At the time this article was written Andres Perez was
a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario.
With the sole exception of Cuba, all contemporary
Latin American countries function within the framework of democratic electoral
systems. These democratic systems provide citizens with an unprecedented
capacity to elect `heir governments and representatives. For some this fact
represents a definitive triumph of democracy over tyranny in an area of the
world that has been typically portrayed as tire land of Generales, Comandantes,
and Caudillos. For others electoral democracy in Latin America is simply an
illusion; a historical irrelevancy that does not change the reality of poverty
and inequality in the region. This article argues that the consolidation of
democratic rule in Latin America requires the dismantling and transformation of
some historical and cultural embedded patterns of relations between state and
society. However, it is not only these historical and cultural patterns that
Latin Americans have to overcome to consolidate democratic institutions. They
also have to conquer a future that, because of the forces of globalization,
will not always be favourable to democracy. This future belongs to
David Held has pointed out that democratic theory and
practice assumes the existence of "a 'symmetrical' and 'congruent'
relationship between political decision makers and the recipients of political
decisions"1. It is through this relationship between decision
makers on the one hand, and the population affected by political decisions on the
other hand, that the democratic principles of popular sovereignty and
representative government are realized. People in democratic societies control
the process Whereby the state shapes their collective future by influencing the
formulation of political and policy decisions.
The development of a congruent and democratic
:relationship between state and society in Societies with Consolidated
Democratic Institutions (SCDIs) is the result of long and often painful
historical processes. The two most important dimensions of these processes are:
- the constitution of sovereign states with the capacity to influence
and sometimes control the factors that determine the historical evolution
of national societies;
- the development of civil societies with the capacity to condition
the functions of the state. The principle of sovereignty allowed states to
create and shape independent national histories, while the development of
civil societies created the conditions for the democratization of the
sovereign power of the state, and the emergence of representative
If the development and consolidation of sovereign
states and effective civil societies are the two key characteristics of the
evolution of state-society relations in SCDIs, the development of dependent states
and vulnerable and fragmented civil societies are the central characteristics
of the political history of Latin America.
Latin American states developed only a very limited
capacity to control the main factors that shape their historical evolution. Political
dependency on foreign powers, and economic dependency on foreign markets anc.
foreign sources of capital and technology severely limited the capacity of
Latin American states to effectively exercise the sovereignty that they
attained when they achieved independence from Portugal and Spain.
Unrestrained optimism as well as excessive pessimism
about the significance of democratic politics in Latin America today are
equally dangerous attitudes. The optimist refuses to see the obstacles that lie
in the path of democratic consolidation. The pessimist denies the existence of
opportunities in history.
Similarly, the evolution of civil societies in Latin
America, never produced structures of citizenship rights that would allow the
national populations of these countries the power to condition the functions
and priorities of the state. Three principle factors explain the reasons why
the notion of "we the people" never found fertile soil in the Latin
American region: The exclusionary nature of the colonial state structures that
were inherited from Spain and Portugal; the persistence of systematic
marginalization of indigenous societies after independence; and the
possibilities that the external dependency of the state offered to national
elites to utilize external sources of political and economic support to
maintain their positions of power.
These general characteristics of the political
development of Latin America need to be analyzed to establish some important
sub-regional and national differences. In this sense, it is important to
differentiate between at least two models of relations between state and
society that developed in Latin America.
The first model is commonly known as the oligarchical
model. In this model, the state is under rigid elite control and the masses are
systematically - and sometimes legally - excluded from participating in the
national decision and policy making processes that affect their lives. This
model is representative of the political systems that have dominated the
political life of most Central American societies throughout their history.
The second model is the corporatist model. It
represents a form of state-society relations in which some organized segments
of society (unions, private sector organizations, etc) are accepted by the
state as legitimate associations of interest representation and as such, they
have the capacity to influence the policy making process of the state. This
model corresponds to political systems that nave developed in societies such as
Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. One of the fundamental differences between these
two models is the degree of domestic independence that the state enjoys
vis-A-vis society. Generally speaking, oligarchical states are less sensitive
and less vulnerable to domestic pressures and demands than corporatist states.
Nevertheless, oligarchical and corporatist models
represent political systems in which the dependent nature of the state and the
fragile nature of civil societies, have prevented the consolidation of
democratic relations between citizens and those who make political and policy
decisions. More specifically, the historical evolution of state-society
relations in Latin America has obstructed the development and consolidation of
effective strictures of democratic representation in the countries of he
region. With externally dependent states with the capacity to ignore the needs
and demands of fragmented and weak civil societies, the political evolution of
Latin American countries has created the conditions for the emergence and
reproduction of dictatorial regimes and centralized systems of political
Civilian dictatorship and military rule constitute
the most typical non-democratic expressions of Latin America's "vertical
tradition"2. Latin American pr-esidentialism - despite its
formal compatibility with democracy - also constitutes an expression of this
Presidentialism is a system of "dual democratic
legitimacy." Juan Linz explains: "Both the president, who controls
the executive and is elected by the people..., and an elected legislature
(unicameral or bicameral) enjoy democratic legitimacy" 3. In
the Latin American experience, however, the historical nature of relations
between state and society, has provided the presidency wi-:h the power to
overshadow, control, and even disband elected legislatures. The nature and
requirements of the processes of economic restructuring taking place in the
region today under the pressures of globalization, reinforce the power of the
presidency at the expense of elected legislatures and other structures of
Globalization, Democracy and Representation
The concept of globalization refers to "the
intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in
such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away
and vice versa" 4. While the origins of globalization can be
traced to the emergence of Britain as the world leader in finance and trade
during the second half of the nineteenth century, the first institutional
expressions and the mechanisms of the globalized economy were set in place only
after the end of the Second World War with the birth of an international
monetary system at the Bretton Woods conference in July, 19445. The
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction
and Development (IBRD) were created on the basis of this agreement. The
collapse of the Soviet Union and of socialism as a viable alternative to
capitalism provided additional stimulus to the globalization process that today
dominates the way in which national economies are designed, organized and
Two of the most important expressions of economic
globalization are capital mobility and the transnationalization of the state
apparatus. Capital mobility reduces the capacity of the state to
"domesticate" national economic forces. The transnationalization of
the state apparatus compel national public administration systems to play an
intermediary role between increasingly powerful global forces and active, but
frequently ineffective, domestic pressures and demands.6 These two
processes create tensions and contradictions between the liberal concept of the
democratic state, with its emphasis on domestic "responsiveness" and
"accountability," and the economic imperatives of the global market.
The result of all this is a crisis of authority arising from the state's
increasing inability to respond to the needs and demands of national
However, globalization does not affect all societies
in the same manner and with the same intensity. The impact of globalization on
the capacities of different societies to generate the conditions for democracy
varies according to the different capacities that states have to filter
external pressures and to respond to domestic demands. From this perspective,
the traditional notions of developed and developing societies are useful in
that they represent not simply categories for differentiating levels of
economic advancement but they represent different levels of institutional
capacity to create, maintain and reproduce congruent democratic relations
between society and the state.
In Latin America, with its history of state
dependency and fragile structures of citizenship rights, globalization tends to
exacerbate the capacity for the state to act independently from society. The
result of this tendency is the development in many countries of the region of a
wider gap between governments and the people. This tendency became painfully
evident during the stabilization and adjustment crises of the 1980s and 1990s.
During this period, many Latin American governments negotiated with the IMF and
the World Bank to obtain new credits to restore an external balance. In
securing new credits from these international organizations, Latin American
countries agreed to introduce a number of economic, political, and
institutional reforms along marked neo-liberal lines. The implementation of
these reforms involved opening national economies to international competition,
reducing the size of the state, reducing government services (eg. health, and
education), and privatization. It is well known that the social costs of
economic reform have been dramatic. During the 1980s, the levels of poverty in
Latin America increased from 35% to 41%. Despite a slight recovery from 41% to
39% between 1990 and 1994, more than 200 million people live in conditions of
poverty in Latin America today. This means that "one out of every six
households in Latin America is still unable to satisfy its nutritional needs,
even assuming it spent all its meagre resources entirely on food"8.
Neo-liberal economic reforms should not be treated as
a temporary phenomenon but as a historical transition to a new model of
development in which the market plays a determinant role in the organization of
economic and social affairs. Therefore, the "lost decade" of the
1980's represented a transition period to a new model of state-society
relations conditioned by the requirements of the global market.9
Needless to say, the implications of this model for the future of democratic
representation in the region are profound.
Current processes of economic and political reform in
Latin America create profound tensions and contradictions between the
institutionalization of neo-liberal economies that are exclusive and democratic
po:,itical systems that are inclusive.10 These tensions and
contradictions are the result of the limited capacity that political parties
and electoral processes have to influence the normative framework within which
public policies, and especially economic policies, are formulated and
implemented in the countries of the region. Very often, this normative
framework is imposed by international organizations upon national states
without taking into consideration the needs and demands of the voters.
Therefore, electoral democracy in Latin America
allows people the capacity to choose the governments in charge of administering
states that function predominantly in accordance with the principles and values
of the international economic system. These dernocracies do not always offer
people the opportunity to condition and determine the functions and priorities
of the state.
This situation creates appropriate conditions for the
strengthening of the power of the presidency at the expense of the power of
national and sub-national structures of political representation. The reason
for this is that the influence of global structures encourages the isolation of
important components of the policy making process from the turbulence and
pressures of domestic politics.11 For example, in Ecuador, Catherine
M. Conaghan explains how the traditional tendency for presidents to by-pass
congress "has been reinforced by the exigencies of the economic and debt
crisis.... In their efforts to deal with external actors, presidents and their
coteries of policy-makers in the executive branch seek to insulate economic
policy from the pressures exerted by parties, legislators, and interest
The tendency for Latin American presidents to
increase their power over national structures of political representation poses
a serious challenge for the consolidation of democratic rule in the region.
This tendency creates conditions for "executive arrogation, which occurs
when an elected chief executive concentrates power in his own hands,
subordinates or even suspends the legislature, and rules largely by
decree".13 In Latin America, "executive arrogation"
is based on a "delegative" notion of political authority.
"Delegative-democracies", Guillermo O'Donnell points out, are
organized around the figure of "a caesaristic, plebiscitarian executive
that once elected sees itself as empowered to govern the country as it deems
The Dangers of Democratic Failure
The historical gap that has separated society and the
State in Latin America, and the tendency for globalization to widen this gap
represents a formidable challenge for the consolidation of structures of
democratic representation in the region. To transcend delegative forms of
democracy and to avoid the dangers of superpresidencialisrno, Latin American
political processes must facilitate the development of congruent relations
between those who make political and policy decisions and those who receive the
effects of those decisions. This requires the strengthening of political
structures of representation that can give society the capacity to condition
the function of the state.
Legislatures can play a fundamental role in the
development of a democratic relationship between the state and society in Latin
America. The reason for this is that legislatures enjoy a higher degree of
autonomy vis-a-vis the institutions of the international economy and the
pressures of the global market than the executive. By strengthening their
authority: that is, by vigorously assuming the representation of the needs of
society, legislatures can become the anchor that keeps the increasingly
transnationalized states of the region in touch with the needs and demands of
the people. Failure to develop this relationship can eliminate the raison
d'etre of democratic politics and democratic representation; and therefore, the
possibilities for the consolidation of democratic rule in Latin America.
History shows that when democratic processes can not produce responsive
governments, people look for answers outside democracy.
Held, "Democracy, the Nation-State and the Global System," in David
Held, ed., Political Theory Today. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Veliz, The Centralist Tradition in Latin America. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1980.
3. Juan J.
Linz, "Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does It Make a
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Linz and Arturo Valenzuela, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
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Vol. 7, No. 2, April 1996.
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