Twenty-five years ago, only Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela were reasonably stable Latin American democracies. Today, what might be considered electoral democracies are found throughout the region. Indeed, at no time since independence has there been such a proliferation of democracy in Latin America.
But what has been gained is never guaranteed. A military coup is not the only way to destroy a free society. As the political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell observed, democracy’s flame can also be extinguished gradually when dreams of justice and social progress fail to materialize.
During the 25 years of the spectacular rise of Latin America democracy, per capita income has increased by a mere $300. Even in Chile, which enjoyed high economic growth and cut poverty in half, and Brazil, which lowered the percentage of citizens living below the poverty line by a third during the 1990’s, the concentration of wealth has increased.
This isn’t for lack of structural reforms. At the same time that political changes helped spread democracy across Latin America, structural economic reforms were strengthened. Samuel Morley of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean put together an index that graded reforms aimed at economic deregulation, trade liberalization, and opening up financial markets. Morley’s index, on a scale of zero to one, stood at 0.52 in 1977, but rose to 0.82 by 2000.