Latin American Politics Research Paper

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The study of politics under the rubric of ‘Latin American studies’ bears two important features that distinguish it from the more general practice in US university departments of political science: it has been approached from an interdisciplinary perspective and it has been influenced importantly by Latin Americans themselves. Through these methods, ‘Latin Americanists’ have contributed to some of the most important and influential theories and debates in political science in recent history, from dependency to democratization, from studies on the state to research on social movements. This research paper examines the intellectual trajectory of the study of politics within Latin American studies, noting how it has been influenced by real-world events and discussing its relationship, intellectual and political, to the discipline of political science.

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1. Emergence Of The Subfield

While some US scholars devoted themselves to the study of Latin America, including the region’s politics, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was not until the 1960s, after the Cuban Revolution, that Latin American studies got its big boost. With important support from the Joint Committee on Latin American Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Studies, politics became a major scholarly focus for regional specialists. By 1979, articles by political scientists made up the largest percentage of submissions to the leading journal devoted to the area, the US-based Latin American Research Review, a trend that continued in the 1980s and 1990s. Studies on politics also composed an important percentage of articles in the Journal of Latin American Studies, published in England.

Notwithstanding the Cold War ‘national interest’ incentives for funding US scholarship on Latin America, many tensions arose over the years between the Latin American studies community and the foreign policy, defense, and intelligence circles of the US government. Beginning with the ‘Operation Camelot’ scandal in 1964, in which a sociologist working in Chile exposed a US Army-funded initiative to use area scholars to gather information for the US government’s counterinsurgency program, scholars of the hemisphere criticized a wide array of US policies, including those toward Cuba, multinational corporations, Brazil, Central America, and especially Chile. The Latin American Studies Association, founded in 1964, has issued frequent and strong criticisms of US policy in the hemisphere. This passionate engagement of US and European Latin Americanists with policy issues in the region is one outcome of their genuine collaboration with their counterparts to the south, most of whom have been sharply critical of US imperialism, interventionism, capitalism, conservatism, and association with dictators.

2. From Modernization To Dependency

The mutual influence of Latin American and North American European scholars has been evident in the evolution of political science inquiry on the region. In the 1950s and early 1960s, ‘modernization’ was the predominant paradigm in the field of comparative politics. Modernization theory arose in the context of decolonization in Africa and Asia and the early years of the Cold War. It grew out of efforts to understand how recently independent nations and other ‘Third World’ countries might achieve economic and political development similar to that of the US and northern Europe, which were viewed as the products of a linear and potentially universal process of rationalization and progress. The theory was developed largely by specialists on Africa and Asia, but Latin Americanists fell in line to offer supporting evidence and concepts. Following the spread of US interest in the region from the Caribbean basin towards the larger, industrializing countries, scholarly attention turned towards Mexico and the Southern Cone of Latin America.

The main argument of modernization theory was that industrialization and economic growth, and the value orientations associated with them, were the engines of social and political progress. This was a vision rooted in classic, Western liberal economic and political thought. In order to develop, Third World societies needed to embrace ideas, values, techniques, and/organizations commensurate with urbanization, a complex division of labor, increased social mobility, and a rational–legal, impersonal economic and political system. As countries overcame feudal, semifeudal, precapitalist, or at least inefficient behavior patterns and institutions from the past, new urban social groups, particularly the middle classes, would emerge, and these groups would in turn push for social equality and political democracy. Thus, political scientists focused on issues such as elite and mass education, mobilization of the popular classes, interest articulation, and institutional development. Some of the pre-eminent works of this period were Johnson’s (1958) Political Change in Latin America, Lambert’s (1967) Latin America: Social Structure and Political Institutions, and Lipset and Solari’s (1967) edited volume, Elites in Latin America.

Quickly, however, critics assailed the main tenets of modernization theory based on evidence and perspectives from Latin America itself. In the 1960s and 1970s, economic growth in most countries did not meet expectations, social inequalities were rarely reduced, and military dictatorships became the norm in the region. Scholars thus began to take issue with many of the underlying assumptions of modernization theory. They challenged the idea of a linear, evolutionary developmental continuum, the conception of preindustrial societies as homogeneous and static, the assumption of the Western European, capitalist experience as generalizable and desirable, the faith that new urban social sectors would be democratic and progressive, and the neglect of constraining factors exogenous to Third World societies.

The primary challenge to modernization theory was the dependency approach. The dependency school accepted modernization’s economic determinism, but turned it on its head: the adoption of US and European-style economic policies had not and would not lead to healthy economic and political development, but rather to skewed and highly limited development, or ‘underdevelopment.’ Rather than the cure for underdevelopment, capitalism was seen as the cause. The dependency approach, developed mainly by Latin Americans but also by foreign Latin Americanists, and highly influential outside the region, melded insights from a variety of disciplines to explain the major features of Latin American societies: economic underdevelopment, social inequality, political instability, and authoritarianism. It emphasized the need to go beyond the examination of individual societies to understand the international historical process of development.

Within the dependency paradigm, economists, sociologists, and political scientists argued that a country’s position in the international system is determinant of internal class behavior. Because Latin American countries occupied an inferior position in the international division of labor, producing mainly raw materials and cheap workers, they were the victims of unequal terms of trade and exploitation by foreign investors. Local entrepreneurial classes and political leaders were captives of the international market and had only limited opportunities to steer the development of their own economies and societies. In addition, the copying of consumption patterns characteristic of the advanced industrialized countries led to severe distortions within Latin American economies. According to the more radical dependency writers, foreign and national capitalists siphoned off Latin America’s surplus, leaving the vast majority of people sunk in poverty and oppressed by authoritarian regimes. Some of the most influential books on dependency were Frank’s (1967) Capitalism and Under-Development in Latin America, and Cardoso and Faletto’s (1969) Dependencia y Desarrollo en America Latina.

In political science, the most important theoretical contribution to come out of the dependency paradigm was bureaucratic–authoritarianism, articulated by O’Donnell in (1973) Modernization and Bureaucratic–Authoritarianism. This theory argued that the bureaucratic–authoritarian state that emerged in the most economically advanced Latin American countries was a structurally determined phenomenon, produced by the alliance of local political forces and foreign capital with the objective of overcoming economic stagnation and deepening industrialization. Otherwise put, the authoritarian regimes in the region emerged because continued economic growth depended on the repression of the working classes, whose demand for higher wages and other guarantees would otherwise fuel inflation and drive out foreign investment.

Dependency arguments held sway into the late 1970s, when Latin American countries began a wave of transitions to formally democratic regimes. Al-ready, dependency-related economic theories had been displaced by international monetarism in many countries, increasingly so as the 1980s unfolded. Both import substituting industrialization and socialism seemed to have failed to overcome underdevelopment. In addition, the examples of export-led development in East Asia, namely South Korea and Taiwan, cast heavy doubt on the pessimistic tenets of the dependentistas. Latin American governments thus began slashing trade barriers and encouraging comparative advantage, while they pruned the bloated public sector. Moreover, foreign investment and loans were welcomed, particularly in the wake of the debt crisis of the 1980s. Along with the imperative for economic liberalization came pressures, from both within and without the region’s authoritarian regimes, for political liberalization. Suddenly, scholars who had argued that authoritarianism in the region was structurally determined had to account for transitions to democracy.

3. Corporatism

A major alternative theory produced during the 1970s to explain Latin American economic and political development patterns, and one that was also challenged and swept aside with the focus on democratization in the 1980s, was corporatism. Corporatist theory had two main, sometimes overlapping, strains. One strain was institutional corporatism, fully developed first by Schmitter (1971) in Interest Conflict and Political Change in Brazil. Schmitter and others called attention to a pattern of interest group politics in Latin America in which the state played a dominant and controlling role. In an effort to harmonize relations among classes and other social groups, the state often sponsored the formation of functional groups, offering them a monopoly of representation but maintaining a significant degree of control over their internal organization and demand making. This pattern did not fit the pluralist model based on the American cases, but bore certain similarities to—as well as important differences from—interest group politics in some Western European countries (Schmitter 1974).

Proponents of the second version of corporatist theory, cultural corporatism, took the presence of corporatist institutions as evidence of a distinct political tradition, rooted in the Iberian and colonial past. Scholars such as Wiarda (1974), editor of Politics and Social Change in Latin America, held that Latin American societies had inherited a political culture that featured feudalistic master–man relations, anti-capitalist preferences and incentives, patrimonial extended families, hierarchical Roman Catholic religious affinities, corporatist and/organic links between the state and society, and authoritarian, verticalist governing structures. According to proponents of this point of view, such characteristics were not necessarily undesirable or destined to vanish with economic development, as modernization theorists would have it, but were part of Latin America’s unique developmental path. These arguments gained currency as authoritarian regimes swept the hemisphere in the 1970s.

Cultural corporatism was criticized strongly on a number of fronts. Some viewed it as an apology for authoritarian regimes that emerged in Latin American countries. Others (including Schmitter 1974) questioned the theory’s blurring of cultural and institutional elements, arguing that forms of governmental corporatism can be found in many non-Latin, developed countries, serving to organize functional groups as links between the state and society. They also pointed out that many other developing countries are plagued with poverty and authoritarianism without any Iberian heritage.

The most telling critique of cultural corporatism, however, was launched against its sweeping determinism. Despite their common colonial past, Latin American countries exhibit an extremely varied economic and political record. Some countries have made impressive strides in terms of industrialization and the institutionalization of democratic practices. Even within individual countries, people have experienced radically changing forms of economic, social, and political organization without suddenly transforming their cultural heritage. Contrasting levels of modernity exist between different cities and regions. Moreover, cultural attributes vary widely by ethnicity, race, class, and gender. Cultural corporatism could not account for this diversity, nor could it predict or explain the wave of democratization that swept Latin America beginning in 1978.

4. Democratization And Beyond

In the 1980s, then, real-world events forced analysts of the region to turn their attention to the politics of liberalization and transition from authoritarian regimes. Gradually they abandoned the grand theorizing and structural determinism that had characterized both the modernization and dependency eras to focus instead on the dynamics of agency, the role of ideology, the issue of political will, and the application of game theory. In this effort, scholars could draw on the work of Linz and Stepan (1978), who had emphasized the importance of agency in their important edited work, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. O’Donnell et al. (1986) produced the fourvolume set, Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, and Przeworski (1991) wrote Democracy and the Market, both of which were hugely influential in the field of political science as a whole.

The ‘transitology’ literature, which focused almost exclusively on the interests and actions of political elites, soon gave way to analyses of the different types of democratic regimes that emerged in the region, debates about the meaning and possibility of ‘democratic consolidation,’ and greater attention to civil society. Scholars who, early on, were wary of upsetting the delicate equilibria achieved in the region’s democratic transitions gradually became more critical. Some took strong stands in debates over institutional reform, arguing that with strong presidentialism or poorly designed electoral rules, Latin American countries courted instability. Others, pointing to a crisis of representation in many of the region’s polities, focused on the need to strengthen parties or analyzed the important role of grassroots organization.

This does not mean that either modernization or dependency was swept definitively into the dustbin of history. Like most good theories in the social sciences, both bequeathed a legacy of important lessons and middle-level hypotheses, shorn of their more grandiose pretensions. Both theories contributed an abiding concern with underlying structural conditions, especially with dependency’s emphasis on historical structuralism, although most political scientists now insist that we must focus on institutions, agents, identities and/or choices as well as structures. Dependency left its mark in terms of general awareness of the important role of external factors to the internal economic and political systems of Latin America, and political economists specializing in Latin America moderated and adapted the theory to explain persuasively instances of ‘dependent development,’ not only in Latin America but in other regions of the globe as well (e.g., Evans 1979). Remnants of modernization theory are evident in some recent analyses which attempt to establish prerequisites, economic and/or cultural, of political democracy (e.g., Malloy and Seligson 1987). Now some argue that it just took longer than expected in the 1950s for Latin America, let alone Southern and Eastern Europe and many other parts of the globe, to achieve the socioeconomic conditions to support democratic government.

Notwithstanding this legacy, in the 1980s and 1990s, Latin American studies has been characterized by the absence of a prevailing paradigm. To be sure, analysts of Latin American politics have not been unaffected by the more recent trend toward theory-driven analysis, whether shaped by world-systems theory, rational choice theory, or postmodernism. For example, some study the politics of migration flows among peripheral, semi-peripheral, and center countries in the context of the globalization of capitalism; others examine how politicians’ desire to maximize their career success affects policy; and still others analyze the political perspectives and resistance strategies of historically trampled or ignored (‘subaltern’) groups. For the time being, however, studies within these paradigms must share the intellectual terrain with an abundance of middle-level theories. Such theories have emerged on topics ranging from the political effects of different approaches to incorporating labor into the polity, to the sources and political effects of different institutional structures, to the emergence and effectiveness of social movements, to changing constructions of gender and citizenship. Among the most significant of these recent works are Collier and Collier’s (1991) Shaping the Political Arena, Mainwaring and Scully’s (1995) Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America, Escobar and Alvarez’s (1992) The Making of Social Movements in Latin America, and Linz and Stepan’s (1996) Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation.

5. Political Science vs. Area Studies

Despite all of the noteworthy contributions discussed here, Latin American area specialists are still sometimes accused, as are other area specialists, of ‘ghettoizing’ themselves within the discipline of political science. Few articles on Latin America (or on other ‘developing regions’) have appeared in the pages of the leading disciplinary journals in the past 40 years (Martz 1990). Instead, most work on Latin America has been published as chapters in edited volumes, as collaborative multiauthored books, or as articles in area or alternative thematic journals.

Perhaps as a result, an old debate has re-emerged in the pages of major political science journals and newsletters regarding the quality of contributions by area specialists in general. The nature of work on Latin American politics, as most work in ‘area studies,’ has tended to be more qualitative than quantitative, and generally more oriented towards a trans-disciplinary audience. Latin American studies in general is characterized by methodological diversity, a fact which partially may be explained by the significant influence of Latin American scholars, whose disciplinary norms and boundaries differ from those of their US counterparts. The work of Latin American specialists is thus sometimes viewed with suspicion by colleagues at the ‘hard’ end of the social scientific spectrum. Most recently, a Harvard political scientist and noted Africanist (Bates 1996) has argued that comparative political scientists should follow the lead of many specialists in US politics who use rational choice and game-theoretic models to produce testable hypotheses and strive for universalizable conclusions. He and those who share his convictions view area studies in much the same way their behavioralist predecessors did: as primarily descriptive, largely atheoretical, and, above all, methodologically soft and hence unanalytical or unscientific.

The view of Latin American studies as unscientific is, however, simply inaccurate. Regional specialists, including political scientists, have helped to test the validity of discipline-specific theories and to identify new empirical puzzles that require theoretical explanations and that generate hypotheses. It was the familiarity of Latin Americanists, for example, with particular historical and structural features of Latin American societies that allowed the universalist assumptions of modernization theory to be challenged, and produced the highly influential dependency approach in the 1970s. As dependency itself came under fire, it was a close empirical analysis by Latin America area experts that produced the concept of ‘dependent development’ and led to the elaboration of theories of state-led development around the world. In the fields of democratization and social movement theory, it has been transcontinental and transdisciplinary cooperation by Latin America experts that have produced some of the most significant recent works.

6. The Bigger Challenge: Globalization

Notwithstanding the critique from within the academy, the greater challenge to specialists on Latin American politics comes from the broader international political context. The end of the Cold War has meant the demise of the general ‘national interest’ justification in the US for funding area studies programs. The issues that affect US security interests are increasingly understood as global problems, better handled by issue experts rather than area experts. In such a scenario, Latin American studies may be particularly vulnerable, given the association of many Latin American specialists with causes often at odds with those of the Washington policy community. Relatedly, the global expansion of US power in the 1990s, both economic and political, as well as the great leaps in communications technology of that same decade, have fed the notion that the world is becoming increasingly homogeneous. English has become the lingua franca of the international business and political worlds, and more and more countries have accepted and even embraced the ‘Washington consensus’ on neoliberal economics and procedural democracy.

The challenge for those who study Latin American politics in the twenty-first century is thus to forge cross-regional ties and build a global research agenda without losing sight of the factors that have allowed for fruitful intellectual production in the past: a commitment to deep knowledge of cases through language proficiency and fieldwork, openness to interdisciplinary cross-fertilization, and collaboration with foreign scholars on an equal basis. While globalization may signify that many different countries face similar problems, it does not mean that similar solutions will work everywhere. Local and regional traditions and politics will continue to influence events and outcomes in all parts of the world, and knowledge of those traditions and politics will continue to be essential for policy makers and academic theorists.


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