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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Between Hybrid Regimes and Alternative Definitions of Democracy
  • Local Democracy
  • Left Turns

Political Science Democracy in Latin America
Agustín Goenaga
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0189


For decades, Latin America’s troubled experience with democracy has served as a testing ground for theories on democratization and political regimes. Today, most countries in the region have established democratic institutions, and a return to full-fledged authoritarianism is unlikely. However, these regimes are often at odds with the electoral, constitutional, liberal, and representative attributes that are associated with democratic regimes. Even though elections are the only means of access to public office in most of the region, they frequently involve high levels of clientelism, harassment of the opposition, and unfair advantages for incumbents. Although the separation of powers is central to the constitutional design in most countries, a generalized tendency exists toward the concentration of power in the national executive through formal or informal mechanisms. In some countries, party systems have collapsed (e.g., Peru and Venezuela); in other countries, parties have become increasingly detached from civil society (e.g., Chile and Mexico), and, in others, social movements have transformed the party system (e.g., Bolivia). The institutional ecology of many of these countries has also become one of the most diverse in the world, as representative institutions coexist with other forms of democratic decision making, such as plebiscites, participatory budgeting, citizen assemblies, national conferences, community councils, local and indigenous autonomies, town hall meetings, and constituent processes. These challenges to the liberal model of democratic governance have in many cases followed victories by left-wing parties and candidates, who have launched major efforts to overhaul their political systems. As a result, Latin America’s experience with democracy since the 1980s has thrown new light on old questions in political science, such as the relationship between institutional design and democratic stability, the performance of democratic institutions in contexts of low state capacity, or the interaction between political and economic inequalities. The region has also inspired new research agendas on the rise of ethnic-based social movements and democratic consolidation, on the electoral consequences of neoliberalism, and on the implications of direct and participatory democracy for effective governance. Most importantly, the particularities of Latin American democracies have problematized our definitions of democracy itself. This has generated new scholarly efforts to replace the democratic/authoritarian dichotomy with more fine-grained classifications of hybrid regimes, to identify multiple “varieties of democracy” or “democratic systems,” and to develop more precise measurement instruments to evaluate regime types around the world. This article offers an overview of current research on Latin American democracies. The first section presents general introductions to the topic, as well as efforts to produce normative assessments of changes in the quality of democracy in each country. The second section cites works that have drawn on the peculiarities of the Latin American experience to reconceptualize the notion of democracy itself. In the rest of the article, empirical research on specific aspects of democratic politics is organized in eight general categories: elections, separation of powers, popular participation, interest representation and political inequalities, state capacity and democratic responsiveness, new democratic institutions, local democracy, and the rise and fall of leftist governments.

General Overviews

Since the early 2000s, academic and nonacademic publications have highlighted a puzzling aspect of Latin American democracy: its resilience despite adverse conditions and high levels of citizen dissatisfaction. Despite economic crises, popular revolts, corruption, crime, insecurity, low-quality public services, and generalized distrust against political institutions, openly authoritarian regimes have become increasingly unlikely. The works in this section examine, at a general level, the survival of democratic institutions as well as their chronic underperformance. Kingstone and Yashar 2012 is the best point of entry to the literature on Latin American politics and democracy. The other sources in this section evaluate the interaction among democratic institutions, their contexts, and their outputs. United Nations Development Programme 2004, a report influenced by the work of Guillermo O’Donnell, is a major landmark in the study of new democracies, since it established that democratic quality could not be reduced to the presence of free and fair elections, but also involved the degree of responsiveness of the state to citizens’ demands. Mainwaring and Welna 2003 also expands O’Donnell’s insights about the multiple dimensions of political accountability and presents the first systematic discussion on the topic. Hagopian and Mainwaring 2005 explores the effects of political and social conditions on the consolidation of democratic institutions, while Payne, et al. 2007 evaluates the effects of institutions on democratic performance. Levine and Molina 2011 and Morlino 2014 adopt a more normative purpose, developing a framework to substantiate claims about lower or higher levels of democratic quality in specific countries. Finally, the index provided by Polilat is a useful source of data about changes in the quality of democracy in the region since 2002.

  • Hagopian, Frances, and Scott Mainwaring, eds. The Third Wave of Democratization in Latin America: Advances and Setbacks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    An authoritative volume on the consolidation of democracy in the region by the mid-2000s. Through case studies, the contributors to this volume explore the conditions under which democratic institutions can survive poor governmental performance and economic adversities. The editors argue that strong links among civil society, political parties, and the state contribute to the survival of democracy even under inhospitable circumstances.

  • Kingstone, Peter, and Deborah J. Yashar, eds. Routledge Handbook of Latin American Politics. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    A comprehensive discussion of Latin American politics and the best point of entry to the literature. Offers overviews of academic debates on political institutions, economic development, social policy, civil society, interest groups, social movements, and international relations. It includes chapters about how the study of Latin American politics has influenced research methods in comparative politics.

  • Levine, Daniel, and José Molina, eds. Quality of Democracy in Latin America. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2011.

    A useful edited volume that evaluates the quality of democracy in terms of five dimensions: (1) elections, (2) participation, (3) responsiveness, (4) accountability, and (5) sovereignty. The book opens with two theoretical chapters about how to measure the quality of democracy, then presents country-specific chapters for Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Venezuela, and concludes with a discussion by the editors on the general trends in the region.

  • Mainwaring, Scott, and Christopher Welna, eds. Democratic Accountability in Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    This volume addresses nonelectoral forms of accountability as a determinant of the quality of democracy and citizen satisfaction. The contributors develop, in detail, the concept of accountability and then analyze how the interaction between different institutions—elections, checks and balances, and oversight agencies—and civil society organizations affect democratic accountability.

  • Morlino, Leonardo, ed. La calidad de las democracias en América Latina: Informe para IDEA Internacional. San José, Costa Rica: IDEA Internacional, 2014.

    This report offers a thorough effort to define and operationalize the concept of the “quality of democracy.” Morlino proposes procedural, substantive, and outcome-based aspects of democratic quality and evaluates them for fifteen countries to generate a highly disaggregated picture of the challenges and strengths of democracy in each case. This framework has influenced the work of the “Red de Estudios sobre la Calidad de la Democracia en América Latina.”

  • Payne, J. Mark, Daniel Zovatto, and Mercedes Mateo Díaz. Democracies in Development: Politics and Reform in Latin American Countries. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank, 2007.

    This report focused on the effects of institutional features on democratic performance, in particular electoral rules and institutional design, parties and party systems, and popular participation and public opinion. The authors argue that more democratic and efficient institutions can, over time, mitigate the negative effects of antidemocratic factors related to political culture, socioeconomic development, or international pressures.

  • Polilat. Índice de Desarrollo Democrático de América Latina.

    The private consulting firm Polilat has created with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation the Índice de Desarrollo Democrático de América Latina (IDD-LAT) as a composite index of the quality of democracy for eighteen countries, aggregating several indicators that measure: (1) respect for political and civil rights, (2) quality of government, (3) social well-being, and (4) economic performance. IDD-LAT also publishes yearly reports about the situation in the region using this approach.

  • United Nations Development Programme. Democracy in Latin America: Toward a Citizens’ Democracy. New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2004.

    This United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report was an agenda-setting document for the evaluation of democratic performance. Based on a theoretical framework by Guillermo O’Donnell, the report goes beyond the procedural focus on elections to assess citizens’ satisfaction with their democratic governments, using new indicators on the quality of democratic institutions, interviews of elites, and large public opinion surveys.

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.