Archivo Clarín Juan Perón, circa 1950.

Latin America's Crisis of Representation

AN OBSESSION WITH FAILURE?

Latin America could once have been described as the land of the unfree and the home of the coup. Yet since 1976 in the Spanish-American countries and Brazil, no civilian constitutional president elected in free and fair elections has been overthrown by the armed forces. And fair elections now occur regularly in countries where they were once rare.

During the 1980s, despite growth in the world economy, most Latin American economies performed dismally. The region's combined per capita GDP fell about eight percent during that decade; only Colombia and Chile posted meager economic gains. However, in the first half of the 1990s, despite a recession in the United States, there was growth in per capita GDP in Brazil and all the Spanish-American countries except Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, incumbent political parties in Latin America were defeated at least once in nearly every country that held free and fair elections. In the mid-1990s, the electorates have rewarded the good performance of various politicians with reelection, particularly noteworthy in the cases of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.

And yet a persistent fear haunts the region, what the economist Albert Hirschman once called fracasomania or an obsession with failure. Many still believe that economic success is ephemeral and that democracy's worst enemies are the politicians who claim to speak in its name. There is also a sense that levels of official corruption are intolerably high, as evidenced in the 1990s by the impeachments of President Fernando Collor de Melo in Brazil and President Carlos Andres Perez in Venezuela, by the drug money-laundering allegations that have plagued the administration of President Ernesto Samper in Colombia, and by the grave accusations against the brother of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in Mexico. The fact that Presidents Collor, Perez, and Salinas had portrayed themselves as crusading reformers early in their administrations has only fueled skepticism about new proponents of reform.

This skepticism, to be sure, is long-standing.

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