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Comment
Last Updated: 03/02/2009
The Illusion of Democracy in Latin America
Tara Ruttenberg

In light of the excesses, corruption, "emptiness" and elitism of certain "exemplary" Latin American democracies in the 20th Century, Tara Ruttenberg reflects on the emergence of leftist, populist, participatory democracies in the region, celebrates their successes, and warns against the possibility of backsliding into authoritarianism.


Examples of empty, limited democracy abound in Latin American history, becoming the norm rather than the exception throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Bipartisan, power-sharing political agreements characterized the post-military authoritarian phase of Latin American history as early as 1948 in Costa Rica, 1958 in Venezuela, and into the late 1980s in Central America. Historical-political analysts such as Samuel Huntington basked in the dawning twilight of a ‘new wave of democracy,’ following a dark era of repressive militaristic leadership. The Western world in general and the United States in particular celebrated the emergence of seemingly stable democracies in Latin America, most notably in Venezuela, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia, to name a few of the region’s most ‘exemplary’ democratic regimes, by Western standards, of course. Militarism, civil war and political instability seemed to subside, giving way to neat and clean democratic systems with periodic elections and limited bipartisan alternation, quite reminiscent of the liberal representative democratic structure in place for centuries in the United States—Latin America’s watchful, when not overtly controlling, mother hen to the North.

In the late 1990s and continuing into the 21st century, it comes as no surprise, then, that the Western world has grown increasingly worried about the dismantling of these celebrated stable democracies and the parallel emergence of new leftist actors in the Latin American political framework, first with the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 and then in successive elections of his socialist-leaning comrades Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia. Too-close-for-comfort elections in Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru further concretized the undeniable emergence of the leftist tide in Latin American politics, much to the dismay of Washington, whose vested interests in the region have been so intricately interwoven with those of the traditional Latin American elites, whose ‘democratic’ political power proved conveniently unwavering throughout the majority of the second half of the twentieth century. Western media outlets and Washington higher-ups have been quick to criticize the electoral platforms and political agendas of Latin America’s new leftist leaders, throwing around the words ‘undemocratic’, ‘authoritarian’ , ‘communist’ and ‘dictator’ like popcorn in the microwave.  

In spite of the West’s vociferously antagonistic critique of Latin America’s surfacing style of people-power participatory democracy, a deeper look at the region’s recent democratic past reveals a much different story than the critics would have us believe. Peeling off the façade of the West’s exemplary democracies in Latin America (periodic elections, stable political parties, minimal leadership alternation, checks and balances, executive, legislative, judiciary), we find a dirtier political reality lurking just below the surface, wrought with political exclusion, elitist corruption, cooptation, mismanagement of national wealth to the detriment of the large majority of national populations, and flagrant disregard for the increasingly marginalized poor, rural indigenous and afro-Caribbean peoples. These realities expose the weaknesses and limitations of twentieth century Latin American democracies espoused for decades in Washington as the examples to follow in the region, shedding a very different and hopeful light on the new democratic wave we are living at the start of the twenty-first century. Dismantling the illusion of traditional, elitist democracy, empty institutionalized shells of democracy, that excluded and marginalized vast majorities of Latin American peoples, we are more open to accepting the building wave of direct, participatory, populist democracy as a legitimate and inspiring form of democracy “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”[1]

Much of the finger-pointing within the Americas surrounding the issue of democratic legitimacy stems from a larger ideological divide between supporters of liberal representative democracy and proponents of direct, participatory democracy characterized by more populist political practices. Fernando Mires makes the distinction between the Latin American and European understanding of populism, writing that in Europe, populism carries the negative connotation of being associated only with fascism, whereas in Latin America, “the idea of populism is found to be associated with the presence of the masses in the political scene….In this sense, the Latin American notion of populism finds itself closer to the real sense of the word “pueblo” than the European [sense of the word].”[2]

The most significant difference between the two democratic ideals is that representative democracy relies on institutions to mediate between the state and the people through elected representatives, whereas participatory democracy is more direct through the use of national referenda and street politics, offering citizens a protagonistic role in the political process. “Many proponents of liberal, representative democracy criticize participatory democracy for its lack of adherence to traditional democratic institutions such as the separation of powers that serves as a check on the executive branch’s accountability. On the other hand, fans of participatory democracy argue that the people, rather than other branches of government or institutions, should be the ones in charge of holding the president accountable by giving them a direct political voice.”[3]  Given this distinction, much of the West’s judgment of new Latin American democracies as ‘undemocratic’ is a reflection of the fact that they are characterized by direct, participatory democratic processes that do not adhere to the brand of representative democracy espoused and practiced in the United States and in many other countries in Latin America and Europe.

PRODDAL defines democracy as “a way to organize the power in a society, with rules (consented to and pre-established) that permit the peaceful competition for power through, and above all, clean and periodic elections to select government actors and representatives of the citizenry.”[4] This definition seems to fall most in line with the representative brand of democracy, with its emphasis on the institution of elections and the representation of the citizenry through elected government officials. Similarly, the type of regimes referred to in Latin America as traditional democratic systems also resonate with the liberal, representative prototype of democracy, however oftentimes with significant limitations in regards to institutional strength, pluralism in political party representation, and effectiveness of checks and balances on executive power. Contrastingly, new democracies in Latin America are of the participatory kind, relying on national referenda and popular votes to decide significant changes in national policies and political structures.  The emergence of participatory democracy, along with the empowerment through politicization of large populations of previously excluded social sectors is an affront to traditional, representative forms of democracy in Latin America, exposing and dismantling exclusionary elitist power structures by giving the power back to ‘el pueblo.’ 

The resistance on the part of the United States to the new participatory democracies is most likely a reflection not of an ideological conflict between representative and direct democracy, but rather the reaction to the resulting weakening of US political influence in the countries of many former elite-level allies throughout the region. This provokes further skepticism as to the democratic legitimacy of traditional Latin American democracies whose leaders were supported by the US in an alignment of mutual international elitist interests, while neglecting the demands and socio-economic human needs of the majority of their national populations. How can we consider these traditional regimes democratic when entire majority sectors of society are excluded from a political framework monopolized by elite power interests under the superficial façade of democracy?

This type of traditional elitist, empty democracy in Latin America has been characterized by a limited bipartisan political framework based on power-sharing between former political opponents, restricting pluralism and resulting in the exclusion of wide social sectors and political factions not incorporated into this original democratic design. Examples abound: Colombia’s Frente Nacional, a power-sharing regime formed by the once-antagonistic centrist liberals and conservatives that “formally ended in 1974, though its policy of political exclusion and electoral appointment carried over until the 1980s.”[5] Mexico has supposedly enjoyed eighty years of democracy with the existence of the competing PRI and PAN parties dominating the political scene, which in reality was controlled by the PRI for 71 years until the PAN won its first presidential election in 2000. Costa Rica’s democratic stability has been due in large part to the limited bipartisan structure controlled by the PLN and PUSC political parties alternating leadership for the past half-century, edging out the once-active Communist party, among others. The Venezuelan brand of ‘pacted’ democracy under the Punto-Fijo regime in place from 1958 through 1998 guaranteed the limited alternation between the center-right COPEI party and the center-left AD party, effectively monopolizing four decades of history with a regime now exposed for its socio-economic neglect of the poor, corrupt mismanagement of lucrative oil profits, and the institutionalization of elitist political and economic power to the detriment of the majority of Venezuelans. I could go on…

The implications of such limited democratic regimes characterized by extreme political exclusion and marginalization of the vast majority of national constituents have been decades in the making. Festering disenchantment with elite-led economic policies and power structures among the marginalized masses has manifested itself in a variety of destabilizing ways: from guerilla rebel factions comprised of excluded political outliers exemplified by the formation of the FARC and M-19 movements in Colombia; to the creation and popularity of new, nontraditional leftist political parties, including the PAC in Costa Rica, MAS in Bolivia and the PT party in Brazil; to dramatic and spontaneous street protests, known as the Caracazo in 1989, following neoliberal austerity measures adopted in Venezuela.  In this way, the politicization of the masses in opposition to neoliberal policies and traditionalist elite-led power structures, and in favor of a re-conceptualization of participation in democracy are at the heart of the current regional challenge to what Terry Gibbs refers to as the paradigm of “neoliberal democracy.”[6]

It is in this context of widespread disenchantment with the traditional elitist power structures and its contemporary counterpart, neoliberal democracy, that Latin America’s new leftist democracies have emerged as inspired, truly ‘democratic’ systems in the most Rousseauean “power to the people” sense of the word, garnering unparalleled support among the region’s previously excluded political groups and marginalized social majorities. NACLA’s Teo Bauve points to new leaders’ “immediate efforts focused on the radical inclusion of the nations’ poor, darker-hued majorities, and the chipping away of elite power.”[7] For many in Latin America, this new wave of participatory democracy and strengthened support for new leftist-socialist political parties is a sign of true democratic progress for nations who suffered for decades in exclusionary political and socio-economic misery for the majority of the second half of the twentieth century. 

The electoral victories of Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua and Correa in Ecuador reflected majority support for fundamental changes in the political structure of these countries, winning on platforms stressing anti-neoliberal economic policies, “focusing on the significance of social equity and the empowerment of previously marginalized sectors of society, inspiring hope among the masses that their demands would finally be taken seriously. Responding to the demands of their constituencies, these leaders have made progress replacing the traditional elitist political structures of the past with varying shades of participatory democracy, including the redrafting of their national constitutions and the reliance on popular referenda to gauge domestic support for governmental policies. In addition, these leaders have made headway in increasing the role of the state in society and the economy, evident in Morales’s nationalization of the natural gas industry, Correa’s increased social spending and Ortega’s prioritization of income redistribution over debt repayment.”[8]

Despite an awakened sense of hope and inspiration for change with the leftist democratic tide of Latin American politics, the fate of these new democracies remains to be seen, with the danger of authoritarian back-sliding if new socialist policies do not prove effective in lowering poverty rates or improving the lot of the lower and middle classes; plus the potential instability associated with the increasing exclusion of opposition parties whose discontent and anger grow stronger with each new piece of national legislation passed. Although we may conclude that empty-shell traditional elitist democracies of the twentieth century left much to be desired in the way of true democratic people power, it is the role of history to judge today’s leftist wave of Latin American democracy. And the faith Latin Americans have bestowed upon their leaders may very well be what makes or breaks the fate of the new democracies in Latin America.  

Works Cited

Bauve, Teo. “Is Venezuela the New Cuba?” NACLA Report on the Americas 39:1. North  American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). July/August 2005.

Gibbs, Terry. “Business as Usual: What the Chavez Era Tells Us about Democracy Under Globalisation.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2 pp 265-279. 2006.

Hough, Phillip. "Labor Discipline and Frontier Development in the Periphery: Comparing the Development and Consolidation of Capitalist Production in Three Regions of Colombia" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal Convention Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Aug 10, 2006 . 2008-12-11 http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p105398_index.html.

Mires, Fernando. “Los diez peligros de la democracia en America Latina”. Cuadernos del CENDES. Año 23. Number 61. January-April, 2006.

Ruttenberg, Tara. “Latin American Support for the Bolivarian Revolution.” Thesis submitted to the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Certificate in Latin American Studies, May 2007.

Valle, Victor. Class notes, Democracia y Desarrollo en America Latina, Universidad para la Paz, Costa Rica. 13 enero 2009.


[1] Abraham’s Lincoln’s famous words, contemporarily used as a minimalist, yet powerful, definition of democracy. From Valle, Victor. Class notes, Democracia y Desarrollo en America Latina, Universidad para la Paz, Costa Rica. 13 enero 2009.

[2] Mires, Fernando. “Los diez peligros de la democracia en America Latina”. Cuadernos del CENDES. Año 23. Number 61. January-April, 2006. p. 14 Original text: “En America Latina, la idea de populismo se encuentra mas bien asociada a la presencia de multitudes en la escena politica….En ese sentido, la nocion latinoamericana de populsmo se encuentra mas cerca del sentido real del termino ‘pueblo’ que la europea.”

[3] Ruttenberg, Tara. “Latin American Support for the Bolivarian Revolution.” Thesis submitted to the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Certificate in Latin American Studies, May 2007. p.14.

[4] Quoted in Valle, Victor. Class notes, Democracia y Desarrollo en America Latina, Universidad para la Paz, Costa Rica. 13 enero 2009.

[5] Hough, Phillip. "Labor Discipline and Frontier Development in the Periphery: Comparing the Development and Consolidation of Capitalist Production in Three Regions of Colombia" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal Convention Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Aug 10, 2006 . 2008-12-11 http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p105398_index.html. p. 21.

[6] Gibbs, Terry. “Business as Usual: What the Chavez Era Tells Us about Democracy Under Globalisation.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2 pp 265-279. 2006.

[7] Bauve, Teo. “Is Venezuela the New Cuba?” NACLA Report on the Americas 39:1. North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). July/August 2005 p.3.

[8]Ruttenberg, Tara. “Latin American Support for the Bolivarian Revolution.” Thesis submitted to the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Certificate in Latin American Studies, May 2007. p.28.


Tara Ruttenberg is a Master´s degree candidate at the University for Peace.
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