THE political advances of the 1980s in Latin America and the Caribbean were as encouraging in their way as the collapse of communist rule in eastern and central Europe. In country after country, military regimes and dictatorships have given way to freely-elected civilian governments. But democracy in the Americas is still on trial. Fragile democratic institutions are being challenged by political and criminal violence, prolonged economic decline, deep social and economic inequities, and conflicts between military and civilian authorities. The gains of the past decade are not irreversible. In some countries, they are at grave risk.
Direct military takeovers are no longer the primary danger to democratic progress in Latin America, although they are still a threat in some nations. Today, the greatest risk comes from the gradual erosion of public confidence in elected governments that are unable effectively to address fundamental problems affecting national life: prolonged economic deterioration, intense civil strife, enormous disparities in income and wealth, unresponsive public institutions, continuing military interference in political affairs, and widespread crime and official corruption. These are the challenges that democratic leaders must confront if Latin America's political openings are to be sustained and deepened - and if democracy is truly to serve the people of the region.
Stunted by prior coups and military governments, political and civic organizations remain weak in most countries of the region. Yet effective democratic practice requires structured and dependable institutions, accepted rules of political conduct, and established legal procedures. In their absence, politics often become personalized and erratic.
Legislatures and judicial systems lack the autonomy, stature, and competence to carry out their constitutional functions. Presidents in Latin America, frustrated by delay and indecision, often use exceptional procedures to bypass the legislative process. In doing so, they debase the formal institutions of government, compromise legal norms, and undercut democratic legitimacy.
Political parties in many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean lack effective ties to regular constituencies and are often little more than vehicles for contesting elections and distributing patronage. They rarely offer coherent programs and are frequently manipulated to serve the personal ambitions of their leaders.
Democratic progress in Latin America is hampered by the lack of sustained citizen participation in political life. Few countries in the region boast a vigorous array of non-governmental institutions through which the demands of ordinary people can be expressed, mediated, and consistently brought to the attention of authorities. In much of the region, trade unions, business groups, professional organizations, and civic associations are weak, fragmented, and too narrowly based to play constructive political roles.
Free and independent media are vital to democracy, and press freedoms have expanded markedly in Latin America in recent years. But in many countries, the press still represents only a relatively narrow range of opinion; in some places, governments continue to monopolize ownership of the media or limit access through licensing or censorship.
EVEN in nations with relatively strong political institutions, democratic governance is threatened when citizens fail to participate in political life because of disillusionment, apathy, or a sense that they have been unfairly excluded. Representative self-government depends on the active involvement of all citizens and on fundamental respect for political leadership. When these falter, democracy runs the risk of atrophy.
In many Latin American countries, there is today a growing distrust of politics. Abstention from elections and skepticism about their significance are rising at an alarming rate. That voters in many countries are casting their ballots for political newcomers reflects, in part, their low regard for established democratic leaders.
Three crucial lessons emerge from Latin America's turn toward democracy:
First, elections do not necessarily lead to genuine democratic openings or to sustained democratic advance. Free and fair elections scheduled on a regular basis are a fundamental requirement for democracy. But other vital requirements must also be fulfilled. Most important is the development of strong representative institutions that maintain the rule of law and protect the rights of all citizens, effectively respond to popular demands, and give citizens a continuing voice in government policy decisions. For such institutions to take root in Latin America, political violence has to be brought under control, armed forces must be fully subordinated to civilian authority, citizens from all social and ethnic groups must be politically engaged, and inequalities of income and wealth need to be reduced.
Second, democratic institutions cannot be expected to thrive under conditions of economic duress - when millions of citizens are without jobs, adequate shelter and nutrition, basic education, or hope for the future. All the countries of the Americas, individually and together, must establish and sustain economic programs that can renew investment, improve productivity, and create new opportunities for vulnerable groups. The resumption of economic growth, combined with concrete measures to alleviate poverty and inequality, would do the most to restore confidence in democratic rule.
Third, democracy is never fully achieved or secured. It is always on trial. Democratic institutions and procedures must be consistently respected, protected, and strengthened, or they will remain at risk of corruption, of manipulation by those with special power or privilege, and of losing their vitality. Democracy can never be taken for granted.
This article is an excerpt from ``The Americas in a New World,'' the 1990 report of the Inter-American Dialogue, Washington, D.C.