Latin American Politics & Society 47.2 (2005) 159-170
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Authoritarian Legacies and Their Impact on Latin America
What is left to say about authoritarian legacies, with so much scholarship already on the topic, and long after the demise of de facto rule in Latin America? As nations move farther and farther away from the era of authoritarianism, we might naturally assume that the influence of those regimes would dissipate as well. The books under review here arrive on our shelves two decades or more since many of the countries of the region recovered their democratic practices. It would be convenient to say that the mere passage of time has erased painful memories of the repression, rendered militaries less politically influential, and given democratic institutions time to congeal. It would also be wrong. It turns out that memories cannot be easily erased, even less so for the families of victims who have never recovered the bodies of their loved ones or have never had their day in court. Military institutions vary in influence but remain relevant, at times interventionist, and have to be dealt with. Progress toward institutional consolidation can be found, but many democracies are still struggling, and some are in serious trouble. For these reasons alone, these three books are timely and relevant.
Still, it would be a mistake to attribute their relevance to the conventional notion that the past matters solely because democracies suffer under the weight of authoritarian carryovers. Yes, harmful influences from de facto regimes do have a way of seeping into the new order; authoritarian enclaves do persist and pose difficulties. Yet societies also rebel from their past. In this respect, authoritarian legacies matter precisely [End Page 159] because they generate a fierce determination in civil and political society to move forward, not backward.
Authoritarian legacies can be visualized in one of two path-dependent frameworks. The first and more familiar idea is that once a course of action is plotted—be it the result of practices, pacts, or power imbalances—it is very difficult for a society to move off course. Early choices become institutionalized in the form of organizations, power-sharing agreements, prerogatives, and, in the economist's lingo, increasing returns and sunken costs. Actors discover the advantages to certain arrangements and behave to ensure that those arrangements persist well into the future. Advocates of this position believe that authoritarian regimes exert a profoundly conservative influence on the democratic regimes that succeed them.
An alternative notion of path dependence is one in which event sequencing still matters, but it weakens initial effects rather than fortifying them. Argues Paul Pierson, "Previous events in a sequence influence outcomes and trajectories, but not necessarily by inducing further movement in the same direction. Indeed, the route might matter precisely because it tends to provoke a reaction in some other direction" (Pierson 2000, 84). Legacies and transitions can be polarizing phenomena, producing intense, countervailing reactions that increase the determination of democratic societies to free themselves from the shackles of the past. In politics, like physics, every action has an opposite and equal reaction. A harshly repressive dictatorship could set the stage for military impunity later on, or it might unleash an organized effort to bring perpetrators to justice. Authoritarian regimes could instill fearful memories that invite caution, evasion, and retreat, or they could trigger revulsion, anger, and greater resolve than ever to participate so as to inoculate democratic practices from harmful reversions.
How would we know which legacy is more probable? This is a vexing question...