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Political Reform against Inequality

Inequality is not only the main threat against democracy, but also a trap for development and a constraint on the democratic process in Latin America. That is why the alarm signaled by the 2004 UNDP report about the state of democracy in the Latin American region did not cause surprise.

According to this report, 54 percent of Latin Americans would prefer authoritarian regimes if they were able to solve the region’s economic problems. It is no coincidence that those surveyed consider social problems—poverty and unemployment—to be the most important ones, because the countries of this region have levels of inequality above the world average.

Besides what this implies in terms of the erosion of democratic political institutions, we might ask the following: Why must democracies of the region carry the blame for this dramatic state of inequality? Does democracy lack the ability, the knowledge, or the will to halt the progression of inequality through its institutions, its processes, its political parties, and its leaders? Or, finally, is this a task not for democracy, but for politics?

The different authors of the 2006 IDB publication, "An Unequal Democracy? Seeing Latin America through European Eyes", have tried to answer these questions. They lead us to analyze interactions among the economic, political and social processes in the Latin American region in order to demonstrate their asymmetries along with their divergent courses, as well as the consequences of inequity, inequality and poverty.

The answers to these questions take us immediately to how, in daily practice, the social
and economic rights of Latin American citizens are guaranteed in the new landscape
of globalization.

The region has had to take on a great paradox that must be solved: the current historical coincidence between the beginning of democratization processes in Latin America and the worsening of poverty during this first “wave” of democratization. Of course to proclaim that there is complicity between democracy and poverty would be an overstatement of the consolidation of a political system that is just starting to take root in Latin American societies. As pointed out in the UNDP report (2004), this democracy is characterized by a “low-intensity” citizenship.

What cannot be denied is that inequity, inequality and poverty are the main obstacles to democratic consolidation. And unless Latin American democratic leaders have a death wish, inequity and poverty must be fought efficiently, forcefully and urgently, given that the levels of social and political instability they generate are incompatible with democracy.

Furthermore, they hamper performance and cast doubt on the viability of democracy as a political system. But it is only fair to view this from the other side, because the democratic system that has made inroads in the region in the last two decades must become a necessary condition--although not a sufficient one--for fighting effectively for social equity.

As opinion polls in the region have corroborated, it is not a coincidence that it is in the areas of greatest inequality that we find the greatest disposition toward authoritarianism. It is not by chance that exclusive, elitist and closed power structures are the most inclined to corruption and weak rule of law.

It is self-evident that the lack of transparency and the concentration of power nourish scenarios in which State policies are appropriated by private interests that are completely alien to the common good. Because, far from what was commonly held until a few years ago, exclusion from the social-political function of societies is the cause and consequence of a lack of voice in the decision-making process and signifies a clear deficit of civil representation.

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