Monday, April 26, 2004

# Posted 9:08 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

SAVING LATIN DEMOCRACY: Today, the NYT is running one of its periodic editorials on why democracy in Latin America simply won't last. The format is pretty standard. The editorial begins by discussing some unsettling aspect of Latin American politics, then concludes with some trite advice about how to strengthen the democratic order. The unsettling fact for today is as follows:
The U.N. [Development Program] surveyed thousands of people in 18 democratic Latin American countries and found that a solid majority would prefer an authoritarian system if it produced economic benefits.
Commenting on this result, the NYT observes that
Clearly, this endorsement of the Pinochet model shows that most Latin Americans do not feel as if they have a stake in their democracy.
Now hold on a second. Pinochet was a brutal dictator who murdered thousands. Is he what the UN's poll respondents had in mind when they expressed their willingness to trade freedom for prosperity? Probably not.

Along with most academic experts on Latin American politics, journalists often forget how powerful the memory of a brutal dictatorship is. I don't think it is any accident that democracy is strongest today in those Latin American nations that suffered the most under military rule (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, etc.) whereas it is most threatened in those nations that had very moderate dictatorships (Ecuador and Peru) or haven't had to endure authoritarian rule for more than fifty years (Colombia and Venezuela).

On a related note, the NYT should probably mention that dictatorships actually have an extremely poor record of promoting economic growth or even economic stability. The Pinochet regime probably came the closest, although Chile suffered terribly during the pan-Latin crisis in the early 1980s. In theory, dictatorships are supposed to be able to implement those economic reforms that are too controversial for an elected government to implement. Yet in the absence of a democratic mandate, Latin American generals have often found themselves forced to buy off both the rich and the poor. So, what is to be done? The NYT recommends that
Democratization in much of Latin America, if it is to be completed rather than reversed, now requires a bold set of reforms aimed at bolstering the rule of law, such as the development of independent judiciaries.
I think it is fairly misleading to suggest that a lack of boldness is the cause of Latin America's troubles. Even the most well-meaning governments (and Latin America has had many) cannot will the rule of law into existence. If a policeman can't afford clothes for his children, do we really expect him to resist taking bribes? Perhaps if there were better child welfare programs, policemen wouldn't take bribes. But how can you set up such programs when the bureaucrats are also corrupt? And so the cycle continues.

Rather than a lack of will, what Latin America suffers from is a set of interlocking institutional crises that eviscerate the democratic order without necessarily promoting dictatorship. How can such interlocking crises be resolved? Unfortunately, nobody knows. Political scientists have been caught off guard, since they expect flawed democratic orders to be overthrown by dictatorships. In other words, this is the first time that Latin America's democracies have survived long enough for the experts to worry about institution-building rather than coups d'etat. At least that is something to be thankful for.
(0) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments: Post a Comment