A Panoramas Interview: Anibal Pérez Liñan of Political Science

October 10, 2016

Anibal Pérez-Liñan, professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh was recently honored with the award of Best Book of Comparative Democratization of 2014 by the American Political Science Association for Democracies and Dictatorships in Latin America: Emergence, Survival, and Fall. The book was co-authored by Scott Mainwaring of Notre Dame. I was fortunate to sit down with Professor Pérez-Liñan to discuss his book and the theories and issues that it poses.

Danielle Scalise: Congratulations on your APSA award for Best Book of Comparative Democratization of 2014! You and your co-author Scott Mainwaring of Notre Dame focus on powerful actors in terms of their intrinsic views of democracy, their preferences and policy radicalism. Why is the study of the individual actor specifically relevant in the case of Latin America?

Anibal Pérez-Liñan: Because much of the classic literature on democratization, why democracies emerge and collapse, why they suffer authoritarianism; much of it focuses on the role structural variables. Elements like economic development or social inequality. Those theories claim that the more developed a nation is the more likely it is to be democratic. Something we realized early on was that when you look at the history of Latin America, those structural theories aren’t very convincing.

For example, I’m from Argentina. When you look at Argentine history, you see that Argentina was one of the most economically developed countries in Latin America, one of the wealthiest. And yet it was one of the countries in which democracy was most unstable, with the most military coups in its history. And similarly, when you look at the period of democratic instability in Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s, this is the period in which society in terms of income distribution was the most equal. With the democratization in the 1980s, in a lot of ways inequality worsened. There were a lot of cases like this where these theories don’t fit so well.

So the more we thought about it, we realized what really changed in the 1980s and made democracy possible in Latin America was that political actors, political leaders, social movements, political parties, military officers, in many ways they started thinking of democracy as a value in itself, as something they wanted to preserve because it was important and valuable, not because it was an excuse or an instrument to achieve something else like more income or better living conditions. It’s only when political actors develop a normative preference for democracy that democracy will be sustainable.

Scalise: You looked at all 20 Latin American countries. Could you briefly summarize some of the outliers you found in your analysis and what particular factors set them apart?

Pérez-Liñan: There are some countries that are puzzling. Especially countries with a very strong democratic tradition, like Chile or Uruguay that would have military coups in the 70s. Those experiences are inconsistent with the fact that historically most actors in those countries had developed a preference for democracy. But I think that’s where the third variable in our book comes in which is international context. In the context of the Cold War, the increased polarization and militarization of Latin America affected the region at large in the 60s and 70s.

Scalise: How much can we rely on transnational diffusion of democratic values to explain change in Latin America? More than normative preferences for democracy?

Pérez-Liñan: We do an exercise in the book that I think is very illustrative. We simulate a wave of democratization based on our statistical resource. We say okay, let’s create a hypothetical region with 20 countries, each of those countries having characteristics similar to those of the average of each Latin American country throughout 1878-2005 or so. We decide that initially, only a couple of them are democratic and then we trigger the mechanism of diffusion. We fix the characteristics of these countries so they don’t change over the time of the simulation so this is very similar to an actual wave of democratization that we observe historically.

Then we say okay, let’s manipulate the characteristics of each country instead of recreating them just as they were. Let’s assume that in all of those countries at least half of the actors have radical policy preferences. The majority of the actors, but not all, have a preference not for democracy, but for dictatorship. Again, we allow only a few of them to be democratic at the beginning and trigger the diffusion mechanism. What happens in that simulation is that it seems that a wave of democratization is going to take off, but it immediately collapses. This is because although the mechanisms of diffusion are there within the countries, there is no ability to absorb or receive the message of democratization. So really, you need both. Domestic actors with a commitment to democracy allow for the ideas. So domestic actors that are moderate and are open to democracy allow for a favorable regional context to promote democratization.

Scalise: Can you describe the absorption mechanisms you mention?

Pérez-Liñan: At some point, the political actors must be willing to learn. This learning process takes place when actors believe that democracy is valuable in itself. In the 70s, many believed that democracy was kind of an excuse for something else. After dictatorship, they realized democracy was valuable itself. Then they learned that in order to achieve democracy, you have to moderate some of your demands. That learning process takes place and then diffusion can help democratization. But if you block that process in some way, like we did in the simulation, then it’s useless in a way.

Scalise: With that, how can we apply this to the current day Middle East?

Pérez-Liñan: Although I’m not an expert on the Middle East, I feel several of the book’s theories can apply. International factors or external intervention like foreign aid, support for democracy, are only effective when it helps this learning process of the domestic actors. When that process does not take place, diffusion is very limited in what it can do.

Scalise: In terms of democratization in general, what did your analysis reveal about US-aided efforts toward democracy promotion? Were they overall effective in promoting democratic consolidation?

Pérez-Liñan: US aided democracy promotion has been effective, actually. It has been effective when democracy promotion empowers domestic actors that have a commitment to democracy and are moderate. When those actors have a greater weight in the domestic process and then eventually those actors, not the foreign intervention itself, actually push the forces of democratization. It many empower those actors by creating programs for civic education in communities, providing resources for human rights organizations, funding independent media, there are different things that democracy promotion does. But in the end, all of those efforts must empower domestic actors that are more likely to push for democratization.

Democracy promotion fails when it fails to do that. It supports the wrong actors; one of the classic situations is when democracy promotion arrives to a country as a part of a larger package of aid that is given to a country for strategic reasons. A classic example is Egypt. Therefore in those cases, democracy promotion is part of a much larger deal that whether effective or not, whether the aid favors the right actors, is less relevant than creating stability in that country. In those cases, democracy promotion may have some positive effect, but most of the time it fails.

Scalise: Your book has been praised for its pioneer approach to analyzing an entire region’s democratic transitions from the micro-level as well as a transnational level. Why did you choose to take this approach? Why do you think other scholars have failed to take this angle?

Pérez-Liñan: To be fair, I think the traditional literature on democratization up until the late 80s and early 90s was mostly focused on domestic conditions: historical conditions, structural conditions, cultural conditions, always conditions that operate at the level of each country. Particularly over the last 15 years, it’s focused much more on international factors of democratization. This is interesting because it bridges the fields of comparative politics and international relations and area studies. I think what our book did was it combined the idea that there are powerful international effects for democratization with the idea that these effects operate through domestic actors. In the end these domestic actors really activate political change.

Scalise: So hypothetically, if you worked for an NGO and you were trying promote democracy in a country like Venezuela, who would you target and how would you go about it with the goal of empowering the “moderate?”

Pérez-Liñan: It’s tough, and that’s an interesting case. This is one of the major challenges for promoting democracy. As a government radicalizes itself and closes the space for the opposition, the opposition becomes radical as well. What you observe in this context is that the moderate actors disappear from the historical record because the political dynamic becomes so polarized between extreme actors on both sides. And one of the big challenges for the international community is how do you reconstruct the moderate center. Because being a moderate in that context is being a traitor to both sides; that’s a very hard situation. This is the kind of situation that we have observed many times in Latin America. If the government prevails, you end up with a dictatorship. If the opposition prevails, it usually results in a type of military coup. The main task for democracy promotion is how to reveal the center.

Scalise: So do you think there any hope for Venezuela?

Pérez-Liñan: There’s always hope, but it’s unlikely. It will certainly be hard to achieve.


About Author(s)

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Danielle Scalise
Danielle Scalise is a senior undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing degrees in Economics and Political Science, with a minor Spanish and certificate in Latin American Studies. She took part in the Pitt in Cuba program in the spring of 2013 and is currently an intern for Panoramas. Danielle is attending Georgetown Law in the fall where she will study international economic law pursuing a career specializing in US/Latin American trade relations.