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  • Stabilizing Latin Democracy
  • Susan Kaufman Purcell (bio)
Democracy in the Americas: Stopping the Pendulum edited by Robert A. Pastor. Holmes & Meier, 1989. 262 pp.

As the 1990s begin, Latin America is once again largely democratic and its military establishments are back in their barracks. But will they remain there? The question is far from academic. The 1950s also produced what journalist Tad Szulc called "the twilight of the tyrants." Szulc was reflecting the general optimism of the era when he announced that democracy, "so late in coming and still taking its first shaky and tentative steps forward, is here to stay in Latin America." But as Robert Pastor reminds us in introducing this volume drawn from two conferences at the Carter Center of Emory University, just a few years later "the pendulum had swung back to dictatorship."

Unfortunately, as the essays in this excellent collection explain, Latin America's past may yet return to haunt its future. Democracy in the region is far from consolidated. Weak political institutions, severe economic problems, and enormous disparities between rich and poor are only some of the problems that could ultimately bring on new military coups. Happily, however, such an outcome is by no means inevitable. In fact, one of the major arguments of Democracy in the Americas is that the pendulum can and will stop swinging—if Latin Americans want it to.

This point constitutes a major intellectual contribution to the discussion of democracy in Latin America. Previous writings on democratic transition tended to be extremely deterministic. They typically ascribed the failure of democracy to the absence of necessary "preconditions" for it, including a democratic culture, an equitable distribution of resources, and an international economic system that allowed for the growth of a democratic middle class spearheaded by an autonomous industrial bourgeoisie. Democracy in the Americas, in contrast, argues that democracy has flourished in all kinds of situations. The only common denominator in successful democracies has been the primary value that their people have placed on democracy for democracy's sake.

Latin Americans, according to several contributors to the volume, have too often viewed democracy not as an end, but as a means—whether to rapid economic growth, radical income redistribution, or just personal political power. Yet as Samuel Huntington concludes in his superb essay, "The Modest Meaning of Democracy," democracies do not necessarily provide for the most rapid expansion of wealth, the most equitable distribution of resources, efficient government, honest politics, or social [End Page 121] justice. Instead, "democracies alone among political regimes have the institutional mechanisms necessary to guarantee the basic rights and liberties of their citizens."

As long as the guarantee of basic rights and liberties took second place to other goals, Latin Americans failed to make the kinds of decisions and compromises needed to consolidate their weak democratic regimes. Instead, they engaged in behavior that produced political polarization, disillusionment with so-called democratic rules of the game, and ultimately, military coups.

Edward Gibson's excellent appendix, "Nine Cases of the Breakdown of Democracy," is depressing in its analysis of such irresponsible behavior by Latin American leaders and their followers. Is it any wonder that earlier democracies repeatedly broke down when those in power excluded opposition parties from the policy-making process, monopolized the bureaucracy, implemented government programs in a partisan way, and refused to tolerate dissent? Should it have come as a surprise that those who were excluded from, or who saw their interests threatened by, policies aimed at radically redistributing income or mobilizing the masses encouraged the military to intervene?

Explaining what went wrong with earlier democratic transitions does not, of course, guarantee that the same mistakes will not be made again. Nonetheless, the authors of Democracy in the Americas see some reasons for optimism this time around. Latin America has attained levels of wealth and education high enough to place it in what Huntington has called a "zone of transition," where the odds are much better that it can become and remain democratic. In this zone, as Robert Pastor notes, "leaders have considerable room to maneuver and guide their nations toward democracy: strategies, in brief, matter." It is important, therefore, for Latin Americans to recognize that if...


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