The Study of New Democracies in Latin America and Elsewhere: Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of the "Transitions Project" at the Woodrow Wilson Center
For this 25th Anniversary, the Latin American Program welcomed back preeminent scholars Guillermo O'Donnell, Philippe Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, along with the former director of the Latin American Program, Abraham Lowenthal, for a reflective discussion on their academic endeavor.
Twenty-five years ago, Guillermo O'Donnell, Philippe Schmitter, Laurence Whitehead, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, spearheaded the Transitions Project—a comparative research project that considered the transitions from authoritarian regimes in Latin America and Europe. The resultant research, conferences, and four volume book series was the origin of a conceptual debate and empirical research on regime change and democratic governance throughout the world.
In his remarks, Lowenthal commented on the imaginative vision for the Transitions Project, which he characterized as "thoughtful wishing." He noted that, at the time of its inception, the project appeared unrealistic, given the political backdrop of brutal authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America. Yet, the "dream team" of the project was undaunted and found support from the Wilson Center. Rather than engaging in wishful thinking, the project deliberately incorporated the views of practioners and policymakers as well as international academics from multiple disciplines into its rigorous inquiry into transitions. The result was nothing short of fame, according to Lowenthal.
O'Donnell characterized the project as "political" and a wonderful act of "scholarly and personal solidarity." The political nature of the project is found in its practical interest in opposing the façade of these dictatorships and hoping for their demise. At the height of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and the Cold War, the Transitions Project found few proponents of democracy in the region. Yet, in sharp contrast to both the harsh political reality and the current scholarship on democracy, the academic effort began and has continued under the common belief that freedom from authoritarian rule was not only possible to obtain but worth attaining.
Schmitter first underscored the importance of friendship in propelling collaborative, comparative work across academic disciplines and different countries. The transitions project, as Schmitter explained, strove to break away from the mold of social science literature on democratization. The possibility of democratization of authoritarian regimes in Latin America was characterized as highly unlikely according to the existing methodology. This was especially true given the region's strong Catholicism and history of Spanish colonization. Yet, as Schmitter pointed out, the original project participants were correct in their assertion that Latin America could take an alternative path toward democracy. Schmitter also identified two mistakes of the project. First, they overestimated the difficulty of transition to democracy—it was actually much easier than believed. Secondly, they assumed that democratization would be more consequential. The two mistakes are logically connected: it is easier to transition to democracy because democracy itself is of lesser consequence.
Whitehead centered his commentary on the historical context of the publication from 1979-1984. During this time, tremendous changes took place worldwide 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. However, some of these international events were not taken into account in the transitions literature. In hindsight, Dr. Whitehead argued, the international context certainly had more to contribute to the understanding of democratization. Undoubtedly, the cases of democratization around the world provide new ground for the study of democracy in a range of contexts and subfields. The global context of democracy strengthens the necessity for a new generation of comparative studies.
See also a related article about the project that appeared in the December issue of the Center's newsletter, Centerpoint.