Democracy in Latin America

Democracy in Latin America

I recently asked a young Brazilian in Rio de Janeiro how President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was doing. “Oh, he is doing fine.” A pause. “It is the rest of us who are not doing so well.” This beguiling response can serve as a leitmotiv for how Latin Americans view their new democratic regimes. It has just been a few years since authoritarian regimes—mostly military- led—were replaced with popularly elected, civilian governments throughout the region. These new regimes have survived. Yet the great fanfare and enthusiasm that marked the transition have given way to a more sober view of governance in the region, and, indeed, to increasing cynicism and apathy. Much can be said about the state of democracy in Latin America, but here I will offer just nine ideas that help explain this cynicism and suggest what it might entail for the future of democracy in the region.

The 1980s in Latin America are dismissed as a “lost decade,” in response to a continent-wide economic recession of proportions not seen since the 1930s. In some countries, real per-capita income fell by as much as 25 percent. Politically, though, the decade was anything but “lost”: the predominance of authoritarian rule in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to a wave of “democratization.” Celebrations greeted the emergence, in country after country, of constitutional rule, competitive party politics, and civilian supremacy. The world at large was impressed with images of long lines of poor peasants in countries like El Salvador, walking kilometers to ex- ercise their right to vote.

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Lima