In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democratic Transitions in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Explaining Transitions to Democracy
  • Breakdown of Democracy
  • The Role of Elites
  • The Role of the Armed Forces
  • Economic Issues and Democracy
  • Electoral Politics
  • Institutions and the Process of Democratization
  • Social Movements and Citizenship
  • Gender and Democratization in Latin America
  • Indigenous Movements
  • Authoritarian Legacies and the Challenge of Multiculturalism
  • Consolidating Democracies in Latin America
  • International Dimension of Latin American Democratization
  • Comparative Studies

Political Science Democratic Transitions in Latin America
Reynaldo Yunuen Ortega Ortíz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0015


Since gaining their independence at the beginning of the 19th century, the Latin American states have tried to establish democratic regimes. However, most of these efforts failed during the 19th century, in which dictatorships and oligarchic rule were the norm in the region. In his useful classification of electoral regimes in Latin America, Peter Smith distinguishes among electoral democracies, electoral semi-democracies, oligarchic republicanism, and nondemocracies (see Smith 2005, cited under Explaining Transitions to Democracy). Between 1900 and 1930 there were only three electoral democracies that lasted between one and fourteen years: Argentina (1916–1929), Mexico (1911–1913), and Uruguay (1919–1933). Between 1930 and 1975 there were processes of democratization and de-democratization in the whole region. The Latin American cases are a central contradiction to modernization theory, which connected the emergence of democracy with certain economic and social background conditions, such as high per capita income, widespread literacy, and prevalent urban residence. We saw the demise of democratic regimes in the most affluent countries of Latin America: Argentina in 1955, Brazil in 1954 and then again in 1964, Chile in 1973, and Uruguay in 1973. The last twenty years of the 20th century, however. saw important changes in the democratization processes of the region. Most of the nineteen Latin American countries experienced processes of electoral democratization. The literature on democratization in Latin America has followed a tendency in political science to emphasize the role of elites and pacts. In a way, as Nancy Bermeo (see Bermeo 2003, cited under Breakdown of Democracy) and Adam Przeworski have argued, the group of the Woodrow Wilson Center (see O’Donnell, et al. 1986, cited under Foundational Works) was not only analyzing the democratization process, but wanted to “stop the killings.” The most robust structuralist theory, that of Barrington Moore, Jr., on the origins of democracy, was not that promising. The most recent works on democracy and democratization in Latin America are trying to analyze both structure and agency in the processes of democratization.

Foundational Works

Mahoney 2003 distinguishes three major research programs on democracy; see Moore Jr. 1966 on structuralism, O’Donnell, et al. 1986 on bureaucratic authoritarianism, and Linz 1975 on leadership and voluntarism. Linked to that program, I would add Dahl 1971. That fourth program is closest to the elitist school on democracy, but instead of emphasizing the problem of legitimacy, the scholars using that approach concentrate on procedural democracy, and recently, on rational choice and game theory. Bobbio 1987 and Tilly 2007 synthesize the most important debates around the concept of democracy, democratization, and de-democratization as historical processes. Rustow 1970 developed a strong critique of modernization theory (Huntington 1991) and culturalist theories of democracy and proposed instead a genetic model of democracy.

  • Bobbio, Norberto. The Future of Democracy: A Defence of the Rules of the Game. Oxford: Polity, 1987.

    In this book the political philosopher Norberto Bobbio analyzes the evolution of the concept of democracy and the agenda of democracy as a political system.

  • Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971.

    Addresses the question of what conditions increase or decrease the chances of democratizing hegemonic or nearly hegemonic regimes. Although it does not have a regional approach, it provides a typology of regimes, and most of the literature on Latin American transitions has used its insights to analyze the processes of regime change.

  • Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

    Many scholars have observed that democracies tend to come in waves; Huntington argues that transitions to democracy usually come in waves and are followed by reversions. There are many factors that explain regime change, and therefore explanations vary.

  • Linz, Juan J. “Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.” In Handbook of Political Science. Vol. 3. Edited by Nelson Polsby and Fred Greenstein, 175–373. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1975.

    In this seminal article, Juan Linz developed his typology of different regimes. In particular, he describes the main characteristics of authoritarian regimes.

  • Mahoney, James. 2003. “Knowledge Accumulation in Comparative Historical Research: The Case of Democracy and Authoritarianism.” In Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences. Edited by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschmeyer, 131–174. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    This article summarizes the main research agendas dealing with democracy and democratization, based on comparative historical research.

  • Moore, Barrington, Jr. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon, 1966.

    This book is a classic. Using a structuralist perspective, it shows how different configurations of social coalitions (the peasantry, the landed upper classes, and the bourgeoisie) led to different outcomes: dictatorship or democracy.

  • O’Donnell, Guillermo, Philippe C. Schmitter, and Laurence Whitehead, eds. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy. 4 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

    This is a classic comparative study of the transitions in Latin America and southern Europe. It includes multiple essays with comparative and case studies of different countries that were part of the “third wave.” It emphasizes the role of elites and pacts in the process of transition from authoritarian rule.

  • Rustow, Dankwart. “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model.” Comparative Politics 2.3 (1970): 337–363.

    DOI: 10.2307/421307

    Rustow develops a dynamic model to analyze the emergence of a democratic regime, criticizing the economic and cultural determinants of previous models.

  • Tilly, Charles. Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    This book is concerned with the continual processes of democratization and de-democratization and tries to measure the changes in four dimensions: breadth, equality, protection, and mutually binding consultation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.