Democracy in Latin America: Political Change in Comparative Perspective

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Democracy in Latin America: Political Change in Comparative Perspective

By Peter H. Smith
Oxford University Press, 2005
400 pp. $67.00
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This eloquent, epic retelling of Latin America's century-long struggle against elite oligarchy and populist tyranny arrives at the optimistic observation that the vast range of political experiments -- left, center, and right -- have converged toward democracy. Smith refutes the common notions that Latin American culture is inherently autocratic and that democracies cannot perform as well as nondemocracies in delivering social welfare. Drawing on deep area expertise and empirical tests, he joins the passion of a historian with rationalist political science and smartly enriches institutionalism with issues of identity, values, and culture. Smith's incisive literature surveys and illustrative "boxes" will help make this a favorite college text. However, a visceral anger distorts his assessment of U.S. policy (Kathryn Sikkink's Mixed Signals is a better guide to U.S. human rights policies), and he brands as "unrepresentative" political parties that do not share his own redistributive priorities. And regrettably, the text's argument trails off by ungenerously applying Fareed Zakaria's "illiberal" label to many Latin democracies -- even as one of Smith's main references, Freedom House, now finds that most Latin Americans live in freedom. Still, Smith's book is a substantial contribution.