Carnegie Rising Democracies Network meeting
FGV, São Paulo, November 3, 2014.


The title I chose conveys my message: the central problem of democracy in Latin America is how to fully integrate the rising urban masses. At least in this continent, what is new is not so much democracy. Despite frequent setbacks and glaring imperfections, democracy in its nineteenth century restricted version has existed on and off in many Latin American countries since Independence, 200 hundred years ago. What did not exist in the past and now has been steadily rising in the region is democracy’s new political and social actor: the urban masses mostly concentrated around the sprawling peripheries of big cities, from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, from La Paz, Bolivia or Lima, Peru to Recife and São Paulo in Brazil.

The arrival of a new player that demands its due place in the old power systems generally has a destabilizing effect be it in the international or in the national sphere. It has to be accommodated, be given a living space for survival and growth. Most of the time this has to be done at the expense of someone else’s as political, economic and cultural assets are not infinite.

In some instances, it may be a relatively controlled process as in England of the Glorious Revolution or in the rise of the trade unions and the Labor Party. In other cases, it can be messy and bloody as in France and to some extent Western Europe throughout the succession of revolutions and repression of 1830, 1848, the Paris Commune, the ascent of Marxist Social Democracy in Germany or Austria or the Front Populaire in France, culminating in the apocalyptical clash between nazi-fascism and Stalinist communism.

In Latin America, we have been witnessing the same variety of experiences across countries. In Brazil, for instance, the recently held elections have confirmed a benign version of the phenomenon although the growing social polarization of voters may contain an ominous sign for the future. On the other hand, in Venezuela, the rise of Chavismo since the late 1990s has been accompanied from the start by increasing polarization and violent conflict alongside class divisions.

The forces driving this historic evolution were demographic explosion and the sudden, unparalleled growth of cities. Brazil, a representative token of trends everywhere in Latin America, started the twentieth century with 17 million people, the majority living in the countryside and 85 per cent illiterate. Born in 1937, I saw the Brazilian population jump from 39 million to 203 million inhabitants during my lifetime. Nowadays, 86 per cent of Brazilians live in cities over 20 thousand. Just between 1970 and 2000, the urban system increased by 80 million people, mostly by birth, partly from internal migration. There are now 24 metropolitan areas above one million people and 300 cities with more than one hundred thousand.

One of the earliest political manifestations of such unprecedented transformation of the urban landscape took place in the aftermath of President Vargas’ suicide in 1954. In a couple of hours, the massive demonstrations by masses of workers and poor people in response to Getúlio Vargas’ last appeal turned the balance of forces upside down in a way that would last for years. At the time, the Swiss-French writer Albert Béguin remarked that, urging the urban masses to play an active role in national affairs, Vargas had introduced the people in Brazilian history. Once mobilized, they would never leave the public arena again.

For a while, the irreversible character of the tendency was obscured by the Cold War abroad and by the fear of communist subversion internally. The scare created by the Cuban Revolution, the often interventionist tutelage of the Armed Forces, the possibility or reality of US covert interventions, they all combined to prevent leftist victories in democratic elections or to suppress democratically elected governments such as in Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), the Dominican Republic (1965), Chile (1973) and other countless examples. The net result has been the paralysis for decades  of any sustained attempt to promote social change through the ballot box and continuous resort to repression, dictatorship, guerrillas, civil war, and endemic political violence.

In the 1990s, the almost simultaneous end of communism, of the military regimes and Central American civil wars led to a complete overturn of the situation. On account of the change in USA’s strategic priorities or concerns, of the Latin American military’s utter demoralization and of the supposed lack of alternatives to capitalist market economies, universal secret suffrage was allowed to eventually produce governments of leftist or socialist orientation.

This by no means was a uniform or general tendency. In Mexico or Colombia, in Costa Rica or Panama and many other countries, it did not happen. In Peru, Ollanta Humala, elected as a radical reformer, chose to follow on his predecessors’ footsteps in economic and other policies. Chile is a distinct case in relying on a traditional party system that is more akin to Western Europe than to its neighbors. As in almost everything else, Argentina is equally an exception due to the specificity of the Peronist movement.

Yet, the evolution described above did take place in a number of countries. Among the most radical experiences are the so-called Bolivarian nations, particularly Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. Under Colonel Hugo Chavez’ leadership, Venezuela was the path-setter for others in inaugurating many of the features of what became known as the Refundación (Refoundation) regimes. The name is significant in itself. It is as if at the moment of celebrating two hundred years of independence from Spain, those leaders declared that independence was a sort of “journée des dupes” as power had immediately been confiscated by the oligarchy and taken away from the people. Thus, the time had come to devolve it to the people through a sort of re-funding of the nation, starting from zero.

The point of departure for the refounders is the need to abandon traditional liberal constitutions and to take a radical departure from the electoral, legislative and judicial mechanisms responsible for the perpetuation of oligarchic domination. This would be the only effective way of redistributing wealth and natural resources in favor of the poorest sectors, which, in many of those countries, coincide with the indigenous or mixed-blood population. In all cases, after reaching power through the old system, the “refundadores” lost no time in launching a semi revolutionary constituent process, supported by plebiscites or referenda whereby citizens are directly consulted above political parties and other mediation organs.

Instead of classical political parties, those regimes are based on movements organized around a charismatic leader. The leaders tend to become perpetual presidents through constitutional amendments that authorize repeated reelections, reducing or eliminating the real possibility of alternance in power. They throw away most of the theoretical heritage of the 18th century creators of modern representative democracy: checks and balances, independence of the Legislative and Judiciary branches, minorities’ rights, freedom of the press. Although they speak about inventing 21st century socialism, in practice they favor extensive nationalization and State intervention in economic matters.

It is undeniable that such experiences do possess a genuine and powerful social basis. In all cases where they reached power or nearly missed winning elections there existed a substantial pool of persistent frustration with the inability of traditional parties and/or institutions to offer the deprived majority a true possibility of attaining satisfactory levels of economic and social achievement. The repeated failure of traditional parties, their lack of sensitivity for the suffering of the poor, their incapacity to communicate, to link with popular sectors created the opportunity for the rise of movements determined to give expression to the demands of the unrepresented vulnerable masses.

Indeed, the new social actors living in the periphery of Latin American big cities did not feel represented by traditional parties. They looked for new movements to change the status quo. They have a distinct culture of their own in music, in dance, in graffiti painting, in poetry, in language style. They have their own political culture in the same way as their specific religious expression is Pentecostal Evangelism or Revival Catholicism. It is significant that Pope Francis insists that the Catholic Church has to reach out to the geographical or existential peripheries.

The outcome of the recent Brazilian presidential elections was an additional demonstration that much of what I describe above is still shaping events in Brazil and Latin America. The resilience of such movements should not be underestimated as we saw in Venezuela and more recently in Bolivia as well. Those are not the only possible ways of dealing with the rise of the masses. There are many other approaches such as in Chile, in Mexico, in Colombia, in Peru, of promoting integration, eliminating poverty, reducing inequality through prosperity brought about by liberal economic and trade policies, educational reforms and the preservation of the more traditional structures of classical representative democracy. Lula’s Brazil stands perhaps in between these two extremes.

What can be said for sure is that so far no Latin American nation has been able to complete the full integration of the urban masses into the political, economic, social and cultural system. In the countries where governments made of this goal their overwhelming priority, there have been impressive conquests in social indicators. Nevertheless, the aggravation of fiscal imbalances, recession or sluggish growth, high inflation and other signs of a dysfunctional economy in some of them raise serious doubts about the sustainability of the advances.

In the nations of a more liberal or traditional orientation – Chile, Mexico, Peru, Colombia – social gains have been no less remarkable. In this case, the threats to the sustainability of social improvement largely come from the deterioration of international terms of trade, from additional pressures for better public services in education (Chile, for instance), healthcare, mass transportation or from the frightening collapse of public order and personal security in the face of drug-linked criminal gangs as in some Mexican regions. Those same problems equally affect Brazil and the Bolivarian countries in different degrees. The inescapable conclusion is that, from north to south, with no exceptions, the jury is still out in deciding whether democracy will come out strengthened and improved from the challenge posed by the rise of the urban masses in Latin America.

We are witnesses to and protagonists of a process that will be painful and should probably last for more than one generation. It is useless and ultimately hopeless to try and stop the unfolding of a deep social and cultural transformation that is both desirable and historically necessary. Irrespective of the pain, it will certainly go ahead por la razón o por la fuerza, by reason or by force, as the old Chilean slogan says.

Among the several distinct roads that might be chosen, some better than others, what we can do is to act in such a way as to influence the adoption of the least traumatic and violent, the most enlightened and effective approach to the desirable goal. The shape of things to come will depend on the quality of the process, on its more or less consensual and constructive character, on the wisdom and moderation of those who can influence its nature and direction.