On May 20, 2003, the Latin American Program sponsored a workshop to discuss political crises in Latin America and the threat to democratic governance as part of the ongoing project on "Creating Community." Participants Frances Hagopian, Kellogg Institute, University of Notre Dame; Kurt Weyland, University of Texas at Austin; Jonathan Hartlyn, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Raul Benitez, Woodrow Wilson Center and the National Autonomous University of Mexico; Genaro Arriagada, Siete Mas Siete, Chile; and Robert Kaufman, Rutger's University, sought ways to identify points of crisis and then to suggest precise research that would enable the philanthropic and policy communities to respond to crises that arise in the hemisphere in appropriate and effective ways.

Joseph S. Tulchin, Director of the Latin American Program, explained that the ongoing crisis in Venezuela demonstrates the fragility of democratic governments in Latin America and it reveals the lack of information in the United States about the roots of such crises. He challenged the group to identify the factors that contribute to the vulnerability of democratic governance in the region and come up with pragmatic steps to address these issues. He urged the group to consider policy recommendations that would translate to the operational side of donor agencies and multilateral institutions. What do members of the hemispheric community need to know about specific cases or a general situation in order to support democracy?

In this first meeting, members of the group reached a consensus as to which might be considered key issues for study. At first, for the record, several members cautioned that it was easier to identify existing crises than it was to predict crises still "on the horizon." And, as Raul Benitez pointed out, some crises are indeterminate. He argued that the impact of the anti-globalization movement and anti-US sentiment in Latin America should be examined further. Nevertheless, Hagopian felt that there were general characteristics or causes of these crises that might be revealed upon further examination. She contended that the list of "destabilizing factors" would include: citizen's concerns about public security, corruption and the impunity of elected representatives, and the absence of economic and social security.

If there were destabilizing factors, Kaufman suggested it would be useful to examine the factors that strengthen democratic governance to prevent crises from occurring by looking at the countries that seem to better manage their vulnerabilities, such as Brazil and Mexico. He added that the reconfiguration of social units- decentralization- and the local delivery of government services deserve more attention.

The challenge for the group was not to formulate a laundry list of destabilizing factors. There was considerable debate over the distinction between root causes of instability that might require changes in political culture requiring generations of experience, and more immediate problems that might be more easily subject to correction. In this sense, Genaro Arriagada argued that weak political systems and electoral processes plague the region and he stressed that state reforms would prevent crises from occurring. He added that deeper understanding of the relationship between civil society and the state would enable governments to improve their mechanisms of representation so that political parties better reflect the interests and concerns of the constituents.

This approach won the support of Jonathan Hartlyn who found it would be useful to highlight the areas that could be most effectively addressed by a range of policy options. He argued that lack of faith in institutions is also a destabilizing factor that deserves deeper examination. He added that it is easier to reform institutions than it is to address structural roots to crises.

As to root causes worth study, Arriagada argued that informal power- the influence of the wealthy on the political system- is a destabilizing factor that is little studied in Latin America. Kurt Weyland added that the politics of identity including gender, race and ethnic mobilization could create problems. The group agreed that it is worth examining the ways in which civil groups can undermine democratic governance.

The group agreed that the specific issues mentioned in the meeting (decentralization and the effectiveness of local governments, modes of representation, the politics of identity, citizen security, informal power and the influence of the wealthy, the quality of institutions and corruption) have serious short-term consequences and are a serious concern of the public. Other root problems such as poverty, inequality, and income concentration, have broader implications for the region but rather than precipitate crises of governance, the consensus was that these problems constitute a base on which other issues grow to become precipitants of a crisis. The group proposed deeper, geographical-specific examination of the issue areas that could lead to the outbreak of crises in the region and broader, long-term research into the linkages between core problems and specific destabilizing factors.