Challenges and threats to democracy in Latin America

From the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, Latin American countries led the so-called second wave of democratisation, following southern Europe in the mid-1970s and preceding Eastern Europe, East Asia and parts of Africa in the late 1980s and 1990s. For two decades the peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule after decades of repressive military dictatorship and, in Central America, outright civil war, was deemed a success story. The only exception in the region to this democratic trend was Cuba.

Linz and Stepan, in their classic book on the transition to democracy, identified five modern regime ideal types: democracy, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, post-totalitarianism and sultanism (derived from Weber’s extreme patrimonialism), which they described in terms of the defining characteristics of pluralism, ideology, mobilisation and leadership.

Challenges and obstacles to democracy promotion

Cultural barriers

In analysing why the transitions to democracy have not yielded the expected results, a common claim is that a society’s propensity or ‘fitness’ for democracy is predicated on its cultural and geographic proximity to the West (Nodia 2002; McFaul 2002). Ernest Gellner (1994), for instance, argued that the concept of civil society is inapplicable in certain contexts, including in non-Western patrimonial societies and in tribal societies (Gellner 1994). He questioned whether civil society could exist in Islamic societies. Others, such as Elie Kedourie or Serif Mardin, have also claimed civil society is a Western dream that does not translate well into Islamic society (Mardin 1995, quoted in Sajoo 2002) or that Muslims have nothing in their own political traditions that is compatible with Western notions of democracy (Kedourie 1992). Meanwhile, in the context of the post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe, ‘transitologists’ often ‘invoke “culture”, that amorphous, omnibus concept’ as an explanation for why certain Western policies or blueprints have been resisted (Burawoy and Verdery 1999: 14). For instance, in Bosnia, culture or ethnic mentality were cited as reasons for the inability to embrace civil society development and democratisation. David Chandler discusses the disparaging ways in which the Bosnian people and society were viewed by some international actors and internationally funded local NGOs. They perceived Bosnian society as ‘deeply sick’, ‘feudalistic’ or as ‘the flock’ (Chandler 2004: 240–1). He argues that this focus on the perceived incapacities of Bosnians is only one side of the story and that greater attention must be paid to the ‘failing within international democratisation practice itself’ (Chandler 2004: 228).

Achievements of democracy promotion programmes

Many of the democracy promotion success stories are about the countries in Central and East Europe, although South Africa and the Philippines are also mentioned (Gaventa 2006; Hawthorne 2004: 5). The EU enlargement and accession process has come to be seen not only as the EU’s first major experience of democracy promotion, but also as one of the most successful cases of democracy promotion in general. Integration into the EU is often described as an effective tool of democracy promotion because it provided incentives for the leadership of democratising countries to pursue internal changes (McFaul 2004: 157). Certainly, great strides have been made and many democratic institutions and practices have been established in the countries of Central and East Europe. However, this did not happen overnight and enlargement is not an approach that can be replicated elsewhere. Moreover, the ‘return to Europe’ has been more complicated than would initially appear. Examining democratisation processes in Central and Eastern Europe, Mary Kaldor and Ivan Vejvoda recognise the establishment of formal democratic institutions and maintain that there is hope for the development of substantive democracies in these countries. They contend that the process of democratisation, in substantive terms, is ‘underway’ (Kaldor and Vejvoda 1997: 80). While acknowledging the successes of Eastern European countries in establishing democratic institutions and practices, it is important to also recognise that the development of democracy and the growth of Eastern European civil societies (namely, an increased number of organisations) has not necessarily been translated into greater citizen engagement or participation (Celichowski 2004: 77), or led to greater benefits for various social groups (Hann 2004: 46).

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, democracy promotion means imaginative responses to demands from global civil society. The best form of empowerment is success, the knowledge that engagement leads to meaningful outcomes. Action designed to fulfil an emerging global social contract or covenant – the consequence of numerous debates, campaigns, arguments taking place all over the world – offers a political project that can help to recast democracy at local and national levels. A good example of what is meant by this is the enlargement of the European Union. The European Union can be understood a new type of multilateral organisation at a regional level, promoting, as it were, regional public goods. Membership of the European Union for newly emerging democracies has become an appealing political project that does take democracy forward. In the same way, a global social covenant could offer a political project for ‘civilising’ globalisation and pressing for global public goods like resource redistribution or global action to tackle climate change that represents an alternative to backward-looking sectarianism.

There are, of course, important differences among the newly emerging democracies. Some countries, especially in the Balkans and Africa, have disintegrated under the impact of liberalisation. Ian Bremmer’s book The J Curve (2006) suggests that it is during the transition from authoritarianism to democracy that the risk of instability is greatest. Other countries in Southern and Central Europe are considered relatively successful. Part of the explanation has to do with specific legacies and experiences in the past and part has to do with economic factors. But if we understand the spread of democratic institutions as a form of global integration, then these differences also have to do with the terms of global integration – the extent to which newly emerging democracies are able to shape their position in the global system. And these, in turn, depend on the various instruments through which democracy is developed. The more that democratic institutions are introduced as a result of pressure from above, the less favourable the terms are likely to be. Conversely, the more that democracy is the outcome of the actions of individuals wanting to influence the conditions of their lives, the better the terms of global integration and the more substantive is democracy. Joining the EU was very important for Central and Southern European countries because it strengthened significantly their ability to influence the terms of their integration in the global system.