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Reflections on Contemporary South American Democracies

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Artículo de revistaO'Donnell, Guillermo Reflections on Contemporary South American Democracies. [Trad. Reflexiones Sobre las Democracias Contemporáneas Sudamericanas] Journal of Latin American Studies, 2001 vol. 33 no. 3 p. 599-609. Palabras claves:
América del Sur
Política, Administración pública


The occasion of honouring the memory of John Brooks, a great friend of Latin America, has helped me vanquish my initial reluctance to tackle a topic that is as broad, varied and still open-ended as the present situation of democracy in South America. As a first measure of my limitations, with the exception of some references to Costa Rica and Mexico, I will not discuss Central America and the Caribbean, not because I feel these regions are unimportant but because, simply, I do not know enough about them. However, when I feel that I am on sufficiently solid ground so as to refer to Latin America as a whole, I will do so. I begin by noting that in contemporary South America some countries satisfy the definition of political democracy. Those countries share two main characteristics. One is that they hold elections under universal adult franchise that, at least at the national level, are reasonably fair and competitive. These are standard criteria in the political science literature. However, having in mind the experience of Latin America and elsewhere in the third world, I believe that we should add that such elections must be institutionalised. By this I mean that all relevant actors expect that elections of this kind will continue being held in the indefinite future so, whether they like or not, it is rational for them to play democracy, not coup-making or insurrection. We should also stipulate that these elections are decisive, in the sense that those who are elected do occupy the respective offices and end their terms in the constitutionally prescribed way; they are not, as it has happened too often in Latin America, prevented from occupying office or thrown out of it because some supra-constitutional power feels that they are the ‘wrong people’. The second characteristic is the enjoyment of certain political rights, especially of opinion, expression, association, movement and access to a reasonably free and pluralist media. Of course, these and other rights are important per se; in addition, they are instrumental – necessary conditions – for the effectuation of the kind of elections I have just specified.

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