- Between Tyranny and Anarchy: A History of Democracy in Latin America, 1800-2006
Paul W. Drake has undertaken a daunting task. In a little over 300 pages written in crisp prose, he has managed to tell the story of democracy in Latin America from independence to the present. In an analysis that aims at dismantling the pervasive image of Latin American history as a woeful tale of uninterrupted, monolithic authoritarianism, he suggests the reasons why general theories—Latin America's "pathology of democracy" (p. 129) in the nineteenth century, modernization, dependency, or corporatism in the twentieth—have failed to account for democracy's trajectory in the region. His study is both meticulous and wide-ranging. By focusing on the evolution of various institutional elements—constitutions, elections, the organization and interaction of presidential, legislative, and judiciary powers, and political parties—and by examining the way in which they responded to pressures from within and without, such as persistent social inequalities and elite strategies or intervention from abroad and globalization, this book both draws a complex picture of a dense 200-year continental process and reveals the peculiar developments in each of the region's 20 countries.
The author chronicles the development of precocious and resilient constitutional and democratic trends in Latin America. He shows that despite the region's poverty, backwardness and political instability, "republicanism remained the dominant political aspiration and virtually the only intellectual justification for the right to rule" (p. 89), even when "most of the rest of the world had not even begun the journey" (p. 87). He shows the ways in which even inoperative constitutions and fraudulent elections created an institutional path-dependency that has drawn the contours of politics despite recurrent bouts with authoritarianism and human rights abuses. His book highlights the efforts of divided and embattled elites to construct stable governments within a framework of constitutionalism, the separation of powers, political representation, and oftentimes federalism. Its careful consideration of the intricate, unexpected ways in which political, social, economic, ideological, and diplomatic factors play off each other in particular circumstances, enhancing or restricting the effects of "institutional engineering" (p. 190), offers valuable [End Page 132] insights to those concerned with constructing substantive and meaningful versions of democracy in the region.
Nonetheless, the end result is less persuasive than the author's stated objectives and the impressive array of evidence marshaled by the author would suggest. Although the book surveys a very extensive, interdisciplinary, and up-to-date bibliography, it does not engage with it. Despite the possibilities for dialogue, the provocative hypotheses put forth by recent studies of democracy as it was and not as scholars think it should have been, are left undisturbed. A rigid classification of 200 years of politics into two "competing models of protected versus popular democracy" (p. 2) obscures the reader's appreciation of the diverse, vibrant, highly experimental, deeply problematic attempts at democratic governance. Despite his skillful systematization of profuse and detailed information, Drake paints an overall picture in which the old, dismal vision of Latin America creeps back in, with its ubiquitous caudillos and its "extreme centralism" (p. 2). It is a vision that can still be reduced to the pithy phrases of Latin America's heroic and frustrated statesmen. Democracy ends up being something that rolls over the continent, in subsequent "waves" (p. 201). Ideologies, practices, and institutions, such as liberalism or Marxism, democracy, and judicial review are described as "foreign" (p. 56), "exotic" (p. 78), and "imported" (p. 133). They are manhandled by slightly confused elites who exhibit "only a vague understanding" (p. 60) of modern political concepts. In the end, Drake's vision of democracy in Latin America is that of a doubting Thomas who has seen, but is not quite convinced.
Mexico City, Mexico