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  • Latin America's Fragile Democracies
  • Peter Hakim (bio) and Abraham F. Lowenthal (bio)

The turn toward democracy in the Americas has been widely applauded in both the United States and Latin America. The Western Hemisphere, it is often said, is on the verge of becoming fully democratic for the first time in its history—with only Castro's Cuba now standing in the way. Some U.S. officials, present and former, give U.S. policy considerable credit for Latin America's democratic openings, while others think that the U.S. role was marginal at best. There is, however, little disagreement that the regional transition from authoritarian rule was spearheaded by Latin American opposition movements—parties, unions, women's groups, church officials, courageous political leaders, and plain citizens. And no one doubts that in recent years democratic politics has gained important ground throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Yet democracy in Latin America is far from robust. It is nowhere fully achieved, and it is perhaps most firmly established in those few countries where it was already deeply rooted and vibrant a generation ago. In most other nations, democracy is endangered by political and criminal violence, conflicts between civilian and military authorities, prolonged economic decline, and gross social and economic inequalities. Democratic institutions in much of Latin America remain weak—plagued by rampant corruption, political polarization, and growing public skepticism about government and politics. In some countries, democratic forms are still a facade; in others, they are precarious and vulnerable. [End Page 16] Latin American democracy today needs reinforcement, not premature celebration.

The Trend Toward Democracy

Latin America's democratic progress in the 1980s was real and significant, as encouraging in its way as the collapse of communist rule in Eastern and Central Europe. In country after country, military regimes and personalist dictatorships gave way to elected civilian governments. In the final months of the decade, Brazil held its first direct presidential elections since 1960 and Chile its first since 1970—thus bringing civilian presidents to office in every country of South America for the first time in a generation. Nicaragua's elections in February 1990 were the most open and competitive in that country's history, and elected civilian governments are today in place in every nation of Central America. At the beginning of 1991, Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba remains the only consolidated and unambiguously authoritarian government still ruling in Latin America.

Government office, if not always power, is now usually transferred peacefully from one elected president to another throughout Latin America. In recent years, incumbent administrations have yielded office to elected opponents in countries as diverse as Argentina, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Jamaica, Peru, and Uruguay—in some cases for the first time in memory. Not since 1928 had one democratically elected president succeeded another in Argentina before Carlos Menem replaced Radl Alfonsfn in 1989. In the face of economic crisis and terrorist threats, Peru has held three consecutive presidential elections for the first time in nearly a century. In economically traumatized Bolivia, frequent military coups have given way to three successive elections.

Even in countries where elections have remained flawed, important democratic gains have been registered. Although the balloting was marred by credible charges of fraud, Mexico held its most competitive presidential contest in more than a generation in 1988, and popular pressures are building for the further opening of Mexican politics. Despite severe restrictions on political participation in most Central American countries, elections have come to be accepted as the only legitimate route to office in that region. The 1989 presidential vote in Paraguay—called after a military coup ended Alfredo Stroessner's 35 years of dictatorial rule—was organized too hastily to be fairly contested; it did, however, allow opposition parties to campaign, express dissent, and begin mobilizing support. By nullifying Panama's national elections in 1989, General Manuel Antonio Noriega only underscored the massive popular repudiation of his regime. After several failed attempts to hold free elections in Haiti following the downfall of the Duvalier dynasty, an [End Page 17] internationally supervised presidential vote finally took place in December 1990.

No longer is it commonly accepted that Latin America is...


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