Today's date:
Spring 1986

Latin Democracy and US Policy

Abraham Lowenthal is professor of political science at the School of International Relations, University of Southern California. He is also the executive director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a group of leading citizens from both North and South America seeking to promote improved relations in the hemisphere.

As a member of the Institute's advisory board, we asked Professor Lowenthal to review recent developments in Latin America.

Democracy has long been the ideal in Latin American politics. At some times and places, it has actually been the reality. Even authoritarian governments in Latin America typically promise elections and justify their repression as necessary to resume democracy. However cynical these proclamations, they reflect the hemisphere's prevailing norm. Regimes in the Americas that cannot claim to rule with the consent of the governed ultimately lose their legitimacy.

Now, in the mid-1980s, what may become a decisive transition to democratic rule is taking place. This movement is still fragile, but it is bold and dramatic. Argentina under Raul Alfonsin has sentenced three former military leaders to life imprisonment for human rights abuses. In Guatemala, where military rule has long been exceptionally brutal, the first civilian president in thirty-four years has just been inaugurated. In Bolivia, power has been transferred from one civilian to another for the first time in twenty-five years. And Brazil, the continent's largest nation, now has a civilian president and is moving steadily toward direct elections.

This democratic wave in Latin America is real, and it will be important if it can last. The United States has an historic opportunity now, because US policy could help consolidate democracy in the Americas.

The First Democratic Wave
Twice in the years since World War II, Latin America has experienced a region-wide swing toward democratic politics. The first, in the aftermath of the war, faded away almost as soon as it began. The second, at the end of the 1950s, was hailed as the "twilight of the tyrants" as one dictatorship after another collapsed. By 1961, only one South American country was under military rule, and personalist and oligarchical dynasties in the Caribbean Basin were beginning to topple.

But the democratic euphoria of the 1960s proved short-lived. Instead, the late 1960s and the 1970s saw a sharp new turn to authoritarianism. In some countries - Bolivia and Ecuador are examples - traditional military interventions continued the familiar pattern of political instability.

The hallmark of South American politics in the 1970s, however, was the consolidation of a new breed of military government in the relatively modem and industrialized countries of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay). These "bureaucratic authoritarian" regimes were more technocratic, exclusionist, repressive and long-lasting than previous dictatorships.

In varying degrees, all of the new military regimes banned political parties and activities; repressed trade unions, professional associations and other independent organizations; detained, tortured, deported and even "disappeared" opponents; and generally moved Latin America farther than ever from democracy. At one point, Colombia and Venezuela were the only South American countries with civilian regimes. Costa Rica was the only democracy in Central America.

From Military Rule To A New Democracy
The plague of repression that swept much of South America in the 1970s began to abate by the end of the decade. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, armed forces began to transfer power back to civilians in one country after another. That process has accelerated in the 1980s despite severe economic and social problems. By 1985, the fundamental political issue in the hemisphere has shifted from the transition away from authoritarian regimes to that of consolidating newly-reestablished constitutional processes.

In Argentina, the government of Raul Alfonsin has not only put on trial those responsible for human rights abuses, but it has won increased support in congressional elections.

Brazil's steady "abertura" survived the tragic death of its first civilian elected president in twenty-one years, Tancredo Neves.

After a long and bitter interlude, Uruguay has renewed its democratic vocation and begun to practice politics with the civility and restraint for which the country was known until the 1970s.

In Peru, the newly-elected president, Alan Garcia, has so far achieved unprecedented acclaim from his nation's citizens.

In Ecuador and Bolivia, civilian regimes have transferred power to opposition leaders with programs significantly different from the incumbent governments.

Colombia and Venezuela, meanwhile, have retained their strong democratic systems despite serious challenges.

Even in Chile, where military strongman Augosto Pinochet is in his thirteenth year of personalist rule, the National Accord for a Transition to Full Democracy provides a focal point for efforts to move Chile back toward democracy.

In Central America, where constitutional democracy has historically been achieved only in Costa Rica, broadly participatory and solidly-established constitutional regimes still do not exist. However, internal and external pressures have combined to promote national elections, albeit imperfect ones, in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Only in Panama has there been a sharp reversal of the regional trend toward democratic renewal, although there has also been some retrogression in other countries including Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. And, of course there is still no democracy in Cuba, Paraguay or Haiti.

The reasons for the military decisions to return to their barracks have varied, but in all cases the military withdrew from office during a period of agonizing economic downturn which the armed forces had not been able to reverse. These transitions were also strongly reinforced by the human rights policies of the United States during the Carter Administration, then by the culminating examples of neighbors returning to civilian rule, and they have usually been reinforced by US policy under the Reagan Administration.

Will Democracy Stick?
Is the current Latin American turn to democracy just another pendular swing in a recurrent cycle, or are the new democracies in the 1980s likely to be more robust than their predecessors?

The obstacles to consolidating Latin America's new democracies are daunting. Yet, the tone of political discourse in the hemisphere during the past two years has been upbeat.

The hopes for consolidating democracy in Latin America arise from the confluence of several favorable circumstances.

First, many military leaders seem convinced that the armed forces should concentrate on its professional mission. The long experience at governing took its toll in institutional coherence and morale, and put the armed forces on the defensive.

Second, one result of the long and brutal period of repression has been to underscore the value of political democracy. What leftist intellectuals used to disparage as formal of "bourgeois" democracy is now recognized as the only feasible form of politics that provides scope for progress. Many rightist authoritarians, in turn, have come to recognize that long-term stability depends on the legitimacy and reduced polarization provided by democratic participation. Latin American political leaders and followers are both, by and large, more pragmatic than those of previous generations.

Third, the experience to date of Raul Alfonsin in Argentina, Julio Maria Sanguinetti in Uruguay and Alan Garcia in Peru suggests that Latin American publics want to support decisive civilian political leadership. Many of the intermediate institutions - the Church, entrepreneurial groups, professional associations - are committed to helping the new democracies cope. It is less certain that labor unions will willingly cooperate with regimes that implement austerity, but experience so far suggests that the governments can overcome the resistance by appealing directly to the rank and file.

Fourth, despite the drastic region-wide decline in living standards, Latin Americans have been accepting the need for sustained belt-tightening in order to make eventual growth possible. Latin Americans appear willing to channel energy previously reserved for anti-government activities into the positive process of political mobilization and organization.

The 1980s are an excruciatingly difficult period because economic and social pressures are mounting. If democratic governments cannot generate hope that economic growth will resume and equity will be improved, and if international economic constraints continue to be tight, populist demagogues may press for radical nationalist policies that could undermine political stability.

Political parties that have refrained from fratricidal opposition during the delicate transition process may succumb to the urge to polarize. Terrorist movements that up to now have been relatively contained could gain ground. Governments may be tempted to suspend constitutional guarantees in order to quiet dissent. As democratic political competition produces outcomes that disappoint many sectors, some may lose patience and dilute their commitment to the constitutional process.

In the face of these mounting pressures, US policy could be decisive in facilitating Latin America's democratic consolidation.

The Role Of US Policy
The United States cannot impose democracy, in this hemisphere of anywhere else. Democracy is not an export commodity; it can be nurtured and strengthened from abroad, but it cannot be transplanted to other countries by external fiat.

Outside influence can be very important, however, in reinforcing democratic trends where they are already occurring.

It is in the interest of the United States to support the strengthening of Latin American democracy. A hemisphere of constitutional democracies will be more stable, humane and congenial than one where authoritarian regimes are common. The rule Of law, tolerance for political and ideological diversity, and bask human rights will be better protected. The core values of our society will flourish.

The United States can do a great deal to support Latin America's democratization at this delicate and perhaps determinative time.

First, and most important, Washington should take the lead, working with the commercial banks and the international financial institutions, to devise and implement a comprehensive plan to restructure Latin America's debt, stretch it out over a generation, reduce or cap interest payments, and write down the debt of the smaller and most indebted countries. The "Baker Plan," unveiled by the Secretary of the Treasury Baker at Seoul last October, is an encouraging step in this direction, but it is far from sufficient in concept or in magnitude.

Second, the United States should mobilize its considerable influence on the armed forces of Latin America to reinforce the military's newfound commitment to constitutional procedures. Whether or not Latin America's democratic opening takes hold will depend on the role of the region's armed forces, and they have been particularly responsive to signals from the United States.

Third, the United States should give special and sympathetic attention to those countries in Latin America that are now making the democratic transition, and we should keep our distance from the remaining authoritarian regimes. This distinction should apply both to the tone of political relations and to bilateral or multilateral economic assistance.

Finally, the United States should stop describing its aggressive policy in Nicaragua as supporting democracy there. Our national commitment to democracy and human rights should not be used as a mere tactic for discrediting a regime Washington opposes on other grounds. The moral authority and political strength of our commitments benefit if we avoid such double standards.

We need to be concerned with democracy and human rights in Chile, Paraguay, South Africa, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Nicaragua - wherever repression continues. But we should not use military means to advance the democratic cause. Democracy does not emerge from the barrel of a gun.

The interventionist course the United States is pursuing in Nicaragua cannot build democracy in that country. Worse, it will diminish the capacity of the United States to help democracies elsewhere in the hemisphere. Those whom we want to have as allies in Latin America today cannot afford to be close to the United States if we return to gunboat diplomacy.

back to index