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Democracy in the Americas

After Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutiérrez was forced out of office recently—the third president in a row not to complete his term in Ecuador—Dr. Arturo Valenzuela, who heads the Georgetown University Center for Latin American Studies, was pressed for comments by the media. Did this mean a reversal of democratic stability? Was the populist left in Latin America the direction the region is heading?

At a talk at IDB headquarters, Valenzuela stressed that it’s very important to look at the broader historical context. The glass is not half empty, he said, but half full, considering that the situation in Latin America was a lot worse not too long ago. Civil wars were causing tens of thousands of deaths, and many countries were under military rule. From 1930 to 1980, there were hundreds of changes in government throughout the region, scores of which were the result of military coups.

The economic picture wasn’t much brighter in the 1980s, when the region suffered from stagnation and hyperinflation. It did better in the 1990s, with some stagnation, but no hyperinflation. In the current decade, Latin America has posted an economic performance the United States “only wishes it had", said Valenzuela, such as the 4% growth rate in Brazil.

We’re actually in an “extraordinary period,” he said. The 1980s witnessed the lowest number of coups in Latin American history and, since 1990, there has only been one coup in the region, in Haiti. This is good news, Valenzuela insisted. In addition, power is being democratically transferred to different parties. Mexico, for instance, successfully transitioned from 70 years of one-party rule.

However, although the military have withdrawn from power, some recent events in the region underscore a “perverse logic” in presidentialism, according to Valenzuela. The president is viewed as a “hero” but when things don’t go right he becomes the “arch villain;” getting rid of him is expected to make the problems disappear.

Valenzuela pointed to four main challenges for democracy in the region. The first is to strengthen state capacity. He described a focus on the market economy alone as “vulgar Marxism in reverse,” as if the market would fix everything. There is a “real deficit” in the quality of institutions, he said, at all three levels of government—central, regional and local.

Second, government accountability needs to be improved to ensure the rule of law and transparency in government. The third challenge is representation. The core of democracy, representation means “translating citizen preferences into public policy” and quality outcomes. But the electoral systems in Latin America are not always appropriate, said Valenzuela, and the quality of political parties is also an issue.

Fourth, governance must be improved. Public policies need to be formulated and then implemented. Since the fragmented political system doesn’t generate majorities in the legislatures, in order to move ahead the countries need to adopt a cooperative approach.

Otherwise, warned Valenzuela, you get two extremes: either a president who tries to get parties to cooperate and when they can’t, the president gets forced out of office; or a president with a strong majority who feels he can do anything, something he describes as “majoritarianism.” But democracy, said Valenzuela, means protecting current as well as future minorities.

Thus, rather than strengthen presidential authority, reforms should establish parliamentary models, and all four challenges should be specifically addressed, urged Valenzuela. He cautioned that much patience is needed. Europe, for example, has been struggling since World War II. Proper international policies must also be in place—hence the importance of the OAS.

For the third generation reforms, the question isn’t trade or aid, but both, along with strong institutions and the rule of law. Chile has been successful not just because of its market reforms but because it has stronger democratic institutions, said Valenzuela. Noting the various areas of IDB activity in the region, such as modernization of the State, which was the topic of an IDB seminar he addressed, he commented “You’re on the right track, folks.”

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