A century ago, Latin America as a region was evolving in economic, social and political terms. In 1920, the Mexican Revolution (1910) and its 1917 constitution, and the effects of World War I (1914-18) were still important reference points for economic and political developments for the region.  The export oriented Latin American economies produced a relative period of prosperity in a number of countries, such as Argentina (beef and wheat), Mexico (henequen, sugar, mining), and Chile (copper, fruits). This in turn, produced a relative grow in the middle class, the emergence of local working classes, immigration from Europe, and an expansion of democracy from the upper class to a small emerging middle class.  And yet, in spite of that evolution, the region as a whole and in each specific case showed in the 1920s levels of fragility, underdevelopment and inequality.   Governments were run top-down by strong men supported by small group of wealthy families who controlled the pace and depth of policies.  Concentrated economic and political power resulted in the exclusion of women, indigenous groups and rural residents.  In the 1920s, in great part due the export economic model Latin America was connected to the global economy and thus was vulnerable to the ups and downs of demand.  A century later in 2020, the region has also made impressive progress in many economic, political and social dimensions, but remains vulnerable and prone to risks and crisis. Why?

Looking back in the Mirror to see the Future      

The first book I wrote was entitled the Chaos of the Mirror.  It was a comparative analysis of the first hundred years of socio-political development in Latin America from the end of the 19th Century to the end of the 20th Century. The book marked the beginning of my passion for comparative analysis.  The basic thesis of my book was that between 1880-1980, most of the countries in Latin America had undergone a long and awaited process and historical cycle of development and reform, which marked a first phase of a much needed social, political and economic transformation. Subsequently, at the beginning of the so-called “lost decade (1980-1990),” almost all the countries in the region shared new common challenges (structural adjustment, external debt resolution, economic stabilization, social disintegration) and also very bleak prospects for the future. In that context, almost all Latin American countries embarked on a second phase of transformation, emphasizing the consolidation of democracy and economic modernization.  Today in 2020, forty years after the start of a new era of transformation, the region is again facing uncertainty, volatility and several economic, political and social challenges.

The previous development cycle in Latin American (1880-1980) implied a search and constant convergence of policies, values and processes of modernization, industrialization and national construction, which, as Calderon and Dos Santos argued, had as a structuring axis the State. This collective experience of more than a century of development in Latin America, left as the main balance an important lesson: that development with higher levels of equity was feasible, only if there was an effective institutionalized socio-political order.  The State would have to act as a driving force for the design, promotion, and implementation of public policies, and would have to have the ability to strategically manage internal and external factors such as uncertainty and complexity, as well as reconnect with an ever-changing political community and citizenry.

The 1920s for Latin America was a critical decade in many fronts. Politically, most countries were ruled by elite, authoritarian, and oligarchic regimes. Economic progress laid down the foundation for new sociopolitical forces to emerge and demand more democratic and inclusive political regimes.  A new middle class emerged in the growing urban areas, and they began to demand inclusion and influence in the decision-making process.  Trade and labor unions also emerged around export sectors.  The first communist and socialist parties were organized in the 1920s. The armed forces were becoming more diverse and drawing membership from middle and lower sectors. The postwar period helped to revive the export economy of many countries and exposed the systems again to the ever-changing global platform. The United States had emerged from World War I as an industrial and financial power and was becoming a major source of foreign investment in Latin America, and with that came armed interventions and economic pressure to expand control and influence. By 1920, the United States military intermittently had invaded, occupied and/or intervened in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama and Cuba.

Similarly, in the 1920s specific countries were experiencing interesting developments.  For example, Mexico found itself in efforts to consolidate the revolution and regain stability.  The human cost of revolution began to manifest in the 1920s, and peace needed to be forged to quell  rebellion within the ranks of the revolutionary leaders.  General Alvaro Obregon (1920-1924) and General Plutarco Calles (1924-1928) strengthened Mexican presidentialism, reduced the role of the military, and timidly advanced the goals of the revolution.  In Venezuela under a de facto regime of General Juan Vicente Gomez oil wealth began to flow freely in the 1920s, as Gómez had already been in power since well over a decade since 1908, his hold on Venezuela lasted until his death in 1935.  Chile in the 1920s was experiencing a reformist wave amidst demands for more equity, and the armed forces had to be called to repress mounting social discontent. President Arturo Alessandri Palma governed from 1920-1924 when he resigned and a military junta took over but Alessandri was called back six months later in 1925 to resume his duties as president and to help support the reform and eventual approval of a new Constitution by a plebiscite, which gave more power to the president.  In Argentina, the 1920s was dominated by the raise of the new middle class Radical Civil Union (UCR) party and the influence of Hipolito Irigoyen.  The UCR governed most of the decade, with Irigoyen making a comeback to win a second term and causing the UCR to break into two factions.  All this amidst economic challenges related to growing government debt.

Fast Move Forward 100 years to 2020

In the 1920s, Latin America seemed to be evolving in a pattern of modernization and development and being driven by internal and external forces and dynamics.  In spite of an unfinished and unbalanced local socio-political development, economic stimuli came to Latin America mainly from the more developed countries in Western Europe and from the United States. So, the economic systems were structured to be suppliers/exporters of raw materials (minerals, oil, agricultural products) and in parallel to consume/import manufactured products from outside the region.  In the 1920s, Latin America had made progress relative to the 19th century but had not addressed yet the main internal socio-economic patterns in a way that it was necessary to have a centralized power and political structure to hold in check potential conflicts or deviations.  As James Malloy described in one of his classic books, governance was vertically organized through patron-client networks, built around individuals and strong man and not necessarily around institutions, and with mechanisms to hegemonically control authority, clientelistic networks, and benefits of corruption.  A level of bureaucratization was needed to hold the parts of this system together, which had a centralized authority that made the State strong at the center and top, but weak and dependent at the bottom.

Forty years ago, in the 1980s, as Latin American societies became more democratic and aspired for more economic dynamism, and access to opportunities, it was clear that the old model to use political power that had survived intact, was slowly being reformed.  But halfway through a new century of reform and change, it seems Latin America finds itself in the same position in 2020 as it was in 1920 with wasted opportunities to expand and strengthen institutions, progress, opportunity and inclusion.  Lots of important changes occurred since the 1980s, but the same predicaments of unfulfilled promises, untapped potential, and an incomplete socio-political construction remains in 2020.  As Laura Chinchilla points in an introduction for a recent book, “…Latin American countries have stood at the threshold of success. Some have experienced episodes of unprecedented economic growth; others have attained remarkable development goals, but each time a new economic recession, political breakdown, and new social upheaval occurred, they undermine their achievements and send them back years if not decades.”

The first decade of the 21st Century brought steady economy growth to Latin America, in large part due to favorable prices of commodities. With that came some political stability, reduction of poverty, increase in human development, and an expansion of the middle class.  But the second decade, brought political instability, stagnated growth, lower prices for commodities, and austerity measures.  And, a realization by citizens that the so-called “boom” was more of a “bust” as the large quantity of social investment (mainly in cash transfers and subsidies) did not translate necessarily into quality and sustainable outcomes.  In 2020, Latin America as a whole faces several challenges in the economic, political and social fronts, and the country by country analysis shows a relative pattern with some outliers (mainly Uruguay). Essentially, economic opportunities are limited and fragile as nearly 40% of the population still live under vulnerable conditions.  Despite progress, over 180 million people still live under the poverty line in Latin America and 62 million live under the extreme poverty line. Informal employment, including a large contingent of women and younger workers, also remains prevalent.

According to data from the 2019 LAPOP report, satisfaction with democracy in Latin America has remained relatively low (38% average). Similarly support for democracy has remain ambivalent and is lower among younger age cohorts.  According to the 2018 Latinobarometro, on average only 22% of people in Latin America have confidence in their governments.  Interpersonal trust is very low as well (14% in 2018). Levels of criminal violence have shot up since the spread of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. More than 2.5 million Latin Americans have been murdered since 2000. Today, Latin America’s homicide rate is three times the global average and rising. The region registers close to 40% of the world’s murders despite being home to only 9% of the global population. Inequality persists as well, not only in terms of income, but  in the social and political realms as well.  The lack of stable, effective and autonomous institutions, as well as checks and balances and accountability have curtailed voice, participation and vested interest of key constituencies and have promoted the raise of populist and authoritarian regimes via elections, and whose main goal is not to guarantee universal access to rights but instead perpetuate in power indefinitely and feed from corrupt practices. Unlike the 1920s, the United States has mostly neglected Latin America in the last decade, and it has given way to other foreign influencers, like China and Russia, creating another potential risk of dependency.  In 2020, Latin America is also divided between left- and right-wing ideologies and regional blocs (ALBA, OAS), resulting in a polarized geopolitical landscape discouraging bilateral and multilateral cooperation and collaboration.

Towards a Strategy to Articulate Political Institutions and Social Demands

 No wonder people are angry in Latin America, as reflected in a recent wave of protests in 2019.  The protests and frustrations reflect the accumulated dissatisfaction with business as usual.  A recent survey by IPSOS found that the main frustrations in Latin America reflect: social inequality, corruption, disrespect for the democratic system, and weak institutions.  As can be seen in the info-graphic below, no matter how one reads the data, there is growing concern about what may happen during this decade.


The question is what can be done to avoid further deterioration in economic, social and political terms in Latin America?  There is no easy recipe and any way out of the crisis needs to respond to the nuances of each country.  However, there are some general policy reforms that may help in the short-term to chart a new path in Latin America, with the hope that in the long-term the fruits of that effort could be reap.   As has been argued by Seth Kaplan, beyond the formal vertical legitimacy that assumes a tacit agreement on the right to rule in a territory (government through a constitution or by force) two other factors are key today for political, economic, and social change. First, citizens capacity to collaborate, which depends largely on inter-personal trust, and second an ability to take advantage of a set of shared, productive institutions, even if they are informal, to generate cohesive political communities over which rule would be exercised. This has been called horizontal legitimacy, which would trigger the government to react and shape its political behavior, decisions and capacity as well to respond to that demand.  The big lesson from the 1920s is that the State cannot initiate reform and behavior change alone, and without the buy-in from citizens.  Active participation of citizens to demand improved performance of their elected governments  and to hold them accountable is a key and enabling ingredient.

The horizontal legitimacy of States is more related to attitudes and practices between and towards individuals and groups within a State. In general, if within a State the various socio-political groups and enclaves accept and / or tolerate themselves, there is generally high horizontal legitimacy. The case of Latin America shows that the social formation of most states has generally involved a slow incorporation of heterogeneous sectors, in terms of ethnic, class and citizenship, into the socio-political system. The incorporation, acceptance and articulation of this diversity has been a long process, which in many places in the region has not yet been consolidated. In fact, the various crises have accentuated this gap. Therefore, democratic development in Latin America has almost always required social mechanisms and processes that allow reconciliation of the conflict between various social groups. That is why horizontal legitimacy in Latin America has historically been deficient.

To the extent that the democratic process has progressed, the analysis of the horizontal legitimacy in Latin America requires a thorough examination of the nature and dynamics of society and emerging communities, and the role of the State.  This introduces a notion of a virtuous circle, where the synergy between State and Society and between government and citizenship, as Peter Evans would argue, would be based on the one hand on a complementarity of mutual and supportive relationships between public and private actors, and on the other in a structure of links that determine the type of relationship that connects citizens with public officials.  In general, empirical evidence shows that the construction of a socio-political community and the achievement of a synergy between the political and social realms is not an easy or automatic process, particularly when there are deep institutional and socio-economic gaps. The important point is that to the extent that a State has large segments of its population excluded (for ethnic, economic, political or ideological reasons), its horizontal legitimacy will be of a weak nature.

Legitimacy is then more a variable than a constant. Its vertical and horizontal dimensions are critical components of the coherence of a State. Vertical and horizontal legitimacy are made of human feelings or habits, based and energized in a variety of institutions, rules, norms, practices and attitudes. However, ultimately performance is what consolidates the overall legitimacy of a democratic state. The adaptive challenges facing Latin American political systems at this time are systemic in nature. That is why often social mobilization and informal authority are required ingredients to trigger change. The construction of a more effective and collaborative bridge between political parties / representation and civil society, between the State and society, and between the political and the social realm is imperative at this juncture. In this context, there is a need for a new socio-political leadership, which not only offers solutions, but also promotes the construction and institutionalization of a new socio-political matrix, with new responsibilities, roles, values, behavior and approaches to make the public space the stage where State and society articulate responses, collaborate and produce solutions.  Otherwise, as in the 1920s, Latin America in the 2020s could be caught off guard and remain vulnerable to global crises, and the tenuous internal democratic order could be threatened by the desire to appeal only to the traditional vertical legitimacy, even if that requires overturning democratic rule in favor of authoritarian governments from the left or right ideological spectrum.  Let us hope Latin America has learned its lesson and moves forward not backwards.

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