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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .


Deepening Democracy? The Modern Left and Social Movements in Chile and Peru
Kenneth M Roberts

(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998)
370pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 32.50; ISBN 0-8047-3193-4. Pb.: 11.95; ISBN 0-8047-3194-2. Distributed by Cambridge University Press.



Students of Latin American democratization have focussed their studies on three general questions. Why did democracy ensue in the midst of an economic crisis in the 1980s?. Is democracy consolidating? Is democracy deepening? This book addresses the last question by assessing the role that the Left played in Chile and Peru during the process of democratization in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The author makes a few arguments in the Introduction that shape the analysis of the deepening of democracy in Latin America. The first is that there is an incongruence between the political agenda that is needed to deepen democracy and the structural and institutional environment of contemporary Latin America with its neoliberal agenda. The second is that structural and sociological factors rather than ideological or voluntaristic ones account for the success or failure of the Left to deepen democracy. Third, the democratic dilemma in Latin America is that democracy either engenders instability by empowering popular majorities, and thus, generating authoritarian responses by the elite; or democracy looses its vitality in the pursuit of political stability.

To access different strategies followed by the Left, the book discusses different political parties and organizations in Chile and Peru. These two countries share in common a democratic transition that was preceded by social movilization; and in both cases the Left became an important player in the democratic regimes. In Chile, the Socialist Party joined a broad opposition coalition against General Pinochet led by the Christian Democrats, and in so doing, it was constrained by political and economic factors in its efforts to deepen democracy. In Peru, where the Left had been gaining ascendency during the early 1980s, contradictions within the Izquierda Unidad -- United Left (IU) between the moderates and the hard liners led to the decline of the Left.

To remain alive, the moderate sectors of the Left have emphasized the notion of a deepening of democracy brought about by organized popular subjects, including new social movements that transcend class-based action. These would include gender, ethnic, and religious-based groups. The problem is, says Roberts, that in practice leftist parties adopt electoralist orientations that are targeted at voting individuals rather than to group action.

The book provides a rich and detailed analysis of the issues, strategies, and transformations of the Left in Chile and Peru. What remains unclear is the definition of the deepening of democracy. What does it mean? Does it refer mostly or exclusively to political rights and institutional design issues? Does it encompass socioeconomic rights as well? When has democracy deepened enough? How do we assess progress and failure? Another problematic assumption is the argument that the Left helps the deepening of democracy. If the Left in Latin America was never very democratic or pro-democracy as the author points out, why should we assume that it will help to deepen democracy in spite of its recently adopted pro-democracy stand? True, the experience of social democracy in Western Europe supports the argument that there is a connection between the actions of the Left and the deepening of democracy if we mean by it extending social rights. But for Latin America, what is the scope of public policy innovation that could coexist with a relatively stable democracy? In turn, can democracy be deepened under the socioeconomic constraints imposed by international trade, austerity programs, currency devaluations, debts and unfair taxation? As the book concludes, here the answers remain uncertain.


Rosario Espinal
Temple University




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