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Journal of Democracy 12.2 (2001) 6-16

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High Anxiety in the Andes

Bolivia and the Viability of Democracy

Laurence Whitehead

Two decades ago, when there were few democracies outside the OECD countries and the prospects for democratization elsewhere seemed bleak, the five "Andean Pact" countries--Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela--represented a heartening exception. At the time, most of South America seemed destined to remain under military rule, the civil wars in Central America were becoming bloodier than ever, and Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was still firmly wedded to its old practices of electoral chicanery. By contrast, Colombia and Venezuela had been islands of democracy since 1958. Both had returned their militaries to the barracks through popularly approved plebiscites and had isolated and marginalized guerilla insurgencies, offering militants legal avenues for political expression and participation as an alternative to violence. Both countries featured multiparty systems with periodic alternations in office, upheld a framework of constitutional checks and balances, and encouraged social pluralism.

Ecuador and Peru followed along this path in 1978, when they began to return their military rulers to the barracks and set about restoring constitutional government and competitive elections. Even Bolivia, the poorest and most turbulent of the five republics, belatedly followed suit. Starting in 1978, the outgoing dictator, General Hugo Bánzer Suarez, initiated what was supposed to be a controlled transition to constitutional rule but instead turned into a complex cycle of disputed [End Page 6] elections, public confrontations, and officially orchestrated violence. The transition degenerated into virtually direct rule by representatives of the cocaine-trafficking mafias, followed by a collapse of public authority. Then, after a pact between the civilian parties to restore constitutional procedures, a trade union-backed leftist government came to power, but its policies soon precipitated hyperinflation. Finally, in 1985, Bolivia too became a more or less "normal" democracy, pursuing a very painful but effective policy of economic orthodoxy and promarket reform.

All that was two decades ago, when democratization seemed too sheer a rockwork to scale in nearly all the rest of the world. Today, however, the picture looks very different: In South America, all the Southern Cone countries, whatever their remaining difficulties, enjoy liberal democratic regimes that are less troubled than those of the Andean community. Even war-weary Central Americans look on countries like Colombia with a feeling of relief that they have progressed beyond the state of disorder that currently reigns there. In the western hemisphere, Cuba alone remains outside the democratic fold, while Venezuela is now located somewhere between Cuba and the rest in the precedence that it gives to "social justice" over constitutional niceties.

During the past decade, only three Latin American presidents--Mexico's Carlos Salinas, Peru's Alberto Fujimori, and Ecuador's Abdalá Bucaram--have fled abroad in search of shelter from possible legal sanctions at home. While Salinas may be entitled to some slight credit for his part in the democratization of Mexico, Alberto Fujimori's political legacy in Peru is unambiguously illiberal. Both men were highly authoritarian leaders who were feted by the West for their unwavering commitment to promarket economic reform, regardless of domestic criticism. As for Ecuador, after the farcically irresponsible Bucaram was ousted, it became the sole member of OPEC to default on its renegotiated (Brady Plan) government debt. Ecuador is the only "third-wave" democracy that has legally removed one elected president (Abdalá Bucaram in 1997) and then forced another out of office (Jamil Mahuad in 2000) before the completion of his term. It was also the last of the old political regimes (or first of the new) to succumb to a Bastille-like seizure of state power, when in January 2000 dissident soldiers joined indigenous leaders in occupying the National Congress for a day.

Each of the Andean republics has a separate story to tell, yet the historical and structural linkages among them invite a more comparative perspective, especially since the region as a whole is so out of step with broader international developments. What do these five generation-long experiments in democratization suggest about...