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  • Cross-Currents in Latin America
  • Scott Mainwaring (bio) and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán (bio)

Since 2000, democratization trends across the twenty sovereign countries that make up Latin America have been mixed. Democracy has eroded in three Andean countries (Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia) plus Nicaragua. Honduras experienced a coup and democratic breakdown in 2009. Democracy remains feeble in other countries including Guatemala, Haiti, and Paraguay—but it has long been weak in those countries, so the current weakness cannot be called erosion. Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (in office since 2007) has occasionally exhibited the illiberalism seen in the hegemonic populisms that rule Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, but she has met with relatively stiff resistance not only from the courts and civil society, but also from critics within her own party.

On the brighter side, democracy has become more solid over time in Brazil, which has the region’s biggest economy and largest population (about two-hundred million). Democracy remains robust in Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, which have long been beacons for the region. In Mexico, the region’s second-largest country, the shift to democracy achieved in 2000 remains intact despite many shortcomings and rising criminal violence. Peruvian democracy is in its best shape ever; a breakdown is highly unlikely. Despite many limitations, democracy in Colombia survived a large spike in violence that began in the 1980s and lasted through the early 2000s. Cuba remains the only openly authoritarian regime in Latin America, in stunning contrast to the situation before the “third wave” of democratization began in the 1970s.

So one cannot say that democracy is broadly eroding in Latin America. But there is reason for concern that democratic advances have not [End Page 114] been more widespread and that the quality of democracy is low in a large number of countries.

A democracy, in our view, is any political regime in which 1) free and fair elections choose the lawmakers and the head of government; 2) there is nearly universal adult suffrage except among immigrant non-citizens; 3) the state protects civil liberties and political rights; 4) armed actors including the military, criminal organizations, and paramilitary groups do not significantly influence government policies. For reasons of space and analytical clarity, we focus on these four aspects of the political regime and largely leave aside other important political and social processes and outcomes.1

The third wave began in Portugal in 1974 and reached Latin America via the Dominican Republic in 1978. That year, U.S. pressure pushed incumbent president Joaquín Balaguer to admit electoral defeat and peacefully cede power to the opposition, a first in Dominican history. Before that transition, the region had seventeen authoritarian regimes, a single semidemocracy (Colombia), and just two democracies (Costa Rica and Venezuela). Then, from 1978 until 1991, an unprecedented wave of democratization occurred.

The period since 1991 has been by far the most democratic in Latin American history.2 To examine trends over the second half of this period—the years since 2002—we use both Freedom House scores and our own scheme, which classifies the region’s regimes as democratic, semi-democratic, or authoritarian. Since 2002, Freedom House has published disaggregated scores that range from 0 (signifying an extremely closed authoritarian or even totalitarian regime) to 100 (highly democratic). These scores provide a more differentiated picture than the traditional Freedom House scale that runs from 2 (most democratic) to 14 (most autocratic).3 Over the eleven years following 2002, Latin America’s average score stayed nearly flat, registering only a slight dip from 66.5 to 66.1. Mean Freedom House scores on the traditional 2-to-14 scale have been equal to or better than those from any year prior to 2003. Our own measure shows a minor deterioration since 2001.

Still, the state of democracy in Latin America gives reason for worry. The source of concern is not a pattern of democratic erosion throughout the region so much as the persistently low quality of democracy across a large number of countries. And yet there are governments—those in Nicaragua and Venezuela, and to a lesser extent in Bolivia and Ecuador—that do...


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