The implementation and survival of democracy in Latin America – often against heavy odds – has been the region’s biggest success over the past 20 years. But it is under severe pressure. More reform is necessary if the system’s frailties are to be overcome. By Sudip Roy –

The Irish playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde, wrote in his political essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”: “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” Given the fragile nature of democracy in Latin America today, many in the region will be empathizing with Wilde’s sentiments.

From Venezuela in the north to Argentina in the south, democracy in Latin America is under severe pressure. Yet for all that, the implementation and survival of democracy is the region’s biggest success over the past 20 years.

The extent to which democracy has become entrenched in the region has been most evident in the past two or three years. Since the turn of this century, nearly all of the main countries in Latin America have held free and fair elections. Last year alone, new residents set up home in the presidential palaces of Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador without needing military backing to get them there.

“The establishment of procedural democracy [meaning free elections] has been a fundamentally important development, and perhaps the region’s biggest political success,” says Edward Newman of the Peace and Governance Programme at the United Nations University, Tokyo, and co-editor of Democracy in Latin America: (Re)Constructing Political Society.

To western minds this might not seem much. Elections are commonplace – in fact to the extent that many people in first-world democracies cannot be bothered to turn up to vote. But Latin America is different. Coups and military rule have tainted much of its history. As recently as 1980, both Argentina and Brazil were under military rule.

“If you compare how things were in the 1970s, the situation is much better,” says Mark Payne, consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank. “You have mainly democracies, leaders elected through the democratic process and people who want democracies.”

This last point is borne out by the latest poll by Latinobarometro, a Chilean organization which has carried out surveys of opinions, attitudes and values in Latin America since 1995. Covering 17 countries, the poll reveals that support for democracy has increased in 14 of them over the past year, most notably in Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela.

Even in Argentina, where the economy is in such a slump that in the bad old days support for military rule would have skyrocketed, the people’s endorsement of democracy is higher than it was in 2001. A presidential election will take place there next year (although there is confusion over whether it will go ahead in March as presently scheduled).

Notwithstanding the extent of the economic and social disarray in the country, Argentina will turn things around by democratic means.

“One of the few positive aspects of the Argentine collapse is that there is no questioning of democracy,” says Kurt Weyland of the University of Texas.

Remarkably, despite the economic mess the region finds itself in, support for authoritarian government is not increasing – and in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela it has declined significantly. Only in Paraguay has it increased substantially since 1996, although even there more people prefer democracy.

“The survival of democracy in Latin America is not in doubt,” says Weyland. “These democracies will be maintained in their minimal form. As the failed coup in Venezuela [in April 2002] shows, there might be instances where significant sectors have an interest in overthrowing democracy but, partly due to international constraints, it’s not really feasible.”

No one doubts that democracy is in a fragile state. “While democracy has certainly come a long way in our region, it would be a mistake to consider it a done deal and turn our attention to other matters exclusively,” wrote the former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Oscar Arias, in a newspaper article last year.

The most revealing conclusion to emerge from the Latinobarometro poll was that the respondents were, for the first time, beginning to distinguish between democracy as a system of government and the manner in which particular governments are performing. In short, respondents prefer democracy to any other system but are not necessarily satisfied with the way it is working. As a result, democracy’s survival might not be under threat, but its immediate future looks murky.

Not all countries, of course, are in the same boat. Mexico is a more advanced democracy and has a much stronger economy (although social problems remain) than Brazil or Argentina – where the democratic system is not under threat but society is struggling against economic instability, which is hindering development of the political system. In turn, these two countries are in a much better state than Colombia, for instance, which is paralyzed by a civil war. In Colombia the political system is in danger of collapsing.

Underlying democracy’s frailties is an economic crisis which has engulfed much of the region. Latin America suffers from massive inequality and high rates of poverty, violence, crime and corruption.

The region might have left hyperinflation behind but is stuck instead in a growth rut. Even the stronger economies are expected to put in only a modest performance this year and next. Chile’s economy, for example, is slated to grow at 2.5% in 2003.

“A number of countries are under significant socio-economic stress, which is having negative political consequences,” says Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Many Latin Americans blame the neo-liberal economic reforms of the 1990s for their plight. “Deregulation has weakened civil societies, unions and political parties, all of which are important elements in the implementation of a vibrant pluralistic democracy,” was the conclusion of a recent meeting of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Carol Graham of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, says: “Simply put, only the very wealthy are satisfied with how the market is working … dissatisfaction with market policies is more evident in the middle class.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in Argentina. The decision taken by Domingo Cavallo, the former economy minister, to freeze savings accounts, now rescinded, hit 1.2 million people – most of them middle-class. In a country that has long prided itself on having the largest and best-educated middle class in Latin America, the erosion of middle-class wealth represents a big step backwards.

The Argentine situation typifies the fragility of Latin American democracy. People are fed up with the political elite, which shows no sign that it can or will solve the country’s woes. “People want a total change,” says Rosendo Fraga, a political analyst, “but, paradoxically, politics is going in exactly the opposite direction.”

Part of the problem with Latin American democracy is that it is relatively young. “It’s so new that people have yet to learn what it can and cannot achieve,” says Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico who, in 2000, orchestrated his country’s first peaceful transfer of power after 71 years of uninterrupted rule by a single political party. “It also needs time to be provided with stronger and more efficient institutions to make it work better for the pursuit of other ends which are very important for our societies, such as economic and social development.”

As Argentina is amply demonstrating, many of the mainstream political parties are failing to connect with the populace. “One of the main institutions of democracy – the political parties – is discredited, is in disarray and is being rejected by voters in country after country,” says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue.

The fate of perhaps the most famous Latin American party – the Peronists – illustrates this well. Founded in the 1940s by Juan Peron, a nationalist, and his celebrated wife Eva, the Peronist party is one of the country’s few remaining institutions. Today, though, the party is in disarray, torn apart by infighting. Chief among the protagonists are Eduardo Duhalde, Argentina’s interim president, and Carlos Menem, who governed the country throughout the 1990s.

Their disagreement dates back to 1999 when Duhalde, then vice president, prevented Menem from running for a third term. Duhalde then stood himself but blamed his rival for sabotaging his campaign as he lost to Fernando de la Rua of the Radical Party. Now Menem is seeking to be the Peronists’ candidate for next year’s presidential election. Duhalde, who will step down, would prefer almost anyone else.

All of this is making a weak government even weaker and postponing what little chance Argentina has of beginning its economic salvage operation in the next few months. Many Argentines have already given up on their government and are joining civic organizations. Graffiti tell Argentines: “The state deserted you; organize yourselves.”

That is what they are doing. There are 2,000-2,500 nongovernmental organizations and more than 4,500 barter associations in which the cash-strapped exchange goods. The members are not fed up with democracy itself but rather with the way Argentine democracy is being expressed.

“You have democratic governments that perform very badly, don’t deliver for the people and don’t generate confidence in the system,” Shifter says of Latin America. This has nothing to do with economic failings but something more basic – poor leadership. The irony for many Latin Americans is that, at any given election, there might be a dozen candidates seeking their votes, but none of them is any good. “Latin America doesn’t have a good enough calibre of leaders and it really makes a difference,” Shifter says.

In Peru, for example, where the economy is growing at 4% and inflation is only 2%, president Alejandro Toledo’s approval rating stands at a mere 23%. This is because of Toledo’s personal shortcomings and his inability to fulfil the Peruvian people’s expectations. In June he broke a campaign promise by privatizing two electricity firms in Arequipa, Peru’s second city. This led to massive protests, which ultimately brought down senior members of his cabinet. Now foreign investors are unsure how keen Toledo is to initiate further reform.

Given the poor choices before them, it is hardly surprising that in recent elections Latin Americans have voted, if possible, for a nonconformist candidate – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador.

Of the three, Uribe is least likely to cause furrowed brows in neo-liberal and conservative circles. A right-leaning independent politician who describes himself as a democrat with authority, Uribe’s instincts are similar to those of many members of president George W Bush’s inner circle.

In May Uribe became the first candidate to win Colombia’s presidential election without needing to go to the second round of voting. The electorate will be hoping that his hardline stance will rein in the paramilitary groups that have torn Colombia apart over the past decade. Uribe wants to create a million-strong civilian force to support the already stretched army. The president also refuses to enter negotiations with the paramilitaries until they give up their violent actions.

Despite the fact that his uncompromising attitude will entail increased spending on defence, donor bodies continue to give Uribe their full support. In October the IMF said Colombia would be able to draw on about $1 billion a year over the next two years as part of a renewed support agreement, which is to be signed this year. The IMF says it will also support Colombia with extra emergency aid if needed.

In Brazil and Ecuador, meanwhile, Lula and Lucio will be hoping that the IMF will prove as generous to their own causes. Neither of the two, though, is likely to be the favourite leader of the Washington-based institution. Lula, in particular, has been a big thorn in the side of many neo-liberals, and he has only just taken office.

Many promarket investors and officials worry that Lula, a former trade union official, will push a sick Brazil over the edge with statist policies which are at odds with the liberal ideology that has governed Latin America over the past 10 years. Lula, they believe, will initiate policies that will prove to be the ruin of the Brazilian economy. Critics have branded him a populist.

Zedillo believes that populism is one of the biggest threats facing Latin American democracy. “When a true ethics of responsibility, rather than a constant and irresponsible pursuit of short-term personal popularity, becomes more the norm and not the exception in political behaviour, we will find it much easier to make progress on all fronts,” he says.

Others, though, are less concerned about the accusation of populism levelled at Lula. “In some sense it’s a pro-democracy vote, because the will of the people will be enacted,” says Weyland of the University of Texas. In any case, it is unlikely that Lula will have the power to stray too far from the centrist policies of his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

“The leadership of the PT [Lula’s Workers’ Party] is very aware of the fact that you cannot challenge the market model and the external forces that maintain it, because otherwise you will shoot yourself in the foot,” Weyland says. “Lula will have to adjust to the external constraints. This is the reality.”

This raises an altogether different question about democracy and national sovereignty. Who runs developing countries – the governments voted in by the people or the external financiers who provide much-needed cash but look for certain assurances in return?

Certainly throughout last year, in the run-up to the Brazilian election, the market was trying to influence the outcome. Whenever a new opinion poll was released showing Lula with a strong lead over his rivals, investors began to sell Brazilian assets sharply as a warning of things to come if he were to win. At one point, Brazil’s risk premium – as measured by the spread of its bonds over US treasuries – was over 20%.

In the end, the Brazilian people ignored the will of the market and voted for Lula in their millions. Whether Lula will be able change the status quo or whether, as Weyland suggests, his hands will be tied remains to be seen. What is clear is that even some wealthy members of society want a change in emphasis away from traditional neo-liberal policies. And according to Latinobarometro, this trend is not unique to Brazil.

“Wealthier, more educated and presumably more secure people seem to be attributing higher value to the role of government and social welfare spending than they did in the past,” says Graham of the Brookings Institution.

If Lula or any other leader can initiate radical economic policies that will help alleviate poverty and income inequality without upsetting foreign investors and the Washington institutions, that would be ideal.

As Carothers of Carnegie says, “The big question is, can you develop economic policy that responds directly to poor people but takes the country forward as a whole? It’s not impossible. Chile managed it.”

But even during these dark days, the citizens of Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries should remember how far they have come. Politics is becoming more fragmented. Traditional policies and traditional politicians are being rejected, but belief in democracy remains strong.

Even the attempted coup in Venezuela has a silver lining in the fact that it failed and that Hugo Chávez, despite his faults, remains the elected leader.

Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, says that over the past decade Latin America has taken “two steps forward, one step back”. She adds: “It’s naive to think that it’s going to be easy. But despite the setbacks, and the risk of setbacks, the entrenchment of democracy has been the region’s biggest success over the past decade.”