The following commentary was written in response to a request from the Canadian International Council to discuss to an article by Jean Daudelin on the Summit of the Americas in Panama. See the debate here.
The nations of Latin America are bound together by histories of colonialism and the struggle for independence; consolidation of oligarchies after a period of anarchy in the 19th century; populist mobilizations for political change in the early 20th century; a wave of revolutionary struggles and intense repression following the Cuban revolution in 1959; simultaneous transitions to democracy and market-led development in the 1980s, and, most recently, shifts to the left in some countries and more tepid reforms in others.
“Left turns” reflect disappointment with the record of market reforms, as well as the inability of liberal, representative democracy to promote inclusion and participation in the context of weak public institutions and uneven citizenship. Foreign intervention —protectorates, invasions, or foreign-backed coups — has been another constant in the region’s history.
Today, however, the region enjoys unprecedented independence from the influence of external forces — it is neither in debt to foreign creditors, nor a battleground for superpowers. It is free to pursue experimentation with both political institutions and models of development. Rather than a single project, we are witnessing a proliferation of diverse patterns of innovation and change. Among the most interesting models are Brazil and Bolivia, which have broken new ground in developing participatory budgeting, policy conferences, indigenous autonomies, and other new institutions of direct, participatory democracy. They are also pursuing pragmatic developmental and social policies aimed at overcoming legacies of exclusion, poverty, and inequality. While the rest of the world is becoming more unequal, Latin America is becoming more egalitarian.
The biggest challenge the region faces lies in the weakness and politicization of state institutions, which prevents legal institutions from guaranteeing and enforcing fundamental rights and freedoms. The horrific violations of human rights in Central America and Mexico are occurring under electoral democracies of extremely poor quality. The poorest quality of democracy can be found precisely in the countries where colonial legacies are greatest, where large indigenous communities have been excluded from citizenship rights, where extractive industries are most critical to economic development, and where the pattern of political change has emphasized repressive oligarchies, radical populism, and repressive authoritarian regimes. The highest quality of democracy is found in Costa Rica and Uruguay — countries that were marginal to the colonial enterprise, where labour-repressive plantations and mining enclaves were less important, and where the pattern of political development involved the early development of constitutionalism, milder versions of populism, and less repression.
There are emerging projects in Latin America, but we North Americans typically fail to see them because of the ideological blinkers we wear, which cause us to focus narrowly on the protection of liberal democratic regimes and the rights of property and free enterprise rather than to focus on the deeper problems of poverty, inequality, exclusion, and repression that have led to patterns of development in which state capacity to respond to collective needs is diminished. We persist in thinking that the solution is markets, liberal democracy, and cooperation in such absurdities as the “war on drugs” or the “national security threat” from Venezuela.
Too bad for us. It means we are excluding ourselves from the emerging projects of the Americas.