Latin America's Struggle for Democracy; Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America; Radical Democracy in the Andes

In This Review

Latin America's Struggle for Democracy
By Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Diego Abente Brun, eds.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
328 pp. $19.95
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Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America
By Jorge I. Domínguez and Michael Shifter, eds.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008
432 pp. $25.00
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Radical Democracy in the Andes
By Donna Lee Van Cott
Cambridge University Press, 2008
278 pp. $24.99
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The triumph of democracy was arguably the most important development of the twentieth century, in Latin America as elsewhere. But will Latin America now consolidate its representative democracies and build strong, independent institutions and vibrant, watchful civil societies? And can liberal democracy overcome the pressures, recognized long ago by Samuel Huntington, arising from the legitimate economic aspirations of a mobilized, frustrated citizenry swollen by an overwhelming demographic explosion? These acute tensions are intelligently explored in Latin America's Struggle for Democracy, a collection of recent articles from the Journal of Democracy. This primer, which includes seven thematic essays and a dozen country studies, conveniently summarizes important arguments by leading scholars. Overall, the contributors recognize the region's substantial progress while expressing their preoccupations with the resurgence of authoritarian populism. In the turbulent Andes, Scott Mainwaring observes, political tensions cannot be attributed to the exclusion of the indigenous and poor; on the contrary, the very opening of democratic opportunities is shaking the region, as weak, resource-poor states are unable to satisfy popular demands. Mitchell Seligson worries that young people, less aware of past authoritarian excesses, are particularly susceptible to antidemocratic appeals. Hector Schamis neatly sums up the challenge: to reconcile the goals of inclusion and equality with the goals of robust procedures and institutions. Fortunately, there are countries in Latin America where this twin challenge is being met -- good neighbors to be emulated.

Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America is the third in a series of milestone studies overseen by the Inter-American Dialogue. The eight fresh country studies included suggest that the widening political heterogeneity in the region makes generalization increasingly difficult and that experimental governing coalitions defy easy political labeling. Not surprisingly, the contributors' evaluations of trends and leaders tend to reflect their own political persuasions and personal temperaments even as each and every chapter offers insightful, rewarding commentaries. Javier Corrales masterfully disentangles the rich diversity of the social discontent with "neoliberalism," identifying newly mobilized voters, frustrated middle-class achievers, and more traditional angry antimarket romantics. Domínguez finds that targeting constitutional reforms, rather than rewriting whole constitutions via constituent assemblies, better promotes state capacity and constitutional democracy. Among the detailed country studies, Denise Dresser's enters an eloquent plea for more forward-looking reforms by Mexican political and economic elites. Fernando Cepeda, Colombia's ambassador to France, makes the credible case that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, under extraordinarily stressful conditions, has significantly strengthened his country's democratic governance. In a less hopeful essay, Domínguez concurs with the country specialist David Myers that liberal constitutional democracy is all but dead in Hugo Chávez's Venezuela. Impatient readers can rely on the editors, Domínguez and Shifter, for their clearheaded summary chapter.

In Radical Democracy in the Andes, the prolific political scientist Van Cott (also represented in Latin America's Struggle for Democracy) closely examines ten impoverished municipalities in Bolivia and Ecuador that are controlled by indigenous parties. A passionate advocate for indigenous rights and participatory democracy, Van Cott sees hope in contemporary applications of indigenous practices such as reciprocity, trust, equality, and consensus seeking. But her uncompromising research also uncovers disturbing tendencies toward authoritarianism, sexism, and violence against outsiders: "After centuries of exploitation, indigenous organizations often seek to monopolize governing power and to disenfranchise the non-indigenous." To bolster and diffuse worthy democratic practices, Van Cott urges international donors to support innovative local institutions and capable mayors -- and to spread awareness of inspirational success stories.