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First, close the democratic deficit

Fiscal deficits—and economic crises in general—get all the attention in Latin America these days, because most people assume that the region’s woes are caused primarily by poor economic management and a resulting lack of investment and growth.

But could Latin America’s persistent troubles be due to other kinds of deficits as well? A new book edited by Fernando Carrillo-Flórez, a senior advisor in the IDB’s State, Governance and Civil Society Division, argues that “deficits” in the region’s democratic institutions and political processes have a lot to do with its lagging development.

The book, Democracia en déficit: Gobernabilidad y desarrollo en América Latina y el Caribe (currently available only in Spanish), offers essays by a dozen experts on governance and civil society. While praising Latin America’s recent progress in eliminating military dictatorships and holding regular elections, the authors warn that deficiencies in public institutions such as legislatures and the courts are preventing many of the region’s countries from advancing to the actual practice of democracy in public life.

Evidence of these deficits can be seen in the seemingly endless procession of political corruption scandals splashed on the front pages of Latin American newspapers. Public opinion surveys show that citizens have all but lost faith in political parties and public institutions. In some sectors people even speak with nostalgia of the days when a military junta ruled their country.

Carrillo-Flórez, a former Colombian minister of Justice, recently spoke to IDBAmérica about the prospects for democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Q & A with Fernando Carrillo

IDBAmérica: The resurgence of democracy in Latin America in the last 15 years is a source of pride in the region, but now you are talking about a “democratic deficit.” It feels like a bucket of cold water. What do you mean?

Carrillo: In Latin America we have electoral democracies; in other words, democracies based on free and regular elections which, up to a point, comply with the formal institutional canon. This has led people to think that democracy can be consolidated simply by making progress in the right to vote. The task is much more complicated and far-reaching than that.

The transition from a formal democracy to a real one demands solid democratic institutions, which much of Latin America does not have. We need political institutions for true democracy, not just for formal democracy. Human rights, not just political rights, are a major challenge.

Political development is the starting point for economic and social development. Emphasis has shifted from the economic deficits of the 1970s to concern with social deficits. Today, the problem lies with political institutions.

IDBAmérica: So people have the mistaken idea that democracy consists of holding elections. So long as elections are held, they think they can sit back with folded arms. Is that what you mean?

Carrillo: Democracy is a system that configures power relations with citizens day by day. Therefore it poses great challenges to the governing classes. It is not enough to follow a constitutional formula, to hold elections, and to allow citizens to vote.

And this leads us to a catalogue of deficits in democracy, including institutional weaknesses, judicial branches that are not independent, weak congresses, electoral systems that are not transparent, the lack of checks and balances for exercising control, and the absence of accountability by public officials to citizens. The tasks that lie ahead are very large.

The great challenge for heads of government and political leaders in Latin America is to leave behind a past marked by despotism, political bossism and patronage, and enter a virtuous circle of democracy, development and the fight against poverty and inequality.

IDBAmérica: Mexico has surprised the world in its last elections by upending the system. Using impeccably democratic mechanisms it was able to oust the party that held power for decades. How did that come about?

Carrillo: It was clear that the Mexican opposition had been gaining power on the political map. But a new democratic institution was needed that would guarantee both the transfer and alternation of political power that Mexicans had not seen in a long time. What happened serves as an example of how to root a reform in practice. Mexico showed how to create an electoral institution that was transparent and credible, and this was how Mexico's democratic transition became possible.

If there are no clear rules of the game, if there is no political pluralism, there can be no alternation in power and the vices in the Latin American political system continue to be consolidated. What Mexico did was to break with that tradition and demonstrate that by modernizing a democratic institution— the electoral authority—a change of such magnitude could be brought about.

IDBAmérica: Latin Americans have been very enamoured of the cult of strong personalities in their leaders. How does this affect democracy?

Carrillo: It is almost a historical curse that originated in the colonies and ended up equating the positions of viceroy-cacique-dictator-president. In the weak democracies in the region, the president continues to be a bit of each, mainly because the executive branch and the public powers have taken up all the political space. Traditionally, political power has always been in the hands of the head of government. The president is the only channel for transmitting citizen needs. This is not right. We need a legislative branch that represents, monitors and serves the channel for citizen participation. We need a judicial branch that oversees the other branches of government.

There are other democratic instruments that are becoming more important in Latin America. For example, we now have people who represent citizens in overseeing public management, such as the ombudsmen, the human rights advocates, examiners, controllers, and social auditors. Civil society continues to make headway, demonstrating that the traditional despotic, corporatist, and patronage models are on the road to extinction.

Latin America is calling for renewed political dignity, for politics as a means of connecting citizens. There is no call to abolish politics; we must abolish the negative aspects and build institutions from the ground up. Participation and democracy are the main ingredients in the recipe for effective public politics, and there is data to back this up.

IDBAmérica: What does it take to make citizens respect political institutions?

Carrillo: Credibility and legitimacy of institutions rises in the degree to which the government works and offers solutions and democracy produces results. The public is clamoring for this, which is why we need institutions for citizen participation and representation that can help to eradicate the traditional vices.

IDBAmérica: What are the main stumbling blocks on the path to organizing true democracies?

Carrillo: Latin American leaders must exercise political will. Every day, more leaders are calling for the modernization of traditional politics and the need for a political response to globalization. To reform democracy we must reform the state. The IDB has been responding to those needs, with its programs to reform the judiciary, strengthen the legislative branch, combat corruption and violence and promote tolerant civic relations and security. The idea is to recoup credibility and legitimacy.

IDBAmérica: We have seen many programs to combat corruption in recent years. But few seem to be achieving results. Why?

Carrillo: Instruments to combat corruption must be based on the separation of powers. The problem in Latin America is that the mission to fight corruption is often placed in the hands of individual public officials who are meant to be saviors. Most major programs are not working because of that. Establishing special offices with sweeping powers while ignoring the separation of the branches of government—the legislature, the executive and independent organs for supervision and control—is doomed to failure. What has worked is action taken jointly by the different branches, with respect for constitutional principles. The scandals arise when the hunters end up being more corrupt than the hunted.

IDBAmérica: Is there a deficit in civic education?

Carrillo: There are a great many new grassroots, civil, and social associations that are looking for ways to influence the design and monitoring of public politics. This is closely linked to the social audits that have worked in some countries. It shows that governments will not necessarily have a monopoly over politics, regardless of the role played by political parties as traditional channels for conveying citizen needs.

The work of civil society is monitoring and oversight, rather than partisan politics. Its role is not to replace political parties.

IDBAmérica: How can politics shed the bad reputation it has acquired?

Carrillo: We must move from politics with a small “p”—corporatist and despotic—to politics with a capital “p”, that takes citizen demands into account and is capable of renouncing everything represented by the deficits that have built up in democracy as it has been configured in Latin America.

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