Latin America: On the Road to Democracy

Point of View by Meg Ruthenberg

Dec 05, 2004

Democratic governance has been a central concern of the Latin American Program since its founding 30 years ago. In October, the Program celebrated the 25th anniversary of its groundbreaking project, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule. But the situation in Latin America has changed dramatically since the project was founded. Democratic elections are held regularly and citizens often are actively engaged. Indeed, many of the hard-won transitions to democracy were precipitated by citizens, who often fought for freedom at great personal risk.

Citizens continue to assert their rights, although now they enjoy significantly greater freedom. However, such freedoms are often a double-edged sword. Citizen action has led to election reform in Mexico but also to the ouster of democratically elected governments in Ecuador and Bolivia. But some in the region question the very definition of democracy. Is it more democratic, for example, to support broken institutions or to challenge the institutions of democracy when they are corrupt? When, in 2000, a "people's" coup d'etat led by the country's indigenous population overthrew a democratically elected—though very unpopular—president in Ecuador, one of the leaders of the coup refused to classify it as anti-democratic, arguing instead that it was a civic act.
Protest, however, is not the only form of participation in Latin America.

Citizens are working together with governments in substantial ways. Participatory urban planning and budgeting, for instance, allow citizens to help shape their communities. Governments, particularly at the local level, are increasingly realizing the benefits of including citizens in governance.

I recently co-authored a study with Lisa Hanley of the Comparative Urban Studies Project that examines the role participatory planning has played in the revitalization of Quito, Ecuador's colonial center. The efforts in Quito and elsewhere have been influenced by the successful revitalization of Bogota, Colombia where a series of reform-minded mayors advancing the concept of "citizen culture" have made the citizenry co-creators of the city's noteworthy renaissance.

While the transition from authoritarianism to democracy has been significant, widespread corruption and fragile institutions plague the region's democracies. The Latin American Program seeks to further the rule of law, citizen security, and the exercise of the rights and obligations of citizenship by promoting dialogue, debate, and informed policymaking. We have come a long way, but much work remains for the promise of democracy—envisioned by the "thoughtful wishers" who designed the Transitions project—to be fulfilled.

Experts & Staff