Democracy in Latin America

Is Democracy Sustainable in Latin America?

In order to determine if democracy is sustainable in Latin America, it is important to understand or at least have an idea of what democracy is. There are several types of democracy and each is different. According to the English dictionary, democracy is “ a government by the people; especially: rule of the majority by a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections and the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges (Webster’s Dictionary). It is a common view among American politicians that maintaining democracy in Latin America could be achieved through holding honest elections, installing civilian governments, and preventing military coups (Millett). Although Latin America participates in some type or form of free elections, that does not necessarily constitute a legitimate democracy that represents the people. The power is not necessarily vested in the people in Latin America but with the elected officials. Latin American democracy and United States democracy are uniquely different and therefore they are not comparable by the same definition of democracy. The difference results from many factors. In large part, the Latin America is unique because of its Iberian heritage, history, and tradition (Millett).

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The conquest of Latin America by Spain and the methods of rule and traditions have largely influenced the development of Latin American democracy. The Spanish mercantile system and the methods and practices it produced have had a direct impact on all the factors that help sustain democracy. The two main factors in Latin American democracy are the society and the economics. Colonial ideas of fueros, caste systems, and church ideologies during the inquisition, have influenced Latin America socially. Economically Spanish mercantilism has made Latin America dependent on outside resources and has given rise to corruption and a loss of trust in the government.

In order to have sustainable democracy it is necessary to have the support of the people. The society must support the idea of government in which, ”there is an absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges.” Fueros, caste, and church ideologies still impact present day Latin American society. During Spanish rule, government officials and military officials had “fueros,” or special immunity from prosecution. Fueros still exist today in Latin America and give no recourse for complaints of the population. This situation instills hopelessness in the society overall. A democracy cannot exist, even through elections, if the elite rules it. In order for a democracy to be sustained, the government must be kept in check if not through constitutional powers then the people must check it. A democracy should have an educated populace; people should constantly question their surroundings to keep a government in check (Aristotle). Latin America must be capable of producing a literate and educated population. Church control of information and perhaps the desire of the elite to keep the population under control have kept a large majority of the Latin American population illiterate. Without education, the population lacks the means of self-analysis and therefore no political ambitions or ideas to make the government better.

A strong economy is a major factor in sustaining democracy. Through mercantilism, the Latin American economy was and continues to be, reliant on imported manufactured goods. In the twentieth century, Latin America continues to be a source for resources, not only in raw materials but also labor. It has become a specialty producer of foodstuff, such as coffee, for other nations of the world. This specialization in certain crops has made Latin America less diversified and has contributed to the lack of ability for the countries to feed their people.

Urbanization is another factor threatening democracy. Many Latin American countries have only one major city. With the influx of people, to the city, a demand for services grow, and in return drains budgets. A lack of money causes social programs to be cut and in turn, this produces unemployment, social conflict, and political instability. In order to meet growing needs, the government must be able to reduce spending in military areas and other unneeded programs. Many of the Latin American militaries are unwilling to sustain budget cuts, and a majority of the people have no desire to reduce popular social programs. Governments that do attempt to strengthen their economies using budget reductions do so at great risk to their political careers.

Other nations have endured during and after mercantilism. To what degree they have succeeded differs greatly. South Asia and Latin America were both part of a large empire and each now are independent and are ruled by some form of democracy. Britain ruled much of South Asia under mercantilism. After independence, India underwent great industrialization but in Latin America, industrialization received little attention or investment. India’s industrialization has brought employment, greater self-reliance, and has instilled confidence in the government. Although much of South Asia was ruled by the British under Mercantilism, British law was strictly enforced and eventually all subjects of the British crown were considered equals in citizenship and rights. In contrast, Latin America was, and is still to a great degree, governed by law that applies to few of the ruling elite and military leaders. This lack of equal treatment under the law undermines faith in the government and gives little recourse to the common individual (Millett). Faith in the economy and social equality produces faith in the government.

Although South Asia and Latin America have coalition governments, South Asia has a more educated population compared to Latin America. After independence, much of South Asia introduced education reforms that resulted in a dramatic increase in literacy in a relative short time. Latin America still struggles with education reform and in some instances, education is not a priority. Much of South Asia was given Guidance and goals to achieve before independence was granted. Latin American independence came in chaos with the fall of the throne in Spain and constant conflict by the caudillos to fill the vacuum of power.

Although South Asia and Latin America are entirely different regions, they were both ruled under a mercantilist system. Latin America was ruled under a medieval mercantilism and South Asia under Victorian mercantilism. The results after independence were dramatic. South Asia governed with guidance, equality under the law, and a strong investment with foreign encouragement in industry gave them the ability to build and sustain democracy. In contrast, Latin America was drained of resources, the indigenous population exploited, and little investment put into the economy. This gave rise to Elitist warlords vying for power constantly and the continued exploitation of the population. Little interest is evident in the reform of the economies or educational reforms of Latin America. Power is the only wealth a Latino can achieve and this concept seems to persist in the Latin American society today. Until the idea of unity and helping ones fellow man takes hold, Latin America is likely to struggle with democracy.

Millett’s interpretation has many good points but takes some out of context. The civil-military relations is a not a stand-alone point. It is part of the society ideas of feuros and caste. Millett does not explain how military ability to dominate politics has declined or how military support of democracy is necessary. A military is not necessary for democracy, only if a military exists does it become a factor. Corruption is not the prominent threat to democracy. Corruption exists in United States politics but is not visible, unlike Latin American politics. Millett states, “ military dictatorships, not democratic governments, were the prevailing model,” most of these were encouraged and even supported by the United States not the society. Although the situation in Latin America is fundamentally different from 30 years ago and the cold war has ended, the threats to democratic institutions have not diminished. The threats are replaced with new and old ones such as narcotics and insurgencies. Millett failed to accurately go into all the cultural reasons democracy could not be sustained, such as, the role of the church control of information and the lack of an educated population. This is one of the necessary ingredients of a democracy.

Possible solutions to sustain democracy in Latin America are many. Several questions must be answered in order to decide what the solutions are. Is democracy necessary? Perhaps democracy is not necessary in Latin America and foreign intervention should be prohibited. As in China, perhaps the economic strength of Latin America will dictate the type of government. Can people have and maintain inalienable rights without democracy? Truly, democracy is not the only solution. Inalienable rights could be protected without democracy. Can financial support sustain democracy? Money cannot change history or cultures, if another country builds a road, the police are still corrupt. If there were but one solution, it would be to change the culture. If a culture does not support democracy then no amount of money, political pressure, or propaganda will bring about the factors to sustain it. Culture influences all the ingredients necessary for democracy to survive, from society to the economy.

“Democracy.” Webster’s New Comp[act Dictionary. Ed. 1995.

Loomis, Louise. ARISTOTLE On Man in the Universe. New York: Random House,

Millett, Richard. “Is Latin American Democracy Sustainable?.” North-South ISSUES on

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Democracy in Latin America. (2018, Jun 26). Retrieved from