“It is common to think of Latin America as the land of no hope for democracy. Since Independence, the region has been ravaged by authoritarianism and populism.”
So writes Amherst College political science professor Javier Corrales in the New York Times on Nov. 6, in his op-ed “Can Latin American Democracy Withstand the Populist Assault?”
“But an alternative narrative is that Latin America is actually the land of democratic resilience. Always under attack, democracy does not always prevail, but it does not always die.
“In their efforts to stay alive in an inhospitable environment, Latin American democrats have produced survival tactics and innovations. Frequently, these creations have allowed democracy to triumph.
“The resilience of democracy in Latin America is impressive. In the current global wave of democracy, which started in the late 1970s, Latin America stands as the region where democracy spread and survived the most. Democracy spread to every country except Cuba and has survived in every country except Venezuela and Nicaragua, and possibly Honduras and Bolivia.
“If democracy has survived the assaults of dictators and populists, it has not been because of waning supply and demand for those offerings. Candidates offering some version of populist authoritarianism are as popular now as ever. Today it’s Mr. Bolsonaro in Brazil. Twenty years ago it was the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. And more will come.
“Democracy has survived instead because Latin American societies have learned to bolster the line of defense against democracy’s internal enemies. They’ve done it through institutional innovation.
First, Latin Americans have focused on institutions that regulate entry and exit mechanisms. At the entry level, the most important innovation has been the runoff rule.
“Runoff rules have now been adopted by 75 percent of Latin American countries … With a few exceptions, and Brazil’s recent election was one, illiberal presidents seldom manage to emerge from runoff elections. The beauty of second rounds is that they force contenders to bargain with other groups, often moderates, as just happened in Colombia this year. So electoral coalitions are less extreme.
“On the exit side, a key barrier has been term limits. They were popularized by Latin America in the 19th century, long before the United States adopted the rule in 1951 with the 22nd amendment. Despite a recent weakening of term limits in Latin America, they still work. Mexico, for instance, with strict term limits since the early 20th century, has not had a classic dictator since. Most Latin American presidents respect term limits, and those who try to circumvent them usually face an uphill battle.
“…there is reason for optimism. Authoritarian populism is a recurrent threat in Latin America, and now in advanced democracies too. Democratic survival is never guaranteed. Countries often come close to falling prey to autocrats. But many times, these episodes become “near misses” rather than full crashes. Latin America continues to be a region where illiberalism often meets its match.”
Thank you, Javier. To read the full article, go to www.nytimes.com