The point of departure of any serious thought about the chances for the consolidation of democracy in Latin America must surely be pessimism.1 The principal reason is simply that the historical record is so unpromising. In this respect, the recent disintegration of seemingly well-entrenched authoritarian regimes in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, and the apparent vigor of the new democratic currents in these countries are not necessarily encouraging. It looks as though the pervasive characteristic of any political regime in the more developed Latin American countries is instability: it affects even authoritarian political forms. There is little point in looking for the root cause of this instability. Its strength and duration suggest that all kinds of convergent, interrelated factors are at work, from culture and social structure to economic vulnerability. It is correspondingly futile to lay down “preconditions” for consolidating democracy: they would merely serve to spell out a wholly utopian scheme for changing everything that has been characteristic of Latin American reality, and would therefore amount to wishing away that reality. One particularly pernicious way of thinking about the consolidation of democracy—a way that is likely to make a contribution to deconsolidation and has done so in the past—is to lay down strict conditions that need to be fulfilled if democracy is to have a chance, such as: dynamic economic growth must be resumed, income distribution must be improved, national autonomy must be asserted, political parties must show a cooperative spirit, the press and other media must be responsible, everyday relations between people must be restructured, etc. I submit that it is far more constructive to think about ways in which democracy may survive and become stronger in the face of, and in spite of, a series of continuing adverse situations or developments in many of these respects.
The inference that must be drawn from all this goes against the grain of much social-scientific thinking: instead of looking for necessary and sufficient conditions of change we must train ourselves to be on the lookout for unusual historical developments, rare constellations of favorable events, narrow paths, partial advances that may conceivably be followed by others, and the like. We must think of the possible rather than of the probable.
Here are three ways in which we can train ourselves to think about these matters:
(a) It may be useful to envisage the possibility of a disjunction between political and economic conditions that were thought of as being indissolubly linked.2 Ever since the destruction of the fragile Weimar and Spanish democracies in the Thirties, it has been axiomatic that an impairment of economic health will be fatal for a fledgling democracy. More recent experiences have shown, however, that at different historical times the connection is much less tight. The new democratic regimes of Spain and Portugal have so far weathered quite well the serious economic disturbances that followed the second oil shock of 1978 and the world recession between 1981 and 1983. This recession was particularly sharp in Brazil, leading…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.
If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.