Democracy and Latin America

Article published on Nov. 3, 2003
community published
Article published on Nov. 3, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

One of the European Union’s objectives is the promotion of its founding principles abroad. These include democracy and the observance of human rights. The EU’s role as a promoter of democracy is particularly significant in its relations with Latin America.

A special relationship

The accession of Spain and Portugal to the European Community caused a radical shift in its role on the international stage. For obvious reasons, the Community had traditionally maintained close links with the Mediterranean states. Ex-colonies received preferential treatment: those countries that had historical links with Member States such as France and Britain were granted political and commercial priority. However, the « Iberian Enlargement » transformed the Community’s conduct of external relations. The historical, cultural, social and commercial links, which inextricably unite Spain and Portugal with the Latin American continent have made it necessary to change the whole direction of Europe’s foreign policy, affecting the hitherto favoured status of the Mediterranean countries and the ex-colonies and forcing the Community to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

The effects of the shift have been quite different in each of the two regions. The former colonies have been deprived of their number one position while Latin America has quite clearly reaped the benefits of it all. Preferential trade agreements, joint cultural projects, programmes to encourage development (both from within Member States and from the Community as a whole), are only a few of the new « bridges » that have been built between the two continents. It is not enough to say that the special relationship that unites the countries of Latin America (with the exception of Cuba) with Portugal and Spain has been affected by the shift: effectively, this relationship has acquired a new partner, the European Union.


In the 1980s, the entire Latin American continent (with the exception of Cuba) experienced a democratic shift, which gave hope for change not only to the citizens of the states in question but also to the rest of the world. If this change was possible in Latin America, then it could spread to other countries and other continents. Latin America went full steam ahead for democracy and took up the challenge of establishing constitutional regimes with democratic and participatory institutions. During the 80s and 90s, these new democratic systems appeared to be establishing themselves and taking root in society; free elections took place; the economies of many Latin American states took an obvious turn for the better, which in turn improved living standards.

But unfortunately, the continent is not out of the woods yet. The democratisation process currently underway is no miracle cure: it cannot convert a country into a model of democracy overnight. As well as a constitution to enable the establishment of democratic institutions and to ensure free elections for the few, the whole of society must be included. The fight against social and economic inequality, the lack of integration in the least privileged sectors of society (women, indigenous populations and so on), the lack of transparency, misinformation, human rights abuses (perpetrated either by violent factions within society or by the institutions themselves) and the widespread corruption present in some of these countries (Nicaragua, Peru, Argentina...), call for far-reaching and painful reforms.

Equal Participation

Key to the correct functioning of democratic systems is the principle of equal participation. The fact that all citizens participate in decision-making, even indirectly, does not mean that they all have the same capacity. It goes without saying that we do not all share the same degree of knowledge about political matters (a country’s pensions system or its energy policy for example), but a democratic system must take as its starting point that all citizens are able to gain knowledge of and understand any aspect of public life. To work on this assumption and to allow citizens equal participation as members of the same system is one of its prerequisites. If this does not happen, then exclusion is automatic and the democracy becomes an oligarchy, where a privileged minority governs over the immense majority, keeping it out of the system and hence ignorant of public life.

In Latin America, exclusion has been both constant and permanent (to varying degrees depending on the country); corrupt and privileged minorities have governed for their own benefit (as in the case of President Alemán of Nicaragua and some past presidents of Argentina). The excluded majority has not had access to the basic social services normally offered by a democratic system such as education and healthcare. Television shows images of entire families scavenging on rubbish tips just to get by, children who claim a right to work because their parents are unable to gain access to the labour market, demonstrations by coca growers, fighting to keep traditional growing techniques alive and so on. An endless stream of alarming images that cannot leave us indifferent.

Europe’s role

In order to put a stop to the exclusion of (majority) minorities in Latin America, it is necessary to implement long-term strategies involving public institutions such as civil society and NGOs as well as international organisations. To this end, the European Union is carrying out important work hand in hand with the Member States, which are pushing for the states of Latin America to initiate and implement long-term strategies to promote social and economic integration not only domestically but also within the region as a whole.

The European Union is the region’s principal benefactor and the number one foreign investor. It represents the second most important market for Latin American goods after the United States. These exchanges take place at two different levels: on the one hand there is the relationship between the European Union and Latin America, including relations with regional organizations (such as Mercosur, The Andean Community etc.); on the other there are the relations between the Union and individual Latin American countries (Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and so on). These relationships are based on economic cooperation, political support and trade agreements.

Built in to these agreements are issues relating to the promotion of democracy and the defence of human rights. Relations between the two regions are strengthened by various exchanges: cultural exchange programmes (ALFA), programmes to promote small and medium-sized businesses (AL-INVEST), measures to strengthen relations between the regions’ respective chambers of trade and industry (ATLAS) and so on.

It sometimes seems that the sole focus of relations between the two regions is trade. Trade links are certainly an essential aspect of the relationship from the point of view of the European Union and they are of at least equal importance to Latin America. The close commercial relationship between the regions not only promotes growth in the European Union, but it also acts as a spur to growth in Latin America, thus contributing to the improvement of economic and social conditions within individual countries. The promotion of trade through preferential agreements has led to an increase in and more even distribution of wealth. Only under these conditions is it possible to invest in the reinforcement of democratic institutions and increase social benefits. It is a long and painful process and in most cases, the European Union demands far-reaching reforms in the countries in question. These reforms are not always well received by the inhabitants but in order to reach ambitious goals, sacrifices must be undergone. Not everything has to be related to trade. We have to give the Latin American continent all the opportunities and the help necessary in order to achieve a genuine transition towards a freer and more democratic society. The institutions, the Member States, the peoples of Europe, all of us, must improve our understanding of each other and of ourselves. Education is the best investment that Europe can make. The exchange of ideas, the close and genuine collaboration between Europe and Latin America are essential. And why not? When all is said and done, it’s a small world out there.