- Democracy in Latin America: Between Hope and Despair by Ignacio Walker
Ignacio Walker, a senator and former foreign minister in Chile who is currently president of the country’s Christian Democratic Party, introduces this book as a product of both his experiences as a practitioner and his doctoral studies in Political Science at Princeton. Both perspectives emerge in his analysis of the ebbs and flows of Latin American democracy and political economy from the nineteenth century to the present. The practitioner’s perspective is most evident in the pragmatic tone of the text, felicitously devoid of the disciplinary jargon and methodological pyrotechnics that plague much of contemporary social science. But this is no simplistic to-do list for decision-makers. Economic and political historians, as well as political scientists and sociologists, will find the text both sophisticated and rewarding.
Walker offers a thorough, synthetic, and nuanced interpretation of Latin America’s political economy and political sociology through an engagement with classic texts in various currents of Latin American Studies and comparative political science. The value of this book lies in its sophisticated interpretations based on thorough analytic review of existing literature, rather than in fresh research or novel theory, and in its clear exposition for a non-scholarly audience concerned with Latin America’s political and economic trajectory since Independence, and particularly over the past half-century. These qualities make for a volume that is highly appropriate for non-specialist readers in both academe and the general public and for adoption in Latin American Studies courses.
This reviewer found three aspects of Walker’s interpretation to be especially noteworthy. First, he decidedly sides with those who argue that democratic breakdowns of the 1960s and 1970s on the one hand, and the restoration of democracy during the 1980s and 1990s on the other, were fundamentally the product of institutional design and political agency rather than the result of the workings of economic structures. He [End Page 374] advances this argument carefully, acknowledging and engaging the significant contributions of scholars whose analyses of economic and class dynamics have led them to emphasize how structural factors influence the nature of political regimes. I find persuasive and elegantly presented his conclusion that structural determinants may influence but do not ultimately dictate whether democracy will emerge or survive, although they may powerfully affect its quality. Walker rightly portrays this issue as a fundamental challenge facing Latin American societies today. Thus he situates the history of Latin American democracy within the constraints of political economy without falling into the trap of determinism.
Second, Walker rightly portrays the phenomenon of Latin American populism as a product of the imperative to incorporate emerging urban working classes (thus following Collier and Collier’s landmark 1992 study) and in the tense relationship between middle and working classes in the emergence of mass politics in the region. His consideration of the re-emergence of populism at the end of the twentieth century and into the present—the so-called neo-populism epitomized by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela— acknowledges the degree to which analogous challenges of incorporation are at the forefront of Latin American politics today. Walker is very careful to avoid presenting the battle between neoliberalism and its antagonists as the core contemporary dynamic, for the landscape is much more complicated. Indeed, he correctly portrays the debate around neoliberalism as largely missing the point.
Third, the book is dedicated to Albert O. Hirschman, and appropriately so, as the analysis throughout reflects a distinctly Hirschman-like preference for “possibilist” over utopian options. I have my doubts as to whether post-authoritarian governments’ limited satisfaction of popular demands was strictly a matter of their operating within the constraints posed by inherited conditions, as Walker suggests, or whether instead it was also a function of the excessive conservatism of his generation of political leaders. But his account, informed by first-hand experience in government as well as intellectual erudition, is valuable as...