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Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean: The Promise and the Challenge
Recent moves toward more democraticsystems of government in Latin America are now a decade-long trend that has led to the replacement of numerous military regimes or dictatorships (see map at centerfold). In the United States during the same period, considerations of human rights, the dignity of the individual, and the defense of freedom have led to a widening bipartisan consensus in support of democracy as a key principle of U.S. foreign policy.
These converging trends create a rareopportunity. If sustained, they could have profound implications for the future of the Western Hemisphere. At a minimum, their continued convergence can make possible a new era of greater cooperation in hemispheric relations.
The instability of past LatinAmerican development and the discontinuity of U.S. policy toward its neighbors make clear that this long-term promise is still just a possibility. Today's converging trends are real, but they are also fragile. Latin Americans continue to struggle with numerous and urgent obstacles to full democratization, including appalling differences in the living standards of rich and poor, inadequate economic opportunities, and political extremism. To help turn today's promise into tomorrow's reality, the United States also must overcome many domestic problems and conflicting priorities that hinder sustained U.S. support for democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Both the democratic promise and thechallenges to it have become more sharply defined since the Department of State first reported on the democratic transition nearly 3 years ago (see "Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean,' Department of State Bulletin of October 1984). This report was prepared in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Since the early 19th century when mostof the nations in the hemisphere achieved independence, most people living in the region found that national independence did not necessarily bring individual freedom. Today's democratic advances, however, could make a watershed between a past of instability and authoritarianism and a future of greater freedom.
Just a decade ago, such a possibilityseemed remote indeed. In 1976, only 34% of the people in the Western Hemisphere outside the United States and Canada enjoyed democratic rule. True, Costa Rica had a strong tradition of civilian authority, competitive politics, and model constitutional arrangements for elections. But Costa Rica's neighbors in Central America were presided over by generals who had become presidents either by open use of force or by stagemanaged elections. In South America, democratic Venezuela and Colombia were almost as isolated. Led by generals as different as Chile's Augusto Pinochet on the right and Peru's Juan Velasco on the left, the continent was almost defiantly militarized. The promise of Bolivia's national revolution of the 1950s had given way to military dominance, as had Uruguay's social democratic utopia. Even decentralized and moderate Brazil was under military rule. Individual Latin Americans bearing witness to torture and official violence were in exile throughout the Americas and Europe. When internal war and repression in Argentina were followed by surprise military action in the Falklands/Malvinas Islands, many saw a pattern that symbolized a region condemned to military abuse and autidemocratic practice.
In marked contrast, today 91% ofthe people of Latin America and the Caribbean live in nations committed to a future based on democratic principles. In 10 years, 10 countries have moved, often dramatically, toward democracy. In nine of the ten, military presidents have been replaced by elected civilians: Argentina (1983), Bolivia (1982), Brazil (1985), Ecuador (1979), El Salvador (1984), Guatemala (1986), Honduras (1982), Peru (1980), and Uruguay (1985). In the 10th country, Grenada, an elected civilian succeeded two consecutive autocrats who were themselves civilians but who had relied on armed thugs to rule. (In an 11th country, Panama, direct military rule ended in 1978, but in a clear setback for democracy in 1985, a civilian president was pressured to resign by the military.) In the Caribbean Basin, the six former British dependencies --Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Dominica, St. Christopher and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines --that became independent nations during the past decade did so as democracies.
The following examples of electoralpolitics where there were none just a few years ago highlight the progress that has been made from the Garibbean to Tierra del Fuego and from Central America to the Andes.
Argentina. The 1983 presidentialand legislative elections ended a decade of internal conflict and military rule. Voter participation exceeded 85% of those registered in an open contest among eight political parties representing the full political spectrum. The presidential race offered a choice between candidates from Argentina's two major historic movements, Peronism and Radicalism. In winning, Radical Civic Union leader Raul Alfonsin received the most votes in Argentine history. In the two ensuing years, voter registration increased by an additional 4%, and the 1985 legislative elections again attracted massive participation.
Brazil. Congressional and municipalelections in 1982 heralded the transition to civilian government and the resurgence of competitive electoral politics in Latin America's largest country and the world's third most populous democracy (after India and the United States). The percentage of adults who voted rose from 45% in 1962 to 81% in 1982. A civilian president was elected by indirect vote on January 15, 1985, but died before his inauguration. In accordance with legal procedures, the civilian Vice President-elect, Jose Sarney, was sworn in, ending two decades of military rule. The democratic transition is being completed with the writing of a new constitution by the Congress elected in November 1986 by more than 47 million voters.
Dominican Republic. The rulingparty expected to retain the presidency and to control the legislature in the May 1986 national elections. But after 70% of the registered voters cast their ballots, the opposition candidate had the most votes. When the leader of the opposition, Joaquin Balaguer, became president in August 1986, the entirely peaceful transfer of power was a reaffirmation of Dominican democracy. The absence of either interference by the military or outside intervention also contrasted markedly with past Dominican history, which includes the 31-year Trujillo dictatorship, a military operation by the United States and the Organization of American States in 1965, and overt pressure from the United States for all sectors to support the results of the democratic elections in 1978.
El Salvador. Four times in 5 years,massive numbers of voters braved violence and threats of violence to cast their ballots in hotly contested nationwide races conducted under intense international scrutiny. In 1984, an absolute majority of all adult Salvadorans twice defied guerrilla appeals for a boycott to vote in the first truly competitive presidential elections in 12 years. The result: civil engineer and Christian Democratic leader Jose Napoleon Duarte--the very man who had been denied the presidency by the military in 1972--was elected over retired Army Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson and six other candidates.
Grenada. After the Marxist NewJEWEL Movement seized power in a 1979 coup, it reneged on its promise to hold elections. In October 1983, however, the New JEWEL's "People's Revolutionary Government' disintegrated in bitter factional fighting. Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and three other ministers were assassinated by their own comrades. At the invitation of Governor General Sir Paul Scoon, a joint U.S.-Caribbean military expedition restored order, then withdrew, leaving a provisional government named by Grenada's Governor General to organize free elections. On December 3, 1984, 85% of Grenada's registered voters went to the polls to elect a parliament. Six political parties were on the ballot, including one formed by supporters of Maurice Bishop and one backed by former Prime Minister Eric Gairy (whose violent overthrow had initially enabled Bishop to seize power). Neither of these groups was successful: the New National Party garnered roughly 58% of the vote, and Herbert Blaize formed a new government in accordance with the 1974 constitution.
Guatemala. Seeking a political pathout of Guatemala's internal violence and international isolation, military leaders in 1983 decided to transfer power gradually to civilians. On July 1, 1984, 72% of Guatemala's eligible voters cast ballots that sent representatives from nine political parties and one regional civic committee to a constituent assembly. On November 3, 1985, free elections were held for president, vice president, congressional deputies, and mayors. When no candidate for the presidency received a majority, a runoff was held on December 8, 1985, between the who leading contenders, both civilians. In that contest, Christian Democrat Vinicio Cerezo won more than 68% of the vote. On January 14, 1986, the new constitution came into force, Cerezo was inaugurated, and military control over daily life in Guatemala was sharply reduced.
Peru. After 12 years of militaryrule, the 1979 constitution and 1980 presidential elections put Peru back on a democratic course under civilian leadership. Since then, municipal (1983 and 1986) and presidential (1985) elections have followed prescribed constitutional and legal procedures. In 1985, more than 91% of Peru's registered voters divided their ballots among candidates representing 12 political parties. Alan Garcia became the first member of Peru's historic American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) party to be elected president. He also became the first elected civilian since 1945 to receive Peru's presidential sash from another elected civilian.
Uruguay. Uruguay returned todemocratic government in March 1985 following 12 years of military rule that had tarnished a record of freely elected civilian government dating back to the 19th century. More than 87% of the nation's eligible registered voters cast their ballots in national elections in which two major political parties and a leftist coalition competed.
The swell of democracy is not superficial.It has been welcomed by electorates which have organized, campaigned, and voted in record numbers throughout the region. Since 1980, voters in 24 independent countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have cast more than 280 million votes in more than 50 nationwide elections to select presidents, national legislatures, and constituent assemblies. In virtually every case, the number of people going to the polls reached record highs.
Compared to the 1950s and 1960s,the proportion of eligible voters actually going to the polls has been up sharply, in some cases by as much as 50%. Nor have the increases resulted from forced voting. Turnouts were as high or higher in some countries where voting is not mandatory (85% in Grenada in 1984 and 89% in The Bahamas in 1982) as in some countries where voting is traditionally compulsory. Where voting is required, the historic form of voter protest, the incidence of blank or defaced ballots, tended to diminish substantially as voters gained the opportunity to vote for genuine alternatives.
Democracy, of course, is more thanfree elections. But its essence is the right of citizens to decide regularly whether to keep or replace those who claim to represent them. The absence of genuinely free elections in Chile and Paraguay, patently unfair elections in Nicaragua, and allegations of vote fraud in Mexico and Panama are major continuing difficulties. Cuba has not held a single direct popular election for national office since Castro came to power in 1959.
Though Latin America's recent electoralrecord is still far from perfect, the changes that have already taken place have made an enormous difference for millions of Latin Americans. Most of the brutal dictatorships are gone. Latin America's longstanding democracies-- Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Colombia-- no longer are isolated. On the contrary, it is the authoritarian regimes that are becoming isolated. Cuba and Nicaragua on the totalitarian left, and Chile and Paraguay on the authoritarian right, are the only major exceptions to the trend. Even Haiti, perhaps the most compelling case of a country plagued by brutal dictatorship and the degrading economic deprivation that it generated, has taken the first steps toward democratic government following the ouster of the Duvalier dynasty on February 7, 1986.
ROOTS OF CHANGE
The shift away from authoritarianregimes (typically dominated by military leaders) to freely elected governments (typically led by civilians) reflects many forces, some of them quite transient. But more lasting underlying forces have been at work as well.
Social change and economic development,the growth of institutions, and political and cultural shifts have combined to weaken the old power centers and add new ones. Influences from outside the region also have been important. This section describes the many factors increasing Latin America's capacity to sustain democracy; the next section discusses the many problems with which democrats must still contend.
Improved Socioeconomic Conditions
Latin American societies are scarred bypoverty and sharply unequal distribution of opportunities and services. Yet, over the last two generations, standards of living (as measured by infant mortality, literacy, nutrition, and energy consumption) have improved more dramatically in Latin America and the Caribbean than in any other region in the developing world (see charts, p. 61).
Between 1960 and 1980, per capitaincome doubled despite rapid population growth. Throughout Latin America, urbanization, industrialization, and institutional development broke down old class structures and spurred the growth of middle classes. Values and attitudes developed that foster political participation and make dictatorships harder to sustain.
This increased potential fordemocracy cannot by itself guarantee that democracy will be achieved or maintained. Moreover, recent declines in gross domestic product have created a host of problems (discussed in the next section) that pose serious challenges to the democratic transition. But the development that has taken place is undeniably improving the base necessary for democracy to prosper.
Education. Improvements in educationhave outstripped increases in population. The percentage of primary school-age children attending school increased from 57% in 1960 to 82% in 1980. In 1960, only 35% of the region's children aged 12-17 were enrolled in school; a mere 6% of the university-age population attended universities and technical schools. By 1980, these figures were 63% and 26% respectively. These gains account for the 79% adult literacy rate for the region in 1980. Such successes have increased political awareness, increased expectations about the role of government, and expanded economic opportunities for workers and entrepreneurs.
Health. Lowered infant mortalityrates and increases in life expectancy have combined with the virtual eradication of once-common debilitating diseases such as poliomyelitis to improve general health conditions. Healthier individuals have more opportunity to develop political interests, as well as greater energy to devote to political involvement.
Urbanization. Once overwhelminglyrural, Latin America has urbanized faster than the rest of the developing world. In 1950, only seven cities in the region had populations larger than 1 million; by 1980, the number had climbed to 25, and this figure could double by the end of the century. About 37% of Latin America's population resided in urban areas in 1950. Today, more than two-thirds of the region's people are city dwellers. Urbanization has eroded the rural power base of the traditional landed elite, while simultaneously facilitating communication and political participation.
The spread of education and industrializationhave transformed old institutions and created new ones. Both public institutions (military forces, government bureaucracies, and national universities) and private institutions (the church, political parties, private universities, trade unions, and major corporations) have been affected.
The evolution of religious andmilitary institutions--"the cross and the sword' of the Spanish conquest and key pillars of traditional order ever since then--illustrates the new values, organizational diversity, and reduced power of individual caudillos that have increased space for democratic politics.
In the quarter century since VaticanCouncil II, Latin America's Roman Catholic bishops have tended to act as social critics, leading the church to positions open to change and independent of secular authorities. Together with the spread of Protestantism, this has encouraged political as well as religious diversity.
The armed forces, meanwhile, havebecome less tied to economic elites and more professional. Despite ever-present rewards for strong individual leadership, military leaders must deal with their fellow officers within an institutional framework. The road to command is now usually as much a function of technical competence, bureaucratic skill, and coalition building as it is of personal mangetism or direct troop command.
Political and Cultural Changes
Mass Communications. Radio has givenvirtually every household in Latin America and the Caribbean access to information previously reserved to the traditional elites. More people are reading an ever-growing variety of newspapers, magazines, and books. And except for the few people isolated in remote regions such as the Amazon Basin or Patagonia, almost everyone has at least occasional access to television. Improved access to information and ideas has raised expectations and increased pressures for participation and political change.
Democratic Activism. Aspirationsfor greater political participation have tended to combine in recent years with rejection of the violence and abuse of political extremists and dictatorships of both left and right. Volunteer civic education programs, such as the Argentine organization Conciencia (see box,
right), have proliferated. By informing people of their rights and responsibilities as citizens of a democracy, civic movements draw more people into the political process.
Momentum. With each election, theright to choose becomes more institutionalized, establishing habits of pluralistic political practice that widen voter participation and broaden support for democratic government. Each election increases political activism, as more citizens take part in civic education programs, serve as poll workers, campaign for candidates, or run for office. With each peaceful transition from one civilian government to its successor, the democratic machinery is further refined and improved.
U.S. Policy. Under two very differentadministrations since the mid-1970s, the United States has sought to encourage democratic transitions in Latin America. Under the Administration of President Jimmy Carter, support for human rights was the guiding principle. During the Administration of President Ronald Reagan, the emphasis shifted toward a policy championing the broader values of democracy. The practical effect was one of substantial bipartisan continuity. Bolivia and El Salvador, for example, were both very controversial at the time of the 1980-81 transition between the Carter and Reagan Administrations. In both cases, the United States consistently supported democratization to successful outcomes. By 1986--when the U.S. offer to transport Jean Claude Duvalier out of Haiti helped prevent further bloodshed and proved a key factor in Duvalier's decision to step down--few doubted that democracy was one area where the U.S. Executive and Congress had found common ground.
Iberian Examples. Despite frequentpolitical disagreements, most Latin American countries have cultural and emotional affinities to Spain and Portugal rooted in the colonial experience. The demise of authoritarian military regimes in the two Iberian "mother' nations during the mid-1970s added impetus to democratic forces in Latin America. The subsequent consolidation of democracy in both countries provided democratic models to complement that of the United States and those of Latin America itself.
Failed Alternatives. Democracyalso has profited by …