Media Center



September 14, 2010 - Mexico City

I want to first thank the invitation of FLACSO-Mexico to inaugurate their academic year. To talk about the state of democracy in America a few days from the Bicentennial of the “Grito de Dolores” [“Independence of Dolores”] is already a source of pride for me.

Since I my time as a student at the School of Political Science at FLACSO in Santiago de Chile, for quite some time now, I have maintained permanent links with the Latin American Faculty. I lived an important part of my exile in this country, and many times I taught here and in Central America, at the FLACSO academic centers. I remember that when I was able to return to my country, the institution that hosted me on my return was FLACSO, so thank you very much for this new opportunity to be with you.

I think it important to begin this reflection on democracy in Latin America with a few brief words about the situation. Four days ago there appeared an edition of the magazine, The Economist, with a suggestive cover illustrated with a map of the Americas upside down, the south at the top and the north at the bottom, which proclaimed “No more backyard in the rise of Latin America.” As always occurs with these journals that need to sell many copies, when one reads the editorial and the internal note, the content is far more negative than it is positive, something more balanced, and it puts more emphasis on the risks that our region will face and explicitly indicates the risk that exists of complacency. But, there is no doubt that such presentation and many similar ones-which have appeared in recent weeks--contribute to this complacency, especially in the South American region.

The main reason for this new political optimism is the economy, because after the fear and uncertainty caused by the Great Depression—the Great Depression of the 30's, the recession of 2009—the economies of the region have begun to grow vigorously, starting with Brazil and Argentina, also reaching Chile and Colombia; and if we look at recent figures from Mexico, they are also very impressive, with rates even higher than in several countries before the crisis. As such, we not only celebrate the growth we have had in 2010, because also in 2003 and 2008 the region had grown at an average of over five percent annually; and, the fact that after a year most of the economies greatly reduce their pace-even having negative growth—the pace has picked up again, and this increases optimism

In this decade, we have seen poverty rates drop, which has not occurred since before the eighties. More than 30 million Latin Americans have left poverty; a significant number of jobs have been created; and, there is an emerging burgeoning middle class, which is always a key factor of progress. This has been a decade in Latin America that also had a higher growth than the two previous decades combined. In fact, the period from 2002 to 2008—before 2009—had, in those six years, higher growth than in the previous two decades.

The recent review of the Millennium Goals set by UN agencies and coordinated by ECLAC, reveals that in most of the indicators there has been significant progress, although some countries appear to be staying behind. Certainly, the obstacles that lie ahead in order to be able to say that Latin American and the Caribbean countries have embarked on a right path to development are still numerous. An important part of the growth has been driven by a substantial increase in the export of raw materials, yet the progress in education and scientific and technological developments has been insufficient. There are still limits on savings and in investment, and thereby, on job creation. Our regional economic integration has stalled. All this is true, which does not mean that there are not opportunities for the future, and for which we must also assess the other negative factors mentioned.

There are still a very large number of inhabitants of the region that remain poor. I always use a phrase that I repeat, and that was once used by the former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil. He said: “Brazil is not a poor country, it is an unjust country.” What does this mean?, that there are too many poor persons given the level of development that Latin America has, that is, with this level of growth there should not be so many poor. It is not that there are more poor than in Africa or in some other countries; there are many more poor people in one large country in Asia—China or India—than in Latin America, but that's not the point. The point is that with the level of development that this region has, we should not have these levels of poverty, which also spur a flow of migrants into the United States and Europe, and, to a significant extent, from the poorest to the richest countries.

There is still work to be done in education for more than 20 million young people, termed the “neither-nor” because they neither study nor work, and this is certainly a breeding ground for a complicated social situation; there is still discrimination against indigenous and afro-descendants, and there are still a disproportionate number of poor households headed by women. These and other problems go hand in hand with an alarming increase in violence and crime, one of the great scourges of Latin America.

But, the opportunity to overcome them is there as is the optimism that many demonstrate in the face of the current situation, and I believe that, in effect, in the coming years we will be told—as someone dared to mention—that the next decade will be the decade for Latin America and the Caribbean. Or the growth momentum will be fleeting once again and, instead, social conflicts rooted in poverty, unemployment, crime and inequality will grow.

An important part of these challenges has to do with politics. Here, there is an interesting fact I want to mention: everyone agrees that an important part of the growth we have had over the years and the ability to cope with the crisis have had to do with the price of raw materials. But, also, properly coping with the crisis of our region lies in the quality of macroeconomic policies developed by our governments before and during the recession, with some exceptions. Even countries that proclaim their aversion to the policies of the past maintained necessary fiscal prudence and accumulated the necessary reserves to create counter-cyclical policies to mitigate the effects of economic lags and job losses. I do not generally mention countries in my talks, but I make an exception to say that for example, Bolivia's per capita reserves are among the highest in Latin America, which a few years ago was quite unthinkable.

Latin American banking has demonstrated that it is much less exposed than United States and European banking, and therefore, a large rescue operation was not necessary that would have imposed excessive costs onto the governments. In other words, as never before, the causes of the crisis came from outside, and the domestic public policies played a positive role in mitigating the damage. In addition to generating optimism, it shows that, with all the weaknesses of our States, its action is not only indispensable, but it also can be effective to meet the challenges ahead. The government can be a part of the solution this time; this opportunity comes at a period in which democracy has undoubtedly grown in our continent. The first prerequisite of democracy, without which all others are meaningless, is that governments have their roots and derive their legitimacy from the will of the people.

The truth is that there are many young people present here, and it would be good for me to convey my own experience from years ago. I participated in the Popular Unity government, and at that time we liked to distinguish between formal democracy and real democracy; and it is true, because democracy is not just elections. We would say: “There are many poor,” “great misery,” “no injustice,” “inequality,” “tell me what democracy you speak of,” “what you like is the formal democracy.” Well, formal democracy is over and real democracy was also ended along with it. Democracy is elections and democratic exercise by elected officials. And in these last years, despite the crisis that experienced in Honduras, which we hope can be overcome soon—the essential requirement is fulfilled, and I can say so with certainty.

The OAS has observed more than fifty elections of all kind over the last five years in different countries of the region. All we have seen, which are well over half, have definitely met the requirements of a democratic election. Of course, perfection in this realm does not exist, but it has been a generally clean process with massive voting turnout and secret ballot and with results adjusted to the reality of the vote.

Then, if the idea of democracy is reduced to the generation of power, we can say that America is, along with Europe, the other democratic continent of the world; and this, is in itself the greatest historical achievement of recent decades; nevertheless, the extension of the democratic ideal itself has broadened the content of this concept, to include a set of values that encompass the organization of the State, the rights of citizens, and that distinguish the origin of democracy and the exercise of democracy. Such has been the trend in America since the adoption in 1991 of the Declaration of Santiago of Chile by the Assembly of the Organization of American States, until the signing, by all Member Countries of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Lima, Peru, on September 11, 2010.

Democracy is both of origin and of exercise, and to be called democratic, a government must not only be elected democratically, but govern democratically. I briefly summarize the principle concepts.

The most interesting, probably, and the most novel: the first article of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which affirms the right of the peoples of the Americas to democracy. Then, it establishes the representation as the basis for democracy, and thus we talk about a representative democracy; the rule of law; the existence of a constitutional regime, adding that this democracy is strengthened with the full participation of citizens under the constitution and law.

Subsequently, in subsequent articles, the essential elements of democracy are listed, including of course elections, but also respect for human rights, access to power, and its exercise under the rule of law, pluralism of parties and organizations, and the separation of public powers.

The democratic pact is defined when there is a demand for subordination of all civil authority and public authorities, but at the same time, it sets as a counterpart the democratic exercise: transparency, probity, accountability in governance, respect for social rights and freedom of speech and press.

Located at the opposite end of the concept of democracy being purely electoral, the Inter-American Democratic Charter is a political program for a democratic republic, a complex political system composed of responsible citizens who receive their authority from elections, with full participation and gifted inalienable rights, with a government of laws rather than of people, whose legitimacy is based on transparency, good governance, and the full rights of citizens. And, to reinforce this character, our Democratic Charter states that democracy and economic and social development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. It does not say that one is indispensable to another, does not claim democracy as a right only of those who have their economic and social problems resolved. It says they are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. And, it denounces the lack of development and equity, discrimination, illiteracy, poverty, lack of respect for the rights of workers and women as negative factors for the consolidation of democracy. I want to emphasize the centrality that the concept of citizenship enshrines, defined very broadly as political citizenship: the right to choose, if elected, to attend and meet the public action. Civil citizenship, upon broadly proclaiming human rights and social citizenship, produced by the link established between democracy and development. I have once said that I think this definition of democracy enshrines, in this manner, the so-called Social Pact, but does so in a way that is different from the classical definition. While in the definition of Hobbes and Rousseau the subject renders his or her freedom to the sovereign State so as to be protected and guaranteed certain rights, in the modern conception of democracy, the citizen gives legitimacy to the ruler or president in exchange for recognition and respect as citizens, which not only guarantees their rights but also ensures their full participation in governance.

In a footnote, it is worth saying that a couple of months ago a group of people dedicated to the study of historical documents with the latest technology, managed to decipher a number of deletions and amendments that were in the Declaration of Independence or in the North American Constitution, revealing that in all places where Thomas Jefferson had crossed out the word “subject,” he had removed it and in its place, put the word “citizen.” Therefore, this idea is older.
It seems unnecessary to say that this set of democratic standards is not met fully in any of our countries or anywhere in the world. Democracy is a search for an ideal that is never realized, and as such, we speak of an ideal which is aspired to and which can always be perfected. But, it allows us to compare the principles of political reality that we live in our region and see how much progress has been made in building democracy and citizenship; how democracy is built, and what risks of regression or destruction are still present. Because the historical development of democracy is not linear, rather it is full of progress and setbacks that in many cases are natural symptoms of a complex process, but that in other cases may be true breakdowns of the bases of democracy.

I have said that elections have made remarkable progress. The duration of governments that in the early '90s were often interrupted has standardized. In the first decade of full democracy in the region, twelve governments fell or stopped working earlier than expected, but because they were overthrown, but because they were dismissed in accordance with the Constitution, although, nevertheless, they did not end their mandates. The institutionalism is fragile, however.

There is progress and limitations regarding human rights which is notoriously less than it was a few decades ago, but there are still limitations such as police abuse, the inhumane prison situation, violence against women, discrimination against vulnerable groups, transparency and probity, the subject of special legislation in many countries but still with insufficient controls from the exercise of authority. There have been important judicial reforms, but access to justice is still limited and biased towards higher income groups. All this still applies to what I had said about progress and setbacks that are normal to have in any process. But I want to focus on four areas, because due to these, threats may arise beyond what is circumstantial and thereby affect the very existence of democracy as a form of political life in the region.
First; Poverty and inequality remain a major factor slowing the progress in Latin America, beyond the progress in the last few years. The fact that more than a third of its inhabitants continue to live in poverty is not in line with the level of development of our continent. The fact that 1 percent of the population makes more than 50 percent of the national income is not consistent with a democratic discourse; neither the tax system or the labor laws have been reformed so as to bring about a better distribution of wealth, as evinced by recent studies by the OECD regarding the almost non-existent change in the Gini coefficient after taxes in Latin America. The Gini coefficient in Latin America before taxes is relatively similar to that of Europe, but the European coefficient falls 16 points and Latin America’s only falls one.

Poverty, in addition, is accompanied by discrimination, and it has a gender and color. The indigenous poor, poor afro-descendants, the disabled poor, women heads of households, are the true reality of our poverty. The paradox is that the greater the development of political democracy in Latin America, the greater the delineation of segmented and unequal societies, in a common landscape where many people look at the conspicuous consumption of a few and lack the ability to do the same. A minority of people with higher income receive health benefits, education, and private security privileges that others do not have access to, but can only see.

Moreover, in societies as unequal as ours, it is common that the dominant sectors look with apprehension at any reform process. The attempts to correct the democratic process through non-democratic means was common in our hemisphere in the first half of the last century, and contrary to what many think, it has not been completely extinguished.

Given that the era of dictatorships of national security, of greater brutality and duration, has passed, the so-called “corrective coup” appears to be an interesting praetorian option, as demonstrated by the recent coup in Honduras that many tried to justify.

Crime is now a threat to democracy, although the official discourse usually puts the political agenda on other very important issues: poverty, growth, and sustainable development. There is much talk of crime in our Presidential summits, but the truth is that crime, drug trafficking, and the general feeling of public insecurity has grown into a major concern for citizenship in our continent.

Some countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have homicide rates four times higher than the global average. The increase in drug trafficking, with its money laundering and other criminal enterprises of high profitability, such as trafficking in arms and people, have given rise to real criminal corporations who compete with each other for the control of territorial areas, forming armies of crime with imported weaponry to combat or fight for a monopoly of force against our police and armies.

Corruption, endemic in some of our societies, is fertile ground for the political penetration of organized crime that does not hesitate to resort to crime to face those that oppose it, or to buy the person is willing to be corrupted. Defending the clean up of political power is indispensable to ensure the participation of citizens, especially in the most vulnerable countries, in order to avoid the presence of drug trafficking and organized crime in the public arena.

Faced with such serious problems, we find weak and poorly funded States. Our States assume, by the will of its citizens and exaggerated electoral promises, to take on social and security tasks that they are unable to accomplish because they lack both the resources and strong and reliable institutions to spend such resources. The reform of the state passes through a fiscal reform in order to increase resources and, in turn, becomes a legitimate form of redistribution, as otherwise occurs in all countries of the developed world. A friend of mine was telling me that he knew a lot of people who wanted to live like the Danes, but pay only 10 percent of tax compared with 53 percent that they pay, which makes his wish completely unlikely. I'm not saying it's a matter of collecting more money, but of developing institutions that are willing to spend efficiently, and this is a process that takes several years.

Finally, and as a concern in the context of a political struggle that is legitimate, a democratic fallacy gains strength: he who has the majority, has the right to change the system according to his will, with disregard for the rights and participation of minorities. There is always the temptation to “complete a job” or to address urgent crises in society, but to change the institutions for this purpose weakens the institutionality, and, therefore, they democracy that it is supposed to defend.

Of particular concern here is the temptation to gain control over the judiciary, whose independence depends more or less on the subsistence of the rule of law. The tendency to judicialize politics is inherently negative, but ultimately it is a naturally occurring process. If in addition to this, a sector controls the judiciary, the political balance of society is unlawfully altered.

I place an emphasis on these negative trends in order to conclude with an evaluation that is positive, but with a caveat: in a recent book on democracy, Charles Tilly—one of the great thinkers of our time, in my opinion, on social science—refers to three major processes that give way to democracy, which are not usually considered but whose permanence or reappearance tell us if there is a climate that is conducive to democracy or if there is a setback to destruction.

The first indicator of these symptoms is what Tilly calls “the suppression of powers outside the State,” in regard to what in some countries is known as the powers that be. If at the margin of the State, there are forces that are able to assert their own power, the democratic state cannot exist.

The second factor is what he calls “the elimination of categorical inequalities,” namely, those forms of division in society that are considered to endure beyond any attempts, intelligence, or individual capacities, to correct them. The “caste society” is the best example of a categorical system of inequalities.

The third factor lies in what he calls “basic consensus building.” Tilly talks about the basic trust regarding the governance and management systems between citizens. There is no doubt that in our societies, we have made significant progress in the three directions; they may be incomplete, but one must recognize that in recent years, for example, the capabilities of the powers has declined substantially; they still remain, especially in the economic plain, but in other plains—where they were extremely powerful and rigid, as in religion or the military—today they no longer exist as independent powers within society.

Categorical inequalities of race and gender, on the other hand, remain an objective factor of poverty and discrimination, but have been eliminated at least in our legislations and a series of measures have been enacted to integrate them into society. Finally, in the '90s, it reached a basic consensus that resulted in electoral democracies that include respect for minorities and constituted significant progress in human rights.

However, in light of the assessment we have done before and of the four issues I have raised, I cannot but ask myself if, in the weak States endowed with few resources, the revival of independent powers is not ruled out. There are sectors and criminal groups that control parts of society or certain territories; there are real castes in education and private security to which not all citizens have access, and there are—whether we like it or not—categorical differences still present; and the worse is that the basic consensus has been lost in some way. There is a phenomenon of polarization in many of our countries where policy is either all or nothing in regard to clashing sectors, forgetting the basic rules of the game of politics.

I end with this warning: I believe that democracy in Latin America has certainly progressed and the historic achievements we have made in the last twenty years are there to consider. But, in this time of great possibilities, the risk of deconstruction of democracy—or of destruction, if preferred—is present given these factors and others you may wish to ponder.

Thank you very much.