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Democracy in Latin America: Analysis and Policy Implications

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At this point in time, the diversity of experiences with democratization in Latin America is too great to permit broad-brush generalizations.  We all celebrate the hemisphere-wide discrediting of military coups as a path to power; the armed forces’ removal of an elected president in Honduras in 2009 was an exception, although power was quickly ceded to civilians.  Ideological conflicts have eased as center-left and center-right regimes converged on the need for a strong state to enhance social welfare while facilitating the dynamism of a market economy.  Since the early 2000s the hemisphere has witnessed historic reductions in poverty and some reductions in inequality, the growth of the middle class, and the engagement of vibrant civil societies in articulating and solving national problems.  Indeed, representative democracy appeared to thrive most fully in some of the countries that had experienced the devastation of democratic breakdown in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet there are plenty of reasons to be discouraged in today’s circumstances.  The profound deficits of representation and consequent collapse of party systems in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia have given rise to new forms of populism that explicitly reject liberal, representative democracy in favor of direct and vertical linkages between the leader and “el pueblo,” Polarization and the gutting of checks and balances on executive power characterize politics in these countries.  In some countries, electoral democracy survives amidst new threats—the unprecedented increase in rates of crime and violence abetted but not entirely caused by organized crime.  Rampant citizen insecurity in turn undermines support for democratic systems and expands support for hard-line, mano dura approaches in which the armed forces play a leading role. 

Scott Mainwaring presents a new and counterintuitive analysis of why democracies have emerged and then subsequently broken down or stabilized in Latin America—including a discussion of the role of international influences and actors on democracy in the region.  He analyzes  the recent trajectory of democracy in Latin America, what it portends for the proximate future, and what policy implications derive from his analysis.  Prolific authors and leading scholars of democratic governance Frances Hagopian and Steven Levitsky provide their perspectives on democracy in Latin America and comment on the central questions posed by Mainwaring’s research.

Featuring renowned democratization experts—

  • Scott Mainwaring, University of Notre Dame
  • Frances Hagopian, Harvard University
  • Steven Levitsky, Harvard University

Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson Center introduces and moderates the panel, and Paolo Carozza of the Kellogg Institute offers closing remarks.


  • Frances Hagopian

    Board Member
    Jorge Paulo Lemann Visiting Associate Professor for Brazil Studies in the Department of Government at Harvard University and Faculty Chair of the Brazil Studies Program of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS)
  • Steven Levitsky

  • Scott Mainwaring