PERIL AND PROMISE The New Democracy in Latin America

September 25, 2007



Over the past decade and a half, more than a dozen Latin American and Caribbean countries have replaced dictator- ships with elected governments. The process began when the past decade and a half, more than a dozen Latin Ecuador's relatively benign military agreed to return to the barracks in early 1979, and continues through the current struggles of Haiti's democrats to return their elected president to power. It includes the overthrow of two of the region's bloodiest dictators Nicaragua's Somoza by a social revolution, and Paraguay's Stroess- ner by a palace coup-and the more gradual (and on-going) displacement of Chile's General Pinochet. These experiences vary widely in terms of the nature, permanence and decisiveness of the transformation. This diversity raises some interesting questions about the transition and about the nature of democracy itself. 



All the new democracies hold competitive elections, but few-as Raul Benitez Manaut points out-have effective judicial systems, strong parliaments, or civilian control of the military. In very few do ethnic minorities have self-governance. Almost everywhere limits are imposed by poverty and necessity, and limits are created by the conflicting prerogatives of economic, military, patriarchal and bureaucratic power. Sovereignty over the economy belongs mainly to transnational capital. While the region's military elites now promote democracy for reasons of social stability, in many countries they weaken it through continuing impunity.


Democracy (from the Greek demos, the people, and kratein, to rule) stands for many things: the rule of the people, rule by the ruled, self-rule, majority rule, minority rights, equal rights, and a general sense of political and social equality. Democracy is usually spoken of as a form of government, but it is more than that. It implies a power vested in the people and exercised-directly or indirectly in all the institutions in which they participate. Democracy-the rule of the people implies economic justice, popular participation and civilian rule. Though it is fundamentally tied to the question of citizenship and the right to participate in public affairs, democracy exists in both the public and private spheres. It embraces as Carlos Vilas says of civil society- "everything from daily life and interpersonal relations in the home to questions of territory, purchasing power, ethnicity, gender and generation."


Democracy is never a settled question. How is democracy, for example, expressed in the economy? Should democracy reward people according to their needs, their contribution, or their purchasing power? Uneven economic and social development also causes conflict. The creation of democratic law is vital, but only a partial step until everyone can read what the law says. "One property holder one vote" was how U.S. democracy started out; "one man one vote" still holds in many institutions of political and social life; "one dollar one vote" holds in the free market.


In this report, we have attempted to capture the fluid, multi-dimensional nature of Latin America's new democracies. The retreat of the region's militaries, Nicaragua's constitutional debates, Paraguay's ambiguous electoral process, Chile's rural communitarian traditions, region- wide efforts to build and sustain popular media, and the growth of a genuine civil society are all part of the elaboration of the democratic process in Latin America. Democracy is multi-faceted. The revitalization of democracy is an on-going process-always changing and reaffirming itself. It is also always threatened, constantly fought for, nurtured and defended. Nowhere is it finally at rest.




Read the rest of NACLA's Sept/Oct 1993 issue: "Peril And Promise: The New Democracy in Latin America."


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