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  • Latin America:Presidentialism in Crisis
  • Arturo Valenzuela (bio)

In this final decade of the twentieth century, the eyes of the world have focused on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, witnessing a succession of events with profound implications for the course of human history. In a largely peaceful process, centrally planned socialist regimes succumbed to economic and political stagnation, opening the way for elections and the promise of democratic reform. With less drama, Latin America also experienced change of historic dimensions. The open and competitive presidential elections that Brazil and Chile held in 1989 marked the first time that all the Ibero-American nations, excepting Cuba, enjoyed the benefits of elected constitutional governments at the same moment.

There are grounds for cautious optimism about the future of democracy in the Western Hemisphere, where the challenges of economic and political reform are less daunting than in the old continent and experience with representative institutions is of longer standing. The very harshness of Latin American military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s kindled a growing commitment on the part of civilian elites and mass publics to democracy and human rights as ends in themselves. Changes in the global political environment and the growth of a consensus generally favorable to free market economic policies led to a reduction in polarization and conflict. Liberal democracy as a system of government is no longer being challenged—from either the right or the left—by alternative visions for organizing the political community. [End Page 3]

Yet a fuller assessment of the progress of democracy in the Americas over the past decade suggests that long-term prospects for representative government remain problematic. The recent coup in Haiti, attempted coups in Venezuela and Guatemala, President Alberto Fujimori's imposition of dictatorial rule in Peru, and military rumblings in Chile are all reminders of the fragility of democratic practices.

Much recent scholarship on the consolidation of democracy in Latin America and other developing countries has focused on the challenges involved in the implementation of fiscal-stabilization and structural-adjustment policies to correct economic imbalances, address deep social problems, and promote growth. Most countries of the region have yet to overcome a burdensome historical legacy of underdevelopment, fiscal mismanagement, and foreign indebtedness.

While economic and social considerations like these must surely be weighed in any assessment of the outlook for democratic consolidation, more attention needs to be paid to distinctly political factors. The most immediate challenge is for elected leaders to gain full authority over policy making. This is difficult when, as is often the case, the armed forces have carved out an extraordinary degree of autonomy, claiming sole jurisdiction over internal military matters such as officer training and promotions, procurement, and budgets, while exercising a broad de facto veto power over not only national security policies but also domestic issues that normally fall outside the military's purview.

The consolidation of democracy is also threatened, however, by the inadequate performance of democratic institutions and procedures. Authoritarianism left a legacy of weak and divided political parties, a situation that often drives voters to look for salvation at the hands of populist leaders without experience or organizational support. Throughout the continent, bloated, wasteful, and unaccountable state structures have suffocated economic growth and promoted governmental inefficiency. In the absence of strong judicial institutions, the rule of law is often precarious. Electoral systems based on proportional representation (PR) in large districts and with closed candidate lists controlled by party bosses have created a gulf between elected representatives and their constituents. Corruption has undermined trust in elected leaders, thus breeding a profound cynicism concerning politics and public affairs.

Many efforts are underway to address these conditions. Structural transformations of the state—including privatization, decentralization, and civil service reform—have been widely implemented. The outcry against corruption has led to the impeachment of presidents in Brazil and Venezuela, encouraging greater accountability of elected leaders. Recent constitutional changes in countries such as Colombia and Chile have sought to strengthen local governments and to set in motion much needed reforms in the administration of justice. Several countries have experimented with modifications of their electoral systems. [End Page 4]

Institutional reformers and scholars have paid less attention...


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