In This Review

Civil Society and Democracy in Latin America
Civil Society and Democracy in Latin America
Edited by Richard Feinberg, Carlos H. Waisman, and Leon Zamo
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, 204 pp

It has become fashionable to think of civil society in black-and-white terms, as either democracy's greatest friend or its most formidable foe. The editors of and contributors to Civil Society and Democracy in Latin America are to be commended for avoiding that rigid, simplistic approach. They instead aim to show how civil society can both boost and weaken democracy. As neatly summarized in the introduction, "When it comes to the quality of democracy, civil society could be either part of the solution or part of the problem." This ambiguity about civil society is convincingly carried over into the case studies. Social organizations generally thought of as belonging under the rubric of "civil society" have breathed new life into Argentine democracy in the wake of the 2001 economic bust and advanced the struggle for land reform and social justice in Brazil. By contrast, they have contributed to the erosion of constitutional authority in Venezuela. What explains these diverse effects of civil society on democracy across Latin America? How can we tell when civil society is likely to aid the development of democracy and when it is likely to harm it? No straightforward explanation to these questions is offered, but the rich empirical analysis contained in several chapters pointedly suggests that the answers are to be found not in the composition of civil society itself but rather in the region's complex political and social conditions.