Thursday, February 17, 2005

About Lawson's and Mainwaring's articles

Hi class,

The academic, policy, and political debates regarding the nature of political regimes in Latin America are relevant because the definition of what is democratic, under what circumstances and with what kinds of trade-offs, rests at the very core of social change in the region.

All the actors in the region present themselves as advancing some form of democratic agenda in the region. Your own papers will make at some points judgments about the democratic nature of country X or Y.

So precisely, because we are aware of the risks associated with broad generalizations, poor classifications, and with orientalism, it is necessary to sharpen our concepts, which are the tools to carry analysis and research.


Lawson’s piece is particularly relevant because of its critique of conceptual relativism (p. 191) and its acknowledgement of democracy and democratic governance as both theoretical and normative concepts. We cannot deny this double function. We need to acknowledge it and work through it in order advance our academic/political interests.

A valuable feature is her adoption of constitutional opposition as the key criteria to define democratic rule. Without it, there is no way to talk about democracy. Moreover, such concept works both ways. It helps to analyze the regimes and governments’ policies and decisions, but it is also helpful to analyze opposition movements.

This is relevant because at different points in history and all over the region it is possible to find new social movements, political parties, and leaders that, claiming to be democratic, deny the value of Lawson’s criteria.

Another valuable contribution of the paper is its use of the concept of democracy’s "internal complexity" (p. 192). The relevance of it lies in the fact that democracies and especially poor democracies as Latin American democracies are, are frequently confronted with pressures to prioritize following different criteria than those used by democratic regimes in developed countries.


Classifications are relevant among many other reasons because all of you at some point of your papers will develop some basic or elaborate definition/classification of democracy as a way to explain whatever issue you are interested in analyzing.

One can “read” Latin America’s recent history in the key of the construction of democracy and democratic governance. From that perspective, Mainwaring’s text is valuable for its review of some of the most heated debates regarding regime classification, democratic regime viability, and the conditions required to achieve such durability.

One could argue, however, against Mainwaring by using Landman’s evidence on the relation between democracy and development and Sokoloff’s evidence on the role of religion.

From other perspective, it could be argued that in actuality no country in Latin America could be a good “host” for democratic governance since no one will provide the ideal set up for democratic regimes. What is relevant, however, is that democracy is still perceived as both possible and necessary.

One interesting aspect of Mainwaring’s piece is its account of the role of the left and how, after the collapse of the Soviet Union the left radically changed both its methods and its political discourse. I think he is too harsh when dealing with the Latin American left's reasons and methods, mostly because it is nearsighted when it comes to dealing with the issues of the cycles of violence detonated by U.S. military interventions and by its supports to “sons of bitches” like the Somozas.

Moreover, questions remain at least at two different levels. On the one hand, as to establish if the emergence and resilience of revolutionary left groups in Central America, Colombia, and Bolivia was connected to the support of the U.S. government to firms such as the United Fruit and to ruthless military or despotic regimes? On the other, what was and has been the responsibility of the extinct Soviet Union and Cuba in breeding and feeding those groups.

The Mexican deal with the Cubans provides a good counter-factual to other cases in the region. It shows how in the absence of Cuban and/or Soviet support leftist revolutionary groups had a hard time reproducing themselves.

However, since we are dealing here with the realm of politics and not classical physics there is nothing straight, simple, and plain. The Mexican upper hand with Cubans during the 1960s, 1970s, and well into the 1980s would have not been as successful if other countries in the region (as Panama did it during the Torrijos’ regime) were willing to reach similar deals with the Cubans.

It is noticeable that now that the Cubans have “no dough” to share with revolutionary groups, the problems associated with poverty and exclusion remain, and therefore the ability of groups to promote radical programs of social transformation and that is proved by the emergence of new guerrilla groups in Mexico after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Moreover, one major problem created by this pact with the Cuban government is that the extreme left groups in Mexico deprived of “natural” connections with other similar groups in the region, sought help and collaboration from the organized crime.

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