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Democratic Representation in Latin America: Old and New Challenges
Andrés Perez

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 "globalization."

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 governments.

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 authority.

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 tradition.

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 political representation.

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 managed.

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 populations.7

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 groups".12

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 fit".14

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.

Notes

1. David Held, "Democracy, the Nation-State and the Global System," in David Held, ed., Political Theory Today. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

2. Claudio Veliz, The Centralist Tradition in Latin America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

3. Juan J. Linz, "Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy: Does It Make a Difference?" in Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

4. Anthony Giddens,      The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

5. Jeremy Mitchell, "The Nature and Government of the Global Economy," in Anthony G. McGrew, Paul G. Lewis et al., Global Politics: Globalization and the Nation State. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.

6. Richard Simeon, "Globalization and the Canadian Nation-State," n G. Bruce Doern and Byme B. Purchase, eds., Canada at Risk: Canadian Public Policy in the 1990's. Ottawa: C.D. Howe .nstitute, Policy Study 13, 1991; Ventriss, Curtis, "The nternationalization of Public Administration and Public Policy Implications for Teaching," Policy Studies Review, Vol. 8 (Summer), 1989.

7. James N. Rosenau, "The Relocation of Authority in a Shrinking World," Comparative Politics, April 1992.

8. ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), Social Panorama of Latin America 1996. Santiago, Chile: United Nations, 1997.

9. CEPAL (Comision Economica para America Latina y el Caribe), Transformation Productiva con Equidad. Santiago, Chile: Naciones Unidas, 1990.

10. Fernando Calderon, and Mario R. Dos Santos, eds., Hacia un Nuevo Orden Estatal en America Latina: Veinte Tesis Sociopoliticas y un Corolario. Santiago, Chile: CLACSO and Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1991.

11. Lourdes Sola, "Heterodox Shock in Brazil: Tecnicos, Politicians, and Democracy," Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 23, 1991.

12. Catherine M. Conaghan, "Loose Parties, `Floating' Politicians, and Institutional Stress: Presidentialism in Ecuador, 1979-1988," in Juan J. Linz and Arturo Valenzuela, eds., The Failure of Presidential Democracy Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

13. Samuel P. Huntington, "Democracy for the Long Haul," Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7, No. 2, April 1996.

14. Guillermo O'Donnell, "Illusions About Consolidation," Journal of  Democracy, Vol. 7, No. 2, April 1996.

 


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 20 no 2
1997






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