Challenges to Democracy in Latin America: Sources and Solutions​​​​​​​

Challenges to Democracy in Latin America: Sources and Solutions​​​​​​​

A region once characterized by its dictatorships, Latin America has enjoyed relatively stable democratic growth over the last few decades. With the exceptions of Venezuela and Cuba, all Latin American countries are now considered free or partly free on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Scale. Despite this dramatic transformation, Latin American countries still face a variety of challenges that threaten democracy. The region’s principal challenges to its democracies are their delegative nature, “unrule of law,” and clientelism. While the degree to which each of these challenges affects democracy varies, all three pose a threat. The first part of this paper examines definitions of democracy and the democratic trajectory of Latin America in terms of those definitions. The second half of the paper breaks down the challenges of delegative democracy, unrule of law, and clientelism. Finally, I conclude by offering potential solutions to these challenges.

Definitions of democracy are widely debated by scholars. Some argue that a government is democratic if it holds free and fair elections, while others contend that a government must maintain a certain level of representation to be truly democratic. Some argue that democracies require a margin of equality, and still others assert that exercise of the rule of law is a critical qualification. The degree to which each of these components exists in Latin American democracies varies. However, under the most basic electoral definition (which requires a country to hold free and fair elections) the majority of the region qualifies as democratic. This may seem like a low bar, but just a few decades ago, between 1964-1990, eleven countries in Latin America (Ecuador, Guatemala, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Panama, Honduras, Chile, Uruguay, and El Salvador) were ruled for significant periods of time by long-term military governments. In 1974, five counties—Cuba, Chile, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia—were ranked as “not free” by Freedom House, outnumbering the “free” countries. In 1978, only three of twenty countries (Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela) were democratic. In the 1980s, the tide began to shift as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile transitioned to civilian rule. Between 1974 and 1994, the number of free countries in Latin America doubled. By 2004, Cuba and Haiti were the only remaining authoritarian governments. With the exception of Venezuela, trends toward democracy have remained positive in the region over the past few decades. However, there is still progress to be made and challenges to be overcome.

One key challenge to democracy in Latin America is the lack of horizontal accountability. This ties into the argument that a democracy ought to maintain a certain level of representation. While some democracies are “horizontal,” that is, the elected leaders face checks and balances within the government, others are strictly “vertical,” wherein the leader answers to the people at election time but is then free to rule unchecked. In his chapter in the book Reflections on Uneven Democracies: The Legacy of Guillermo O'Donnell, Lucas González distinguishes between “delegative” and “representative” democracies, with delegative democracies lacking horizontal accountability and representative democracies ideally having both horizontal and vertical accountability. He uses various characteristics of delegative democracies (e.g. the president is taken to be the embodiment of the nation, the policies of his government need bear no resemblance to his campaign, and other institutions are considered impediments to the exercise of power) as indicators to classify each country. González classifies Argentina, Ecuador, and Colombia as recurring delegative democracies, Brazil and Peru as eroding delegative democracies, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Paraguay as intensifying delegative democracies, and Chile and Uruguay as stable representative democracies. This categorization demonstrates one analysis of the quality of democracy in Latin America. While all aforementioned countries are “democratic,” only two are considered by González to be representative. González finds that countries that face dire economic conditions and low pubic confidence in democracy are most likely to be delegative. As such, the implementation of neoliberal reforms in the 1990s (designed to curb inflation) might seem like a potential solution to the delegative nature of Latin American democracies. However, as Michael Walton argues, many Latin American countries were not in fact stabilized by neoliberal reforms and continued to experience high wealth inequality throughout and following their implementation. This lack of stability actually contributes to the delegative nature of some democracies. Additionally, as Michael Kurtz explains, democratic participation and political organization declined in the aftermath of neoliberal reforms. According to Kurtz, this is because free-market reforms disenfranchise poor people, create barriers to collective action, and increase the informal sector. All of these factors are likely to reduce the public’s confidence in their democracy, considering they can hardly access it, and in turn, bolster delegative democracies.

While formulating solutions for poor economic conditions is a complex challenge, low public confidence in democracy is easier to address. As it stands, this low confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; when citizens doubt the legitimacy or value of their democracy, they are unlikely to participate or challenge overreaches of power. Initiatives designed to educate, inform, and inspire citizens to be active members of their democracy might boost their confidence in it. However, to truly break the cycle, such efforts would have to be undertaken in conjunction with a strengthening of checks and balances. Again, though, institution strengthening (for example, giving the legislature more control over lawmaking, ensuring a strong judicial branch, etc.) is more likely to occur if an active public pushes for it and pushes back against an unchecked executive.

Another challenge facing Latin American democracies is the “unrule of law.” As Daniel M. Brinks and Sandra Botero point out in Reflections on Uneven Democracies: The Legacy of Guillermo O'Donnell, “democracy and the rule of law appear inextricably linked.” Without the rule of law, who is to stay that a democracy is even meeting the lowest bar of free and fair elections? As such, nominally democratic states must be evaluated by the extent that the rule of law operates throughout the country. Fortunately, as Brinks and Botero contend, Latin America has come a long way in terms of the law’s ability to “effectively guide social interactions” as “a source of both rights and responsibilities.” However, Brinks and Botero argue that the extent to which the rule of law exists varies from the national to subnational level. So while many Latin American democracies have made substantial progress in instituting the rule of law at the national level (through the establishment of formal laws), it does not hold to the same extent in all parts of a country. Guillermo O’Donnell highlights the prevalence of “brown areas” in Latin America, where the rule of law and democratic practice do not necessarily apply. These areas often reflect impoverished demographics. Other scholars, such as Edward Gibson, have examined the phenomena of subnational authoritarianism, wherein certain parts of the state are ruled by provincial authoritarian regimes, despite being located within a nationally democratic country.

Providing some instances of the subnational variation of the rule of law, Brinks and Botero examine Indigenous and Afro-Descendant land rights in Brazil. While indigenous and afro-descendant groups have seen progress in the incorporation of their demands into legal regimes, these rights are not realized in reality. They contend that this is because Brazil lacks the necessary ancillary institutions to make the formal recognition of these rights effective. For example, afro-descendant groups in Brazil have to be formally recognized by a state agency to be eligible for a communal land title; these titles are rarely granted, even to officially recognized groups.

In another example of the unrule of law, Brinks and Botero point out that gender-based violence prevails in many parts of Guatemala despite the enactment of several laws designed to protect women from different forms of violence. Compared to Argentina (where there are similar formal laws), Guatemala suffers from a significantly higher rate of gender-based violence. In this case, Brink and Botero point out that the difference is that Argentine women have historically successfully organized and earned political clout. These examples demonstrate that without political backing and reduced marginalization, these groups will not see their formal rights exercised in practice. As with the challenge of delegative democracies, increased political participation can be a potential solution to the unrule of law. If marginalized groups are able to organize and maintain a presence in the political sphere, its possible that they could gain the backing necessary to enforce formal laws in practice. However, as mentioned earlier, neoliberal reforms reduced political participation, making it more difficult to challenge the unrule of law. As Alejandro Portes and Kelly Hoffman argue, these market-oriented reforms also increased income inequality and contributed to the expansion of the “informal sector,” a large portion of the population that is excluded from formal jobs that are regulated, provide benefits, and allow for unionization. Members of the informal sector cannot organize in the way the formal sector can, making it all the more challenging to fight back when the rule of law is not exercised.

Finally, a key challenge to democracy in Latin America is clientelism (and more broadly, the poverty that sustains it). Clientelism is defined by Susan Stokes as the delivery of “material goods in return for electoral support.As explained by Ezequiel Gonzalez Ocantos and Paula Muñoz, a clientelistic relationship is characterized by an asymmetric power dynamic; it involves a patron and a client. The patron (typically either a public official or a candidate for public office) has control over resources that the client (typically a poor voter) needs. Often there are “brokers” that operate between the two, delivering the goods and enforcing the elicited support. According to Gonzalez Ocantos and Muñoz, the extent of clientelism varies across the region; it is most likely to exist in traditional (rather than mass) societies, competitive political environments, closed economies, and societies with a small middle class and large undeveloped areas. They also point out that the longer that clientelism occurs, the more stable it becomes. It is sometimes even perpetuated by voters themselves, who organize into groups or ethnic blocs to guarantee their continued receipt of resources from the patron.

Political figures and parties in Latin America are savvy when it comes to using clientelism to stay in power. An excellent example of this is the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) in Chile. Despite Chile’s positive categorization as a representative democracy, clientelistic practices persist. Juan Pablo Luna explains that by employing a strategy of dual-representation, the UDI represents the programmatic preferences of the business and conservative sectors (its core constituency) and then uses their private funding to target poor, segmented non-core constituencies through clientelism. This allowed the UDI to maintain power despite the small size of their core base. Luna argues that this type of party-voter linkage strategy (non-programmatic exchanges of non-state funded benefits for votes) creates socially-skewed representation by disproportionately representing the interests of those who provide the funds.

The effects of clientelism are not so obviously all negative, however. In his book Poor People’s Politics, Javier Ayuero demonstrates through field research in Argentina that clientelism can function as a problem-solving network in poor neighborhoods. Examining the relationship between the Peronist government in Argentina, municipality officials and brokers, and poor citizens living in the shantytown of Villa Paraiso, Ayuero followed several individual brokers and describes the way in which they maintain a close inner circle for distribution of information and resources as well as a wider circle of beneficiaries and supporters (aka “clients”). The goods, provided by the government, are distributed by the brokers and their inner circles through programs like Plan Vida. In this instance of clientelism, brokers do not overtly elicit votes. Rather, they establish long-term relationships wherein beneficiaries depend on brokers for basic goods (food, medicine, jobs, etc.) in order to nurture loyalty that translates into political support. If the beneficiaries do not attend rallies or support the party, they stop receiving the resources. As Ayuero highlights, clientelism can work as a solution to the needs of the poor. Consequentially, this complex problem-solving network is deeply rooted, given that the clients themselves contribute to the structure in order to survive. While this network is no substitute for long-term, sustainable structural change to the system of poverty and inequality in Latin America, it offers an immediate solution to an immediate problem and it is difficult to fault clients for participating and therefore perpetuating the practice.

Further research needs to be done to determine how harmful clientelism is for democracy, but its restriction on the freeness and fairness of an election is obvious. Moreover, it contributes to the cycle of poverty, by giving the poor only the bare minimum needed to survive and denying them to ability to elect candidates with programmatic platforms designed to alleviate poverty and inequality in the long-run. As this paper demonstrates, poverty and inequality create further challenges to democracy by marginalizing certain groups and, in turn, inhibiting the rule of law. Moreover, poverty is correlated with reduced political participation, which contributes to the delegative nature of several Latin American democracies.

Latin America has made incredible democratic progress over the last three decades. Democracy has become more stable and more valued across the region. Despite these advances however, many democracies in the region face notable challenges. Delegative democracies are common; while they still entail free and fair elections, their executives face little to no accountability once elected and are not necessarily beholden to the people (or even to his/her party of base). Despite increased efforts to pass formal laws designed to protect and represent the interests of traditionally marginalized groups, the rule of law does not extend to all cities or people. A lack of political backing and organized political participation inhibits the institution of new norms and the informal execution of formal legislation. Implementing programs (whether administered by the government or NGOs) designed to educate and organize marginalized voters or members of the informal sector could work to boost public confidence in democracy and earn these groups political backing. These effects will promote governmental accountability at the executive level and provide support for the rule of law throughout the country. Finally, clientelism continues to persist throughout the region and will likely continue to so long as poverty and inequality remain high. While the poverty and inequality rates are lower now in the region than in the past few decades, the poorest still cannot attain basic resources necessary for surviving or carrying out day to day activities. While eradicating poverty requires long-term economic solutions (that will double as a solution to delegative democracies), smaller steps can be taken in the short-run to combat clientelism. The institution of social programs (like Bolsa Familia, for example, in Brazil) that successfully provide people with basic needs (that are currently being met by patrons) is one possible solution. If the standard of living of the poor is raised, clientelistic practices become more expensive and consequentially a less efficient means of obtaining political support. Overall, democracy is making gains in Latin America but it has serious hurdles to overcome. At the core of these challenges are poverty, inequality, and lack of political participation. Designing programs and policies to tackle these deeper issues (which are all linked to one another) will improve the quality of life for poor Latin Americans and have the external benefit of alleviating the complex challenges of delegative democracies, the unrule of law, and clientelism.


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