A view from the cathedral

A view from the cathedral, overlooking Colonial Quito   


(What is Tocqueville Capital?  Read the welcome post for the series!)

Two years ago, I visited Quito, Ecuador to conduct a site visit at a potential semester-long program partner for the college, in which our students could participate.  However, even though I traveled in my then role of administrator, I could not subdue the Latin Americanist within me as we toured our partner and explored the city!  Among our many experiences, I most enjoyed our day in Colonial Quito, particularly touring this church, and also visiting a local artisan market.  My takeaways were of a vibrant busy city.

Despite the evident activity, the legacy of civic engagement in many Latin American countries has not always been accurately depicted, and thus, appreciated outside of the region.  Much of the literature of Latin American politics frames the public as either disconnected from democratic norms or outrightly chaotic when active, because of the challenges that many countries have faced in sustaining democratic governments over time. As a result, civil society and its surrounding culture was often blamed for its inability to promote a more participatory political system.  Carlos Forment’s ambitious Democracy in Latin America; Civic Selfhood and Public Life in Mexico and Peru (Volume 1), takes a page from Tocqueville’s book seeking to gain a picture of colonial and early post-colonial society, as well as its relevance for democratic development, and delivers a new perspective.

Forment’s current vantage point meant that, unlike Tocqueville, he had to unearth this history from news sources and other artifacts of the time period in order to uncover a more complex view of society at that time.  These sources provide an enlightening view of social life in the region.  Although minimal prior to independence, which occurred in the early 19th century in many countries of the region, the number of associations grew significantly by the middle of the century.

This civic engagement was framed by a “Civic Catholic” narrative.  Civic Catholicism served as a means to subdue the perceived ill-effects of the rampant passions of individualism; instead “[s]elf-interest properly understood had to be based on mutual reciprocity and limits on individual freedom” (233). Catholicism had become the dominant religion in much of the region, due to the conquest of this territory by Spain and Portugal, countries that were steeped in the Iberian-Latin tradition. Howard Wiarda sketches this tradition in The Soul of Latin America as framed with a unitary (monistic) rather than pluralistic view, the facets of which tend to promote a hierarchical political structure.

This structure continued to persist because of the influence of the Church, which Forment points out had a thorny relationship with the political system. “In order for religion to have a positive influence on democratic life, the Church had to remain separated from the state.  In Latin America, the Church was allied with both the old regime and the new authoritarian one…” (437). Thus its influence reinforced the political patterns, save for a minority of priests like Archbishop Oscar Romero, who challenged these structures.

As a result of repressive structures, the busy civil society did not result, as observed by Tocqueville in the United States, in economic and political engagement.  Rather, there was a disruption as people saw the lack of responsiveness of the harsh governments.  Moreover, as discussed in John Sherman’s Latin America in Crisis, as well as other historical accounts such as the findings of various countries’ Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, citizens faced consequences for political activity.  Those who did not fully support their governments often faced persecution and, in the case of some regimes, death.

“[D]emocratic life in Latin America arose from the fissures between daily practices and institutional structures…[D]uring the first half of the nineteenth century, and through much of the second, democratic-minded citizens migrated to civil society, claiming it as their ‘internal domain’…yielding political society to authoritarian groups because they considered it part of the ‘external domain’,” instead “invest[ing] their sense of sovereignty horizontally in each other rather than vertically in government institutions, which created a radical disjunction between the two” (430).

The lack of encouragement meant that the public often practiced a sort of “antipolitics” in which they were very involved in matters outside the political sphere.

Although Forment’s book parallels the larger arc of Tocqueville’s in its attempt to characterize the daily life of citizens in Mexico and Peru, his work offers a rebuff of it as well.  Critiquing the work of Tocqueville, as well as others following in his footsteps, Forment points out that the relationship between civic and political engagement is not universal.  Rather, in this case, the political structures of many Latin American nation-states failed to provide the opportunity for citizens to engage politically, even though they had ample social capital (enduring connections between people who share repeatedly in a common activity).

Moreover, Forment takes Tocqueville to task because he makes very impressionistic assumptions about Latin America within his survey of the United States.  Tocqueville characterized the people of the region as “lacking civic habits and stable institutions (439).  He did so without experiencing or studying the region as he did the United States.  Forment’s detailed research presents an extremely different picture.  In addition, Tocqueville’s observations came neglected external influences, some of which would emerge after his book was completed.

Civil society and political institutions also have not served as the only factors impacting the practice of democracy in the region.  As Peter Smith notes in Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World, competing economic and national security interests also led the United States to support authoritarian regimes and destabilize democratic governments perceived as threatening.  Given the dominant position of the United States within the Western Hemisphere, its had a significant -and sometimes very negative – impact on the social, economic and political events of the region.

Forment’s findings imply some important cautions for researchers and policymakers.  First, strong patterns observed in one or more settings may not be universal to human behavior.  Presuming so may lead to a twisting of events that occur in culturally varied settings.  As a result, attempting to transplant expectations and structures from one culture to another may not only be unsuccessful, they may have negative effects.  Finally, visions of democracy must expand to recognize alternative models, including the presence of democratic mechanisms a more regional and municipal levels of government, as David Altman finds in his Direct Democracy Worldwide.

In a few weeks, I will return to Quito, along with students enrolled in my US-Latin American relations course this spring, bringing to reality a vision I developed two years ago.  While there we will explore the themes of dollarization, human rights, indigenous communities and regional governmental organizations. I also look forward to reconnecting with the welcoming people there, experiencing its civil society, and providing an opportunity for students to learn from the Latin American perspective.


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