CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

The Quality of Democracy in Latin America

February 15th, 2008

The Center for Inter-American Policy and Research continued its Inaugural Seminar Series on February 15th with a presentation by noted political scientist Manuel Alcántara on The Quality of Democracy in Latin America.

The last decades of the twentieth century witnessed a near universal embrace of democracy in the Latin American region. Military and dictatorial regimes gave way to democratic ones in transitions followed by a systematic deepening of citizen rights. The new regimes were then consolidated through consecutive elections, broadly accepted as free and fair, enabling the adoption of the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter which recognized democracy as “essential for the social, political, and economic development of the peoples of the Americas.” Yet, despite this undeniable progress, a sense of malaise with democracy has taken over the region, characterized by widespread citizen dissatisfaction with its key institutions. This “crisis of representation” has opened the doors to political mavericks offering projects of national re-founding and constitutional reform. In some cases popular mobilization in a polarized political environment has led to the interruption of presidential terms. In other cases it has resulted in tight electoral outcomes and restricted mandates whose legitimacy has been open to challenge. Although democratic institutions and the democratic process have generally managed to survive, these events have highlighted the widespread regional variation that exists in the quality of democracy.

This has also led to a fruitful debate as to how such variation in democratic quality can be measured, monitored, and better understood. Understanding the quality of democracy is fundamental for its consolidation and advancement, a goal that is relevant both to Latin American countries and the United States. Itself a signatory of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, the U.S. stands to gain from a Latin American community that espouses the same values it embraces internally and professes internationally. The checks against unrestrained power that are inherent to democracy provide the best hope against terrorism, drug and human trafficking, organized crime, environmental degradation and other cross-national banes that define our times.

Such issues are at the core of our research interests at CIPR. That is why we are happy to present Dr. Alcántara, a professor at the University of Salamanca in Spain where he is Vice-Rector since 2007 and a leading expert on the subject. Dr. Alcántara taught at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense until 1992, where he obtained his PhD in Politics and Sociology (1983). Since 2002 he is the General Secretary of the Latin American Association of Political Science. He is currently the lead researcher for a three-year project on “Political Parties in Latin America” funded by the Spanish government. He also has been leading three projects on “Parliament Elites in Latin America”, “Parliamentary Performance in Latin America” and “Organization and Internal Structure of Latin American Political Parties”. Between 1996 and 2001 he was a summer visiting professor at Georgetown University. He has been a Visiting Fellow of the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame (2000 and 2007) and he has also done research and teaching at the University of North Carolina, Science Po in Lille (France) and the Imperial University of Tokyo as well as different Universities in Latin America, including FLACSO-México, Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Pontificia in Quito and Universidad de Costa Rica. Professor Alcántara has written extensively on electoral, political party, and governability issues in Latin America and Spain. His most recent books include Sistemas políticos de América Latina (2003), ¿Instituciones o máquinas ideológicas? Origen, programa y organización de los partidos políticos latinoamericanos (2004) and Gobernabilidad, crisis, y cambio (2004). He is the editor of Politicians and Politics in Latin America (2008) and a co-editor of Partidos Políticos de América Latina (2001), Colombia: ante los retos del siglo XXI. Desarrollo, democracia y paz (2001), Chile: política y modernización democrática (2006) and A democracia brasileira. Balanço e perspectivas para o século 21 (2007).