The Democracy Problem

Saturday, July 30, 2005

A critical drama is currently playing across Latin America. It is usually discussed in terms of democracy and development, though those terms often hide more than they reveal about conditions in individual countries and what is happening and not happening around the hemisphere. The real drama often juxtaposes inertia and change, tradition and transition, paternalism and popular representation, which can only be understood in a broad cultural and institutional context. As political analysts and historians ranging from the Peruvian Alvaro Vargas Llosa to Mexican Enrique Krause have emphasized, overcoming today’s challenges requires understanding what has happened and failed in the past.

Latin America’s first experiments with democracy began in the early nineteenth century, but they have been scattered and the systems have usually been very different from those that have emerged in the developed world. With reference to Latin America, a 2004 study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) warned that “democracy cannot be reduced to the mere holding of elections; it requires efficient, transparent, and equitable public institutions, as well as a culture that accepts the legitimacy of political opposition and recognizes and promotes the rights of all citizens.” In June 2005 the Organization of American States emphasized that “for democracy to prosper, governments must be responsive to the legitimate aspirations of their people, and must work to provide their people with the tools and opportunities to improve their lives.” According to these yardsticks, democracy is not working well these days in Latin America. Indeed, it almost never has. Why?


Cycles of Frustration

Over the centuries, real change in Latin America has been very slow when it has occurred at all. Some positive changes have occurred over the past two decades, including somewhat increasing if erratic popular participation in decision making; majority support for democracy as the best form of government; a popular conviction that major economic improvements will require market as well as state involvement; the taming of often astronomical inflation; some legal and other institutional reforms; and a slight reduction of poverty in relative terms, although the absolute number of Latin Americans living below the poverty line has increased.

But in most basic respects most people’s lives have improved very little over those decades and many centuries. This is best understood by another juxtaposition: that of instability with an underlying rigidity that is the true cultural and institutional framework of all that happens. Note the underlying sameness of recurrent instability. Centuries ago it was clique rule in the form of foreign military conquest, the killing and virtual enslavement of tens of millions of Indians, the importation of millions of black slaves, and the mass exploitation of the people in general under the guise of Catholic paternalism. The economies of the region were designed to serve the ruling cliques rather than the people. Three decades ago clique rule resulted in three- and four-digit inflation, guerrilla wars, military coups, human rights violations, and state-dominated economies that did not improve most people’s lives. Today it is clique rule against a backdrop of drug-related violence and other crime, systemic corruption, and roller-coaster economies that do not improve most people’s lives but instead precipitate widespread dislocation and migration.

Protests have taken many forms over the centuries, from slave revolts to guerrilla wars to the election of demagogues like Hugo Chavez. Today we see organized demonstrations, ranging from the Mexican Zapatistas to the Bolivian Indians to the Argentine piqueteros. Such activities have shown that mass and sometimes violent campaigns can serve as an effective arm of political strategy at the fringes of or outside the democratic framework.

Let us look more specifically at some recent developments. In June 2005, militant Bolivian Indians overthrew their second president in less than two years. A truce was declared, and the caretaker government pledged to hold new elections by the end of the year. Ecuador is now into its seventh president in nine years. After Peru’s decade-long president Alberto Fujimori fled to Japan in late 2000, voters choose Alejandro Toledo, the first Indian president in a predominantly Indian Andean country. But he almost immediately became and has remained the least popular president in South America. While government supporters say they just failed to get their successes explained to the public, people say Toledo has not fulfilled his promises, is aloof, unpredictable, and dishonest. His failure is almost a classic case study in the problems of Latin America generally. Though the economy has grown annually, most people have not benefited. Half of the people did and still live in dire poverty. Hopes were high, undoubtedly unrealistically so, and they were dashed. By contrast, Colombia has the region’s most popular president, but Alvaro Uribe rules a nation that is twisted and fragmented by decades of guerrilla wars and drug production and trafficking. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez continues to polarize his shattered country and the region, and his oil handouts prop up Fidel Castro’s regime, the world’s longest-lasting dictatorship.

News from the rest of Latin America is not much better (with the exception of Chile), even though some economies are stabilizing (again) for the moment. During 2005 the Brazilian government of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was torn apart by corruption scandals. The World Bank reports that half of Brazil’s 180 million people still live on less than $2 a day, although a “conditional cash transfer” program supports the poorest 30 million if they keep their children in school. Mexico, which has a similar transfer program and has weathered many presidential and other scandals—in the 2000 election finally had a truly competitive electoral system, and some hard campaigning is expected for the mid-2006 election. And then there is Argentina, which in the 1990s seemed to be the market-reform “model” for the region, if not the world. In 2001–2 its economy collapsed, triggering the largest debt default in world history. That default was greeted with cheers in Argentina’s Congress, and since then scapegoating has again become as popular a national pastime as soccer. By mid-2005 Argentina was into its sixth president in less than four years. Conditions remain desperate in Nicaragua, where the current beleaguered, hamstrung president may well be succeeded by that tired old Sandinista, Daniel Ortega. Even Costa Rica, which has had the most stable democratic system in the region in recent decades, has been recently torn by unprecedented scandals in which two former presidents have been convicted of corruption.


Evaluating Latin American Democracies

Judging the quality of Latin American democracies is challenging because there are no absolute, internationally recognized guidelines. I do not assume that the United States is the ideal exemplar of democracy, for the “Third Worlding” of America is well under way in many respects, although in the end the United States still has a far more stable and representative system than has ever existed in Latin America. Nor do I argue that democracy in some form or other is essential for economic development, at least in its initial and (perhaps) later stages. That claim is empirically disproved by the Chilean and some Asian experiences of recent decades. And yet for all the difficulties involved, judgments on the condition and effectiveness of individual Latin American democracies are made all the time in formal polls, public statements, and private communications.

Today most analysts are skeptical at best about the condition of democracy in Latin America. For example, the UNDP and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) have issued extensive studies within the past year, and each has waved many red flags and expressed profound skepticism. For example, Dante Caputo, the former Argentine foreign minister who oversaw the U.N. study, told the Miami Herald that democracies in Latin America are facing “a slow death. It’s dangerous when democracy becomes irrelevant because it does not solve day-to-day problems.” The KAF study said that it is time for Latin American leaders to stop talking so eloquently about democracy and start improving the daily lives of the people. There are, of course, radical differences among these and other critics as to just how states can bring about or enable resolutions to people’s problems.


How Popular Is Democracy?

Most important of all, the Latin American people are increasingly skeptical of democracy, though according to recent opinion polls, public statements, and private comments a slight if declining majority still say they prefer democracy over any other political system. The most systematic and comprehensive report on Latin American opinions is that of the Chilean polling firm Latinóbarometro. Its May–June 2004 poll, the most recent at this writing, recorded the views of nearly 20,000 people in 18 countries. It reported that during the 1996–2004 period regional support for democracy as the preferable form of government ranged from a low of 48 percent in 2001 to a high of 62 percent in 1998, the 2004 figure being 53 percent. There are wide differences in levels of support for democracy among the region’s nations and even within individual countries over time. Support for democracy declined in 13 of 18 countries between 1996 and 2004 and by 18 percent or more in Nicaragua, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru.

But despite changes for the better that have occurred in some aspects of Latin American life, the opportunities and living conditions of most people have remained nearly stagnant. According to the United Nations, 43 percent of Latin Americans are poor and 19 percent live in extreme poverty. The UNDP report says that Latin Americans “confront high levels of poverty and the highest levels of inequality in the world.” The fact that democracies have replaced authoritarian regimes throughout the region over the last two decades has not significantly altered the overall levels of economic inequality. Indeed, Mexican political scientist Denise Dresser wrote in mid-2005 that Latin America “is both more democratic and more unequal than it was 10 years ago.”

Thus democracy is not tangibly benefiting most Latin Americans. The UNDP report warns that “democracy appears to be losing its vitality,” and the Adenauer report notes that, despite some positive developments, “the weight of the crisis in important countries of the region has put the entire Latin American democratic system on alert.” And in polls and other ways, the Latin American people show how the analysts reached such critical conclusions. According to Latinóbarometro, in the region as a whole those who were very or even somewhat happy with the functioning of democracy in their countries ranged from a regional high of 41 percent in 1997 to a low of 25 percent in 2001, with the 2004 real or partial satisfaction at 29 percent, tied for the lowest of any region in the world.

The often wide fluctuations in levels of support for democracy, and the internal inconsistencies in popular responses to pollster questions, suggest first that analysts must be careful in drawing conclusions but also that a significant percentage of support or opposition is short term and dependent less on the institutions themselves than on conditions at the time of the latest poll. For example, although a majority of people in 14 of 18 countries said in 2004 that they would not support a military government under any circumstances, a majority also said it would not matter to them if a government was nondemocratic so long as it resolved economic problems. Recall also the significant decline in region-wide support for democracy as the preferable form of government over the past decade, from 61 percent to 53 percent. And how can one feel secure that democratic elections will work when elected leaders from Argentina to the Andes are so often forced out of power by public protests? And what guarantees are there for fair elections and civil rights when in polls and actions the people condone governments’ stepping outside the law to get things done and when, in 16 of 18 countries, between 53 percent and 85 percent of the people agree that “a bit of strong arm” (mano dura) from the government is not bad? A “Latin American Special Report” of 2004 concluded: “Democratic institutions are at grave risk throughout much of Latin America. The prospect is not so much one of a return to the era of military coups, but one of emptying out the core of the institutions meant to safeguard democracy, in such a manner that they become little more than trappings to disguise various forms of authoritarian rule.”

And what do people think of the basic institutions of democratic government: political parties, presidents, legislatures, the courts, and the law. According to 2004 reports by Latinóbarometro (covering 20 Latin countries) and Transparency International (TI) (10 countries), nondemocratic institutions are more strongly supported, in many respects by far, than democratic institutions. For example, in 2004 the church was trusted by 71 percent of people in the region and the armed forces by 40 percent. Compare the institutions of democracy: the presidency (37 percent), the judiciary (32 percent), congress (24 percent), and political parties (18 percent). According to TI, on a corruption scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being “extremely corrupt”), Latins rated political parties from 4.1 to 4.9 (Ecuador) and legislatures and judiciaries at 4 or above.

Consider political parties specifically, the primary vehicles through which people have traditionally been represented by elected representatives in a democracy. A vast majority of Latin Americans have no use for the political parties, for good reason. In the proportional representation system used in almost all Latin countries, the lists are both closed and blocked, meaning that a voter cannot vote across party lines and cannot mark the candidate he likes best on the list the party leaders choose and place on the ballots. This has contributed to a proliferation of parties: in late 2004, 10 countries had 10 or more parties in congresses or assemblies; Brazil had 19, and Colombia and Argentina each had 39. Some 56 parties were on the ballots for the Argentine election of October 2005. With so many parties, presidents often have little real support when elected and must govern by constantly seeking alliances at the cost of debilitating compromise or assume the role of caudillo, which many are quite willing to do, often with public acceptance. Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote in mid-2005 that parties are so discredited today that they “may soon disappear.” The UNDP concludes that the “crisis of representation” in the region can be traced back to “the absence of internal democracy within the parties, the use of clientelistic practices to manage the electorate, encouraging caudillo-style personal favors, the abandonment of party political platforms . . . the creation of schisms along personal (not ideological) lines, the connections between the parties and de facto power bases, and the building of alliances in which political identities become unclear.” No wonder one of the few things a majority of Latins in every country agree on is that “the country is governed by certain powerful interests for their own benefit.” As Dresser notes, “democracy in Latin America seems incapable of dismantling old networks of clienteles and their traditional power-sharing arrangements.”


“The Prison”

Ironically the perception of the instability of the region itself is superficial, for the critical characteristic of Latin America is actually just the opposite: excessive stability, rigidity, societal relationships that stretch back to the major Indian civilizations but were institutionalized with their own twist and permanence by the Iberian colonists. The institutions planted in the Americas by Spain and Portugal from the late fifteenth century on were from their inception intended to enable the Iberian powers to strip the region of the raw materials and other products that were abundant in the colonies and much needed at home.

Therefore, analyses of today’s problems still must be within the broad context provided several decades ago by Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, who wrote: “To cross the border [between Mexico, or Latin America, and the United States] is to change civilizations. Americans are the children of the Reformation, and their origins are those of the modern world; we Mexicans are the children of the Spanish empire, the champions of the Counterreformation, a movement that opposed the new modernity and failed.” And also, “Though Spanish-American civilization is to be admired on many counts, it reminds us of a construction of great solidity—at once convent [church], fortress [military] and palace [government]—built to last, not to change. In the long run, that construction became a confine, a prison.” The “prison,” in Paz’s view, was this whole package of institutions and culture designed to conquer and exploit. Even after independence, when the new ruling cliques had more direct relations with the populace than during the colonial period, much was promised but very little delivered.

Thus two differing but related matters must be considered with respect to democracy and development: the popularity, and the rigidity, of tradition. Latin America has special qualities of civilization, ranging from often close interpersonal relationships to low levels of pressure in daily life. These and other qualities are treasured and jealously guarded south of the Rio Grande and, indeed, often admired by many north of the Mexican border as well, especially when it comes to retirement. Other “developing” regions of the world have similar challenges. Kishore Mahbubani, a top Singapore diplomat, remarked on this with respect to reforms in Asia. How does a reforming country “preserve some of the traditional strengths” while absorbing the strengths of the developed countries in order to develop oneself?

Polls show that Latin Americans want more income, food, housing, health, education, opportunities. But can some traditional values (like attitudes toward work, time, law, and one’s fellow citizens) be maintained alongside the Western values noted by Mahbubani: greater emphasis on individual achievement, political and economic freedom, respect for the rule of law as well as key national institutions? Indeed the fundamental question for all Latin Americans is whether they want the benefits of development enough to sacrifice some of their traditional values. As Oxford fellow Laurence Whitehead put it, historically Latin America has been “receptive to the importation of ‘modern’ techniques, but not necessarily to undertaking the social and cultural adjustments that they require if they are to operate as expected.”

Fifteen years ago a Peruvian businessman began promoting educational programs that featured his “commandments of development,” which are cleanliness, punctuality, responsibility, the will to succeed, honor, respect for the rights of others, respect for laws and regulations, love of work, and support for thrift and investment. But a sympathetic Venezuelan university rector responded that no matter what “good habits” children are taught in school, if they go into society and find that that isn’t how things really work, the vast majority will throw out what they learned in school and adapt to society. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Douglass North has correctly written, “Although formal rules may change overnight as the result of political or judicial decisions, informal constraints embodied in customs, traditions, and codes of conduct are much more impervious to deliberate policies.”


And Then There Is Asia

The cycles of frustration in Latin America, in large part because of states that withhold rights and opportunities from the majorities, stand in marked contrast to the substantial improvements managed in recent decades in much of Asia, an area that 50 years ago was in most developmental respects behind Latin America. It is not my intention to idealize the reforming countries of Asia, for many political, social, and economic problems remain. But Whitehead focused on the critical point when he wrote of “the capacity for sustained and cumulative social transformation displayed by the so-called developmental states of East Asia, and the far more fitful and incoherent record of their Latin American counterparts.” Two of Asia’s greatest successes have been (1) putting past domestic and international grievances behind it in a pragmatic effort to build a better future, while Latins constantly dredge up and wallow in fighting with each other and others over real and imagined past grievances; and (2) substantial success in enabling an increasing percentage of its people to get high-quality primary, secondary, and in some cases even university educations. A 2003 study entitled “Literary Skills for the World Tomorrow” concluded that more than 50 percent of Latin American pupils, though presumably “literate,” still “have effectively no reading and comprehension skills.” In international tests on science and mathematics, Asian countries grab most of the top ratings, whereas the very few Latin American countries that even dare to participate end up at the bottom. In short, the bulk of the young people of Latin America are not being trained to participate effectively in a highly competitive world, and thus day by day in almost every way most Latin Americans fall farther behind the people of reforming Asian (and other) countries, a trajectory that shows no sign of changing in the foreseeable future.


Friendly Fire

Working on the understanding that Latin America’s problems and challenges are mainly the result of domestic factors, it is unquestionable that U.S. policies often have an important impact in Latin America, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, the latter being what political analyst Alvaro Vargas Llosa calls “friendly fire.” Recent events in Bolivia and the Andes are a case in point. First, there is the seeming superficiality of our support for democracy. After two Bolivian presidents were driven from office by violent protests in less than two years, a high State Department official said in mid-July that Washington can work with any new president: “For us,” he said, “what is important is democracy.” The United States certainly shouldn’t prop up every elected president in Latin America who comes under fire at home. But do we mean that the ballot alone, even in unscheduled elections held every 18 months after the nation’s latest “coup,” is all that matters and constitutes democracy? Some message that.

But that is only one part of our failure to acknowledge our current negative impact in the region. As long as U.S. foreign policy is conducted under the banner of promoting democracy worldwide, we cannot admit that some U.S. policies are themselves responsible for undermining democracy. That is particularly true in the case of the almost sacred “War on Drugs.” Consider the U.N.’s World Drug Report 2005, which acknowledged that drug production is up in the Andes and argued that in Bolivia “civil unrest and weak governance have, to a large degree, stymied drug control efforts.” But what about the other half of that story that Washington tries to keep under wraps, namely, that in part it is our “drug control efforts” that have caused much of the unrest in the first place or at least made the U.S. a wonderful target of opportunity. In fact, in Colombia and the Andes generally, the operation and consequences of our drug war often undermine fragile political, economic, judicial, and law enforcement institutions that both major U.S. political parties say are central to U.S. policy in the hemisphere. As Venezuelan-American journalist Carlos Ball has said, “The war on drugs has done more harm to democratic institutions in Latin America than all the communist guerrillas of the last four decades of the twentieth century combined.”


And Now?

Some but seemingly all too few Latin American leaders and people understand that the main impediments to representative democracy and economic development—if that is what Latin Americans want, as in both cases they say they do—are not just a few greedy men and their foreign allies, though plenty of those have crossed the stage. As the 2004 UNDP report says, “In many cases, the increasing frustration with the lack of opportunities, combined with high levels of inequality, poverty, and social exclusion, has resulted in instability, a loss of confidence in the political system, radical action and crises of governance, all of which threaten the stability of the democratic system itself.”

The next “threat to stability” in Latin America will come soon enough, and whatever the specific manifestation, the message will be the same. Latin American governments are failing to serve the needs of their people in an ever more integrated world and that, so far, though most Latin Americans profess to be frustrated or angry with this failure, they have been largely powerless or unwilling to force their leaders to make real reforms. In the end, Latin Americans themselves, at all levels of society, must bring themselves into the modern world or be satisfied with falling farther and farther behind, accepting the consequences of what that posture dictates.