Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America

Reading Time: 4 minutesBook Review: Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall, by Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Photo: Lars Klove

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Latin America experienced a dramatic political change in the last quarter of the twentieth century. At the onset of the so-called “third wave” of democracy in 1978, the only democratic regimes were Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela. But by 1995, all the countries in the region, with the notable exception of Cuba, were democracies or semi-democracies. The breadth, speed and endurance of the transition marked a significant break with Latin America’s past. Nevertheless, in the post–third wave period, beginning in 1995 and continuing to the present, the region has experienced mixed processes of democratic deepening, stagnation and decay.

In Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall, Scott Mainwaring and Aníbal Pérez-Liñán explore the reasons for the varied outcomes. Their book is an ambitious attempt to explain the broad historical trends toward and away from democracy by focusing on political variables—including the radicalism or moderation of political actors, their preferences for democracy or dictatorship, and international actors and influences. They argue that these political variables contribute more to an understanding of regime change than structural variables, such as class structure or economic performance—variables that have dominated many theoretical analyses to date. The study summarizes more than a decade of collaborative scholarship between Mainwaring—the Eugene and Helen Conley professor of political science and former director of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Relations at the University of Notre Dame—and Pérez-Liñán, an associate professor of political science and a faculty member of the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán have made a significant contribution to the wealth of scholarship on democratization with a coherent framework for understanding regime change in Latin America from 1900 through 2010. Their book masterfully combines deep knowledge of the theoretical and empirical literature with consistent and nuanced use of qualitative and quantitative methods to support their assertions and to generate relevant data and statistical analysis.

The fresh perspective offered by Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America to the study of democratization and regime change will greatly contribute to the re-examination of accepted truths. The authors develop an actor-based theoretical framework that uses political regimes as a dependent variable. They code the administrations of 20 Latin American countries from 1900 to 2010 based on a trichotomous classification as either democratic, semi-democratic or authoritarian. The independent variables are the actors’ radical or moderate policy preferences; actors’ normative preferences about democracy and dictatorship; and international actors and influences. Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán hypothesize that radical actors increase the risk of breakdown of a competitive regime (for example, Augusto Pinochet’s military coup, which overthrew democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, and Alberto Fujimori’s presidential coup in Peru in 1992), whereas policy moderation facilitates the survival of competitive regimes.  Another hypothesis argues that a normative commitment to an authoritarian regime among key political actors reduces the probability of a democratic transition, while a normative commitment to democracy reduces the likelihood of breakdown. Strong international support for democracy may also increase the probability of democratic transitions and reduce the risk of breakdowns.

Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán conduct meticulous tests and develop systematic indicators for their dependent and independent variables based on sound theoretical, historical and methodological assumptions. To identify the actors’ policy and normative preferences, a team of 19 research assistants, guided by a 20-page coding document, segmented the history of each country according to presidential administrations. For 290 administrations, they created a database of 1,460 actors, including 573 parties, coalitions and factions; 327 presidents; 175 militaries and military factions; and dozens of organizations representing businesses, guerrilla and paramilitary groups, civil society, labor unions, churches, and social movements, as well as powerful individuals and additional actors.

This impressive analysis enabled the authors to conclude that in the 1980s, “radical actors became less common and less powerful, and moderation became the tone of the day in most of Latin America,” and that “after 1978, more actors were committed to democracy, and far fewer normatively embraced the ideals of a revolutionary ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or a right–wing dictatorship.”

Through the examination of the international and regional arenas, they concluded that “the hemispheric political environment became more hospitable to democracy. ” When associated with the regime changes that occurred in the 20 countries under examination, these findings provide strong explanations for the early prevalence of authoritarian regimes and for the region’s shift toward democracy beginning in 1978.

The authors contrast their hypothesis with alternative explanations based on structural variables—for example, the influential modernization theory, which broadly establishes that the level of modernization has a major impact on the likelihood of democratization. They also weigh their findings against other relevant theories based on class structure, resource dependence, a regime’s economic performance, mass culture theory, and the strength of formal institutions.

The authors convincingly argue that their approach offers a more nuanced explanation than alternative theories of regime change. “We do not claim that the modernization theory is wrong,” they write. “But the relationship between the level of development and democracy has been far from determinate in Latin America until a high level of development makes radicalization unlikely.”

The book includes a chapter on the post–third wave period, which began in 1995. The authors’ analysis and conclusions about regime change during this era are tentative, but nonetheless relevant. Their emphasis on basic regime types and major episodes of regime change (transitions and breakdowns) prevented them from analyzing transformations within competitive regimes—that is, explaining the differing country trajectories of democratic deepening, stagnation or erosion in the post–third wave period—but their three independent variables (actors’ radicalism or moderation, actors’ preferences for democracy or dictatorship, and international actors and influences) are persuasive explanations of these different patterns. Their conclusion that reversion to authoritarianism is likely when the three variables negatively evolve has unfortunately been demonstrated by the continued democratic decay in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia. In those countries, elected officials enact radical and polarizing policies that have flagrantly violated the main principles of democracy—in particular, respect for civil and political rights and truly competitive electoral processes.

Despite the genuine reasons to praise democratization in many Latin American countries, it may be time to overcome complacency and focus on detecting and halting a troublesome trend toward democratic deterioration. This book offers consistent and innovative insights into the region’s democracies that will inspire both satisfaction at their accomplishments, and concern about their future.

Tags: Democracy in Latin America, Latin America, Military Dictatorship
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