Latin American Program Celebrates 25 Years of Transitions, Launches New Initiative

Dec 05, 2004

In October, The Latin American Program marked the 25th anniversary of its Transitions from Authoritarian Rule initiative while launching a new comparative project to study the progress of emerging democracies around the globe.

The Transitions project began in 1979 and, over the course of several years, sponsored a number of meetings and conferences. These meetings prompted a series of books, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (1986), which included case studies, comparative and theoretical perspectives, and conclusions by scholars from Latin America, the United States, and Europe.
The series was translated into numerous languages and, for more than a decade, was the most cited work of social science published in English. Building on the success of this initial project, the Latin American Program is spearheading a continuation of this comparative debate among a new generation of scholars who will assess the state of democracy around the world.

Is democracy the most appropriate and effective form of governance in all of these countries? While Transitions project scholars argued from the outset that these societies would transition from authoritarian regimes and were hopeful that democracy would be the end result, they did not maintain that the transition would or must lead to democratic forms of government.

How is the transition different in Latin American and European countries? Is there one linear mode of democratic evolution and is a country wrong if it veers from that model? What are the burdens and costs inflicted on these societies? What is the quality of democracy emerging in these countries?
Transitions project scholars—who came from different disciplines and countries—advocated certain principles they deemed at the core of transition: formal government institutions, informal cultural norms, "free and fair" elections, stable political parties, viable civil societies, and conceptions of citizenship, not to mention the "old standards" of development and economic growth. Over the years, the lessons and experiences of different countries helped refine the theoretical discussion, leading to new syntheses and approaches.

When Latin America scholars proposed the Transitions project in 1979, all of the nations being studied were under authoritarian rule. Current Latin American Program Director Joseph Tulchin commented, "the scholars presumed—with great optimism—that democracy was the natural mode of political organization and that this transition was impending and inevitable."

The first wave of studies focused on whether and how the new democracies might be consolidated, a topic that inspired the launching of The Journal of Democracy. Since their initial collaboration, the founders of the Transitions project have differed on their approaches to the study of democratization. Guillermo O'Donnell argues a focus not on consolidation but on the quality of democracy, while Philippe Schmitter—whose research largely centered on Southern and Central Europe—underscores regime consolidation, with a focus on the characteristics that new democracies share with long-established ones. All agree, though, that comparison among regions is instrumental in understanding and strengthening democracies worldwide.

Democracies on the March
This year, several Latin American countries have held elections that, in some cases, brought opposition parties into power. Brazil held state and local elections; Chile held parliamentary elections; and Uruguay and Venezuela held presidential elections. But party systems remain weak in many countries in the region and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of democratic institutions.

These scenarios, however, are a vast improvement over the violent, unconstitutional change that characterized many countries prior to their transitions. In Bolivia, for example, popular protest is common. But the protesters are citizens exercising their democratic rights, as opposed to the military groups of the past operating at the behest of undemocratic elites.

There are certainly obstacles to democracy. In many countries, "the institutional framework is fragile, if not unstable," said Tulchin. "The rule of law is precarious. Meanwhile, poverty and inequality make the relevance of democracy an issue of debate. But overall, the advances in these countries are encouraging." He cited successful leadership at the state and local level and growing citizen participation, particularly in local politics.

"When taking the historical context into account in any transitioning democracy-whether in Eastern Europe, or East Asia, or Latin America-democracy matters," said Tulchin. "Even if the infrastructure is far from perfect, where we are today, where we'll be tomorrow, is infinitely preferred over what these countries endured previously."

Reflections
At the October 1 Transitions anniversary event, former Latin American Program Director Abraham Lowenthal characterized the original initiative as "thoughtful wishing." He noted that the whole idea of democratic transitions seemed unrealistic at the time the project was launched, given the political backdrop of brutal authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America. But a group of dedicated scholars remained undaunted in their mission and received intellectual as well as financial support from the Wilson Center. Rather than engage in wishful thinking, the project incorporated the views of practitioners, policymakers, and international academics from multiple disciplines into its rigorous inquiry.

Guillermo O'Donnell characterized the project as an act of "scholarly and personal solidarity." He said the project was political in nature with a practical interest in opposing dictatorships and pressing for their demise. Given the harsh political reality at the time, the academic effort began, and has continued, under the common belief that freedom from authoritarian rule was not only possible, but worth attaining.

O'Donnell was one of three project co-founders, along with Schmitter and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who were members of the Latin American Program's Advisory Board. Soon after, Cardoso entered the Brazilian senate and was subsequently elected president of Brazil. Laurence Whitehead of Oxford University replaced Cardoso as co-director.

At the anniversary event, Schmitter said the Transitions project strove to break away from the mold of social science literature on democratization, which characterized the very idea of democratization as highly unlikely, especially given the region's devout Catholicism and the historical legacy of Spanish colonization. But the original project participants were correct in their assertion that countries would ultimately pursue a path toward democracy and, in fact, overestimated the difficulty of the transition to democracy, he said.

During the project's first five years, from 1979-1984, tremendous changes took place in Latin America, including the Latin American debt crisis in 1982, the Malvinas War in Argentina, the Contra War in Nicaragua, and daily upheaval in Spain and Portugal. Yet some of these international events were not discussed in depth in the Transitions literature. In hindsight, Whitehead argued, the international historical context did, and continues to, have more to contribute to the understanding of democratization.

The continuing debate over democratization, and the more than two decades of empirical research that emerged from the Transitions project, is the driving force behind the new initiative to study new democracies in Latin America and around the world.
The time is ripe for scholars to assess what has been learned from this experience and suggest topics for future inquiry. The new project will incorporate further debate and a new round of cases studies on specific countries facing exceptional challenges in their transitions. In addition, a fellowship competition will be organized to allow younger scholars to complete their dissertations on the subject and add to the wealth of existing research.

Today, the cases of democratization around the world provide new ground for the study of democracy in a range of contexts. The global context of democracy strengthens the need for a new generation of comparative studies.

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