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Far from a Sure Thing: Prospects for Democracy In Latin America

September 1995


Editors Note:

Democracy is not nearly as hardy a plant as might be imagined: it withers quickly where governments fail to improve the economic conditions of the majority, or where military leaders threaten to vie for power, or where the rewards of corruption replace normal, rational commerce. And in certain Latin American countries, for example, where democracy has only recently taken hold, a change in government can sometimes also presage a change in democracy's deeper roots: the rule of law, human rights, the independence of the judiciary, public trust in the police and military.

The prospects for the long-term growth of democracy in Latin America is the principal concern of the author of the month's COMMENTARY. Mr. H.P. Klepak is Director of Security Programmes at the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, and Professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Disclaimer: Publication of an article in the COMMENTARY series does not imply CSIS authentication of the information nor CSIS endorsement of the author's views.

In no part of the world is the word democracy more part of the political discourse than in Latin America. During the crises and wars of independence in the early 19th century, despite the widespread reluctance of élites on the subject, Simon Bolivar and other libertadores called for reform of the old colonial system with a view to establishing democratic forms and substance.

How is it, then, that nearly two centuries later, democracy in one form or another is only now the dominant political system in the region? And how solidly is it anchored at the moment? Finally, what are its long-term prospects?


It is important to remember, as the French author Marcel Niedergang has put it, that there is not one Latin America; there are twenty Latin Americas. While the Iberian heritage is common to most of the region, French-speaking Haiti is also a nation of Latin America. And the Iberian tradition reflects the past not only of Spain but the very different formative experience of Portugal. Brazil may be the only Portuguese country in Latin America, but it represents about one-third of its population and roughly half the continent of South America.

Latin America was settled by Spain and Portugal, but in much of the region the conquistadores discovered highly sophisticated and populous civilizations. In others they found vast empty spaces of little interest to these gold-hungry, labour-seeking adventurers. And while in the Andes, Central America and Mexico, mestizo societies emerged from the mixing of these societies, in Brazil and the Caribbean, black slaves had more of an impact on the racial mélange which was to develop. Finally, in the Southern Cone of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, few indigenous peoples were found, and the impact of white settlement from Europe made for ethnic mixes where whites dominated completely. Not that whites did not dominate in the rest of Latin America as well. They did, and often do, control politics, economics and the social system, and racial issues are rarely far from the surface in most of the region.

The early experience with the democratic ideal

It would be difficult to imagine countries with less likelihood of quickly establishing democracies than those of Latin America at independence. The long and bloody wars of secession from the Spanish Empire, very much civil wars in societies where royalism was strong, shattered the structures of the old colonial régime but also created a class of military leaders whose avarice and separatist tendencies were to prove hard to control.

In Spanish America, the empire had functioned as a series of separate monarchies. While the monarch was absolute in many senses, he ope-rated within a complex matrix of special relationships, local privileges and exceptions to rules which, while bewildering to the historian, worked well in the New World. However these relationships might favour local autonomy, such special treatment was not to affect the social order and hierarchy or suggest in any way individual (or what we would term today human) rights. With few exceptions, persons were born into a social class and racial group which determined where they would die as well. Social mobility was rare. Religious authorities joined with the Crown in ensuring that an organic society survived and passed on its values to future generations; democracy was most assuredly not one of those values.

The vast conflicts that shook the Spanish Empire in the early 18th century were often far from democratic, even if some leaders clearly had aspirations in that direction. It must be said, indeed, that in very many cases the Spanish American revolutions were more about attempts by the local aristocracies to maintain privileges and control than they were in any sense revolts in favour of local reform to widen political participation or improve the social condition of the masses. Even Bolivar himself was far from certain about the potential for progress with democracy, which in many Latin American minds was associated with anarchy and mob rule.

The only change to this was the arrival en masse of soldiers as members of the new élites born of the revolutions. The upheavals of nearly 20 years of war meant that there were many generals with political ambitions and these, usually in alliance with sectors of the aristocracy, were able to keep any tendencies to democracy well in check.

The post-independence régimes

The states soon began to organize themselves — that is, to break up into a series of separate entities — despite the entreaties of Bolivar, who argued that such a patchwork of small states would be easy prey to wars among its members and to the aggression of European powers and the United States. Local strongmen began the long and costly caudillo tradition, whereby charismatic and often militarily capable leaders came to dominate their societies intra-élite squabbling for power.

Meanwhile, the highly legalistic traditions of Iberian rule remained, and elaborate written constitutions, enshrining all manner of ideals copied directly from the latest European and United States political thought, co-existed with absolute disregard for even the most basic human rights such as the due process of law. Indeed, élite jockeying for naked power, often violent in the extreme, was almost always cloaked in ideological finery of the liberal and conservative kinds.

The troubled thirties

The breakdown of the international division of labour with the Great Depression of 1929 had serious consequences for the development of democracy in the region. Rightist authoritarian governments were established in many countries after populist or leftist forces proved unable to guide them through the maelstrom of troubles occasioned by the collapse of foreign trade and the dislocation of domestic economies.

Fledgling trade unions and other grass roots organizations were often seen as subversive, as were the political parties which tried to represent them. Social unrest was met with fierce, sometimes savage, repression in Central America, Mexico, the island republics, parts of the Andes, in Brazil and in the Southern Cone.

World War II

When war came and most economies experienced boom times again, the calls for democracy grew in frequency and volume. The war for democracy was taken seriously by reformers, especially student movements, in much of the region. And these forces soon began to press forcefully for change even in some of the most anti-democratic societies of Latin America. The ever-increasing role of the United States in the hemisphere also counted here, as Washington made clear its preference for democracies over dictatorships in the struggle against fascism. A number of authoritarian régimes were removed during and immediately after the war in what was thought to be a permanent trend to democracy. Progress was in the air.

The coming of the cold war

The cold war was to end most of that hope. The inter-American system, reinforced during the war, became much more permanent and all-pervasive in the late 1940s as the Rio Pact and the Organization of American States spelled out a security system for the hemisphere, wherein American leadership was taken as a given. Washington's worldwide competition with the Soviet Union took priority, and it soon became evident that support would be forthcoming for virtually any régime as long as it declared itself anti-communist.

The results of this policy in Latin America were not long in coming, especially as the Guatemalan crisis of 1954 was followed by the arrival of the cold war in the region, with the triumph of the radically reforming (and eventually pro-Soviet) government of Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959. While Cuba attempted desperately to break out of its isolation in the US-dominated Americas through a policy of blatant 'export of revolution', Washington shored up repressive régimes through economic and military aid aimed at ending any chance of Castro-style revolutions. The big losers in all this were moderate pro-democracy reformers who saw their objectives considered irrelevant by the big players in the game.

In this context, military régimes replaced civilian ones in most countries of Latin America as the late 1960s gave way to the 1970s. Following an approach termed the "National Security Doctrine" — a strategy which defined the main enemy of Latin American states as their own leftist movements — these military governments suppressed reformists, terrorized democratic forces of almost all stripes and often conducted 'dirty wars' against their own peoples. At the same time as they stood against any possible trend towards leftist revolution in the region, they also stymied the development of democratic forces in general.

The democratization process: 1970s, 80s and 90s

The failure of these governments to do much else but keep the lid on their societies was soon evident to most observers. By the late 1970s, the slowly developing counter-trend of armed forces withdrawal 'back to the barracks' had begun, first in some Andean countries but soon more widely.

The pro-democracy policies of the Carter administration in Washington played a significant role here. In most countries the military negotiated very comfortably the abandonment of power. In others, major events precipitated the move. The Argentine military's fiasco in the Falklands, for example, destroyed utterly its prestige in the country as a whole and hastened the régime's collapse. It is important to note, however, that with the sole exception of Nicaragua's Somoza dictatorship, in no case was the army forced out of power by democratic forces determined to achieve this at any cost. Instead, public pressures made military rule merely uncomfortable for the armed forces.

In the 1980s, American strategic objectives under President Reagan made the retention of military régimes in Central America uncomfortable as well, and most yielded at least formal power by the middle of the decade. American pressures also reduced the survivability of the Stroessner régime in Paraguay and, of course, directly overthrew those of Generals Noriega in Panama and Cedras in Haiti.

The international environment of the post-cold war world is, however, highly favourable to democratic development in the area. Washington for a start has made no secret of its adamant desire to see liberal democracy and capitalism flourish in the Americas. Indeed, it has not hidden its insistence that any attempt to benefit from ideas such as the Initiative for the Americas (a wider-ranging free trade area) must pass through the achievement of democracy at home.

At the same time, Europe, Japan and Canada have linked their assistance programs more and more directly to democracy-related criteria, and this has helped edge the military away from such direct roles in government.

Thus at this time there has been an apparently crowning achievement put in place. With the fall of the Haitian dictatorship, every country in the Americas claims democratic forms and objectives. Even Castro's Cuba is careful to insist that while it aims at a different sort of democracy, one where economic issues have priority over political, it still calls its system democratic.

Such a generalized situation of democracy must be applauded, as the rule of law, human rights, multi-party elections, increased transparency, etc., become the norm. The atmosphere for coups d'état, as Peruvian and Guatemalan leaders alike have learned, is not a receptive one. There is even talk of an inter-American security system whose objectives would include the defence of democratic régimes against their own militaries' occasional temptations to replace them. But the need for such an arrangement must surely give us pause about the extent to which democracy is as yet anchored in the political systems of the Latin American region.

Current obstacles to the process of democratization

Unfortunately, there are many reasons for concern about democratic survival in Latin America. In many countries, economic, social, political and security trends are conspiring to reverse the process of the last two decades, and the threat they pose is a real one.

1) The first of these severe problem areas is that of the failure of a number of democratic governments to improve the economic conditions in which the bulk of their people have to live. Whether for good or ill, and whether accurate or not, the public perception of most Latin Americans is that democratic governments are supposed to be better than authoritarian régimes at improving the economic lot ot the people. Political parties under most military régimes stressed their ability to bring positive economic change if only the military would step aside.

In many countries, of course, this has happened. A number of Latin American countries are experiencing sustained growth and progress as judged by traditional indicators of economic advance. In Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Peru and El Salvador, for example, there is a clear improvement in overall economic performance. Other countries, however, are experiencing much less sustained and trouble-free growth. Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay all show many positive signs but also some troubling negative ones. Still others are seeing very little improvement at all, or even distinct moves backward: Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Thus there is a patchwork of progress and difficulty, rather than a single picture of progress, as some observers would have us believe. In several countries, democracy is not delivering the goods of economic improvement which the public has been led to believe would accompany political reform.

Economic dislocation, caused often by structural adjustment policies and reactions to globalization, is rampant, with its resulting and increasing under-employment and unemployment. Virtually all economists agree that the gap between rich and poor is widening rapidly and dangerously, and that the much-touted trickle-down effect of economic change is often showing itself painfully reluctant to appear.

This has frequently resulted in the estallido social phenomenon: the trend to violent social explosions caused by frustration at changes over which the population, especially marginalized sectors of it, feel they have no control and from which they reckon they suffer most. Over and over, riots and looting have occurred following rises in transport costs, staple food prices, or in other spheres most important for the poor.

In the absence of large, well-trained and efficient police forces, it is almost invariably the army that is called in to crush these outbreaks. This cannot help but reinforce the role of the army in society as a whole as well as the government's dependence on the institution in time of dire need.

2) A second major issue reaching a crisis stage is that of public and private corruption. Despite a litany of promises of reform, the incidence of corruption among officials, politicians, judges and other key elements of society is certainly on the rise. The political parties are especially hard hit by this trend, which has in many countries all but destroyed the little prestige and public confidence they might have enjoyed.

In addition, many such parties and individual political leaders seem to the public to lack completely any idea of a coherent program to take their respective countries out of crisis. The perception is that the politicians have only one goal: personal enrichment at the state's expense. The fact that recently no less than 10 current or former heads of government in Latin America were under indictment for corruption reinforces this growing public perception of rampant corruption at all levels.

The result is a growth in calls for a return to military rule in certain countries, or at least massive reform of the system. The context is one of pubilc derision of the leaders and institutions of democracy and of the democratic process itself, found wanting in its goal of producing honest, capable leaders.

3) In addition, there is the massive problem of the region-wide crime wave. In virtually every country in Latin America, the question of individual security has become crucial. Poll after poll shows that Latin Americans feel insecure in their cities, essentially because of the spiralling crime rate. While no doubt exaggerated by some in countries where crime has historically been very low, such as Costa Rica or Honduras, the overwhelming impression is that one is never safe from crime, even the violent variety.

Demands for the government to do something, and calls for a return to law and order, are generalized and mounting in tone. Everywhere the efficiency of the new democratic states in dealing with crime is considered a benchmark of their success in areas of truly vital concern. Here again the pressures on governments to appear to be doing something meaningful are great and increasing. Under such circumstances, even the most democratic of governments is searching for ways to show that it is taking the problem seriously.

It is here that the absence of sizeable, uncorrupted, well-trained and efficient police forces is most noted. Latin American civilian police forces are typically small, corrupt (perhaps not surprisingly, given their derisory rates of pay), poorly trained and equipped, and far from efficient. Little wonder they are unable to deal with the crime wave, especially in its current, often well organized and armed.

Under such circumstances, significant elements of the public in some countries call for the military to be used against the criminals. In Rio de Janeiro, a full-scale military operation to support and relieve the hard-pressed police has enjoyed widespread popularity, despite the increase in the influence of the armed forces this implies. In Guatamala, the army has been sent in to clear out the criminals from several poor neighbourhoods. This it has done with remarkable skill. But when the military withdraws, the criminals return, causing huge posters to be raised by the public crying out "Que vuelva el ejército!" (Let the army return!). This cannot be good for solidifying democracy nor for establishing effective civilian control of the armed forces.

In El Salvador, the army has recently been used instead of the weak police force in all manner of strike breaking, anti-kidnapping, crowd control and related ways. In Colombia, Venezuela and Nicaragua, the army is being asked to do everything from replacing prison guards at overcrowded and dangerous correctional institutions, to clearing squatters from the land of property owners. The lack of effective police forces is frequently having a seriously deleterious effect on democratization efforts, and the negative effects are heightened by the seemingly uncontrollable crime crisis and its attendant further loss of confidence in democratic government.

4) Linked to this phenomenon is the massive growth in the drugs and arms trade. Latin Americans early on in the drug war tended to see the issue in 'we-they' terms vis-à-vis the United States. While Washington perceived the problem as essentially one of the suppliers feeding abuse in the USA, Latin Americans preferred to put the problem in terms of the demand in the rich North creating a supply in the poor South. In more recent years, the growth of drug abuse in the cities of Latin America, especially those in the wealthy Southern Cone, has brought home the need for more effective action to stamp out the trade. Also striking are the connections between the drug trade and the traffic in illegal arms. It is no exaggeration to say that a significant amount of drugs shipped north are paid for by arms shipped south. The impact on the power of the narcotraficantes is considerable and their ability to defy national political authority increases as a consequence of these improved arms. In addition, the high levels of armaments constitute a threat to the effective political control of the state in general, a point not lost on guerrilla and terrorist movements as well.

Here again, the state and the civilian police have had little success in curbing these activities, a failure which again undermines the confidence of the public. The military is thus increasingly brought in to support the police. And the danger grows of public support for democracy dissipating even further in a context of calls for more law and order.

Potential security implications for Canada

What are the security implications of this situation for Canada? The first is the general one of instability in a region of growing importance to this country: Canada is a trading country, and poor unstable countries do not make good customers; prosperous and stable countries do. Trade with Latin America is growing dramatically, especially with Mexico, but also with Brazil, Chile and many other regional states. In addition, and very importantly, the Latin American region is the only region of the world where the percentage of Canadian exports coming from high-tech fields is actually growing. The opposite is happening in our trade with Europe and the United States, and even with Asia. Thus the Latin American connection is an important one for us.

Canadian investment is also important in the region, and of course investment is highly sensitive to instability. But the impact on Canadian political linkages with the region may prove even more of consequence for us.

With the Free Trade Area with the United States, then NAFTA with that country and Mexico, and now the expansion of the arrangement to include Chile, it is clear that Canada has chosen its region in an increasingly bloc-oriented world. This has not been a pleasant experience, and the requirement to choose a bloc has always been considered a nightmare to be avoided at all costs by successive Canadian governments of all political stripes. Not diversifying our trade, investment and political links away from the USA toward Europe and Asia in particular, has meant that the choice of joining the Americas as a full partner could no longer be avoided.

Thus, in surely one of the most crucial decisions of Canadian history, this country has now become 'American' in the sense of participating completely in the life of this hemisphere as our rightful place. The implications of this decision are enormous. For a start, the creation of a hemispheric community in which Canada and Canadians can feel comfortable is a huge challenge and one depending very much on whether our new partners can successfully establish their democracies. It is inconceivable that Canada could stay in a community of American states which was not democratic. Indeed, the accession formula, an essentially Canadian invention, to all intents and purposes precludes dictatorships from membership.

More specifically, instability, poverty and inequities in Latin America produce refugees or illegal immigrants. Cuban, Central American, Peruvian and Haitian recent events have shown that it is not possible for Canada to isolate itself from the immigration effects of crises in this hemisphere. Only a stable, prosperous and probably democratic Latin America can head off these problems. In this regard, United States' concerns about Latin America are also growing. The USA feels vulnerable to events in Latin America, especially in Mexico, Cuba, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean and Central America. Much of this concern is couched in security terms, and Canadians are well aware that what the USA considers a security issue becomes ipso facto a security concern for Canada. This does not mean we feel the same way, but this does nothing to change its arrival on our security agenda.

As has been shown repeatedly in the last half-dozen years, Washington is also tempted to use its most impressive current asset — its unquestioned and unchallenged military might — when it feels worried about Latin American issues. Here again, there are security aspects to the growing bloc-ism of the Americas.

In the drugs issue as well, there are security concerns for Canada. While Canada has not tended to see the drug trade in security terms, preferring to favour medical, social and educational means to deal with the problem, Ottawa does have some security commitments on this matter. It has not proven possible to bring the drug trade under control. Most of our inter-American partners now define drugs as a security issue properly dealt with, at least in part, by military force. Indeed, the USA and Mexico have both declared this scourge the No.1 security threat.

Finally, there is the question of civil-military relations under NAFTA and AFTA, the latter being one of the potential acronyms for an eventual all-Americas free trade area. For Canada, there must not be a return to the well-known Latin American cycle of rotating civilian democratic and military autocratic régimes. As mentioned, NAFTA cannot accept dictatorial régimes if Canada is to remain in it. And in the new world of blocs, rising protectionism and increasingly competitive relations between these economic (and in many ways political) behemoths, Canada cannot avoid being part of NAFTA. The expansion to an AFTA is occurring at the same time as several democratic governments are in difficulty staying afloat or at least in their efforts to anchor democratic practices. It may well be that we are in a race against time where this issue is concerned.


As mentioned, Canada needs the partnership with Latin America for wide diplomatic and economic goals, several of which have significant security dimensions. A lost battle in the area of democratic sustainability could spell the end for Ottawa's hopes for such a profitable relationship, the only one offering itself in the world of blocs which faces us.

In order to establish themselves on the firm footing discussed here, Latin American democracies must begin to deliver on promises of social and economic progress. If this is done, as it is being done in several countries of the region, the positive effects on democratic trends will be massive. But if it remains an elusive goal, and disorder spreads, Canada may find itself in bed with countries whose governments are no longer democratic, a tragedy for those states but potentially one for this country as well.

The views expressed herein are those of the author, who may be contacted by writing to :

P.O.Box 9732
Postal Station T 
Ottawa, Ontario K1G 4G4 
FAX: (613) 842-1312

ISSN 1192-277X
Catalogue JS73-1/61

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