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Journal of Democracy 12.2 (2001) 5

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High Anxiety in the Andes

Over the past decade, democracy seems to have been unraveling in the two South American countries where it once seemed most liberal and enduring, Venezuela and Colombia. Their travails form part of a more general pattern of political crisis throughout the Andean region, extending to Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia as well. The articles that follow assess the state of democracy in each of these five countries and shed light on two crucial questions: Do these individual crises share any common, underlying causes? And do they portend a new period of democratic reversal in Latin America?

In each of these countries, of course, the political crisis has unfolded in a different manner, shaped by specific national factors. Moisés Naím, the contributor most skeptical of the notion that there is a common source for the troubles in the Andes, stresses the bad economic policies and "woefully incompetent institutions" that have prevented Venezuela from shaking its dependence on oil revenues. Gary Hoskin and Gabriel Murillo focus on the devastating impact on Colombia of the violence and lawless-ness of leftist guerillas, rightist paramilitaries, and narcotraffickers. Ernesto García Calderón highlights the corruption and authoritarianism that recently deposed president Alberto Fujimori and his aide Vladimiro Montesinos visited upon Peru. And José Antonio Lucero points to the challenge that Ecuador faces from the recent mobilization of indigenous peoples fighting a history of political marginalization.

Yet, as Laurence Whitehead observes in his analysis of Bolivia and of the Andean region more broadly, the democratic troubles in the region can partly be read as a reaction against the established political class in each country. This has good and bad implications. Politicians from the established parties have tended to monopolize power in ways that out-siders viewed as corrupt and unresponsive. Yet established parties and politicians have known how to craft compromises and forge alliances needed to govern constitutionally, while populist outsiders such as Fuji-mori and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez have seemed all too ready to violate constitutional principles and restraints.

For some time, social scientists have remarked on the ability of democ-racy in Latin America to persist in the face of poor economic performance and massive, tenacious inequalities. If there is one lesson to be learned from our examination of the Andes, it is that social and economic problems are wearing down democracy in the region. Without comprehensive reforms of policy and governance in the coming years, democracy will be in grave danger in the Andes.

--The Editors, 12 March 2001



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