The Angst of Democracy

Michael Shifter is vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service

Even the most upbeat observers of Latin America are struggling to maintain their optimism these days. Up to now, these analysts have remained relatively sanguine by concentrating on the political and economic winds in major countries, which are more positive. That is precisely why Argentina’s current economic distress is so significant--and troubling.

Four months ago, Argentines proudly noted that a quarter century had passed since their country experienced a military coup. In a generation, chronic political instability has given way to a secure democracy. But civilian, constitutional government has proved disappointing. Last week, the country’s political leaders reached an agreement that momentarily eased fears of debt default or currency devaluation. Still, for most Argentines, now enduring their third year of recession, the sharp government spending cuts contained in the agreement will be tough to swallow and will do little to lift their flagging spirits. Already, there are signs of growing unrest.

Perhaps the country’s most critical problem is the utter lack of public confidence in Argentina’s political class. The ruling coalition led by President Fernando de la Rua of the Radical Party has failed to achieve a political consensus that would foster sound economic policies. Frepaso, a left-of-center party and estranged partner in the current government, has largely faded. The Peronists, now the opposition but still in control of the congress and many governorships, inspire scant confidence. Former President Carlos Menem, under house arrest for allegedly directing a group that illegally sold arms to Croatia and Ecuador in the early and mid-1990s, has been discredited.

Argentina’s political despair underscores its deeper problems. Globalization has been unkind to Argentina, producing the type of severe economic dislocations that are tough to manage. The country’s middle class, historically a source of prestige on a continent marked by a wide gulf between rich and poor, has withered from downward mobility. Over the past several years, unemployment has fluctuated between 15% and 20%. And in a dramatic reversal of the country’s proud immigrant heritage, young, professional Argentines are increasingly taking advantage of their Spanish or Italian passports to seek opportunities in the lands of their forebears.


The sense of betrayal among many of Argentina’s citizens is not peculiar to them. Polls consistently show that Latin Americans, for a variety of reasons, are growing more and more disenchanted with democratically elected governments that perform inefficiently and with leaders who raise expectations only to disappoint later on. Peruvians, for example, harbor immense resentment toward former President Alberto Fujimori, whose once impressive record of managing the country’s intractable problems masked unimaginable corruption and abuse. Colombians, perennial victims of lawlessness and economic insecurity, are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress toward peace in their country. Venezuelans continue to pin their hopes on their charismatic president Hugo Chavez, though support for his government is waning as unemployment and crime there mount.

Meanwhile, Argentina’s economic crisis is affecting its neighbor Brazil, South America’s giant that accounts for more than half of the continent’s population and economic output. The contagion is compounding Brazil’s problems with corruption and a severe energy shortage that had already eroded support for the once-popular government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Chile, too, and even Mexico, are feeling the “tango effect.” Not surprisingly, Mercosur--the trading block led by Brazil and Argentina that was a Latin American model of dynamism in the 1990s--has been badly shaken.

It’s instructive to juxtapose the complex reality of today’s Latin America with statements emanating from Washington that repeatedly extol the virtues and broad acceptance of democracy and free markets on the continent. Such rhetoric is clearly hollow and stale and should be retired. A fresh discourse grounded in two decades of disappointing performance and the negative effects of globalization needs to be developed.

By now, everyone fully appreciates that Latin America enjoys elected governments, and that no one is threatening to confiscate private property. But as Argentines and others can tell you, these days such reminders offer less and less comfort.