorships that year. Intellectual debates were dominated by analyses of breakdowns of democracy, bureaucratic authoritarianism, and dependency. A revolutionary uprising was brewing in Nicaragua. In most of the region, the left was wedded to authoritarian revolutionary socialism, and the right, to oligarchic despotic capitalism.

The situation has changed profoundly in the last two decades. By 1990, virtually every government in the region was either democratic or semidemocratic. This wave of democratization has lasted much longer, and has been broader in scope, than earlier such waves in Latin America.

Many of these governments have serious shortcomings. These short-comings, however, should not obscure the sea change described above. A region that had been overwhelmingly authoritarian throughout its history has become largely democratic or semidemocratic.

To assess the third wave of democratization in Latin America, one [End Page 101] must have a benchmark against which it may be compared. Most frequently, albeit implicitly, Latin American regimes are compared with contemporary long-established democracies. This comparison is legitimate and usefully calls attention to how much further Latin American regimes could democratize, but it tends to accentuate their shortcomings while obscuring the significant democratic progress that they have achieved. Thus it is also important to make the comparison with Latin America’s own past. When the contemporary situation in the region is compared to the past, it is clear that the third wave has been a greater political (though not economic or social) success than is generally acknowledged.

Before elaborating on these claims, it is necessary to clarify some basic terms. By “elected governments,” I mean governments that took office through elections that were reasonably competitive and fair. This category excludes governments that hold fraudulent, noncompetitive, or patently unfair elections. An elected government comes to power through elections (as opposed to cases in which elections are a sham and governments hold power through force), and it is subject to being voted out of office.

“Elected governments,” however, are not necessarily “democracies.” This distinction is important. As Terry Karl has observed, competitive elections are a necessary and important part of democracy, but holding them is not, in and of itself, sufficient to make a regime democratic.1 In addition to competitive, fair elections, democracies are characterized by three other institutional features: 1) The elected authorities must have the real governing power, and cannot be overshadowed by the military or by some other nonelected figure; 2) civil liberties must be respected; and 3) the franchise must include the great majority of the adult population.

The category of “elected governments” includes semidemocracies as well as democracies. A semidemocratic regime (or “restricted democracy”) has a civilian government elected under reasonably fair conditions, but it also has significant restrictions on participation, competition, or the observance of civil liberties, or it has what J. Samuel Valenzuela has called “reserved domains”—that is, policy arenas that should be, but are not, under the control of the elected government.2

When I refer to the resilience of Latin America’s elected regimes, I mean simply that these regimes have endured in the face of daunting challenges and what initially seemed to be long odds. Since 1978, there has been only one successful coup, President Fujimori’s autogolpe in Peru in 1992. And this, in fact, is an exception that proves the rule; Fujimori quickly restored competitive elections in a semidemocratic system that is aptly analyzed in...