The shifting complexity of Latin American politics baffles the observer, frustrates the theoretician and challenges both the committed endurance and the tactical subtlety of the revolutionary. Continent of military coups and dictators—but also of (male) bourgeois democracies as old or even older than some West European or North American ones. Countries ruled by unified oligarchies, yet often rent by long inter-bourgeois civil wars (Colombia, for example, as little as twenty-five or thirty years ago). Highly inegalitarian, status-conscious societies—one of which could nevertheless be presided over for decades by an illiterate mestizo caudillo, who had made his career as a twenty-two-year-old leader of armed peasant bands (Rafael Carrera in Guatemala, 1838–65); and where one of the most exclusive symbols of status was destroyed by the masses at the incitement of a president devoted to the development of capitalism (the sacking of the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires by Peronists in 1954). Continent of permanent violence against—and recurrent massacres—of workers and peasants, which has also seen the first Communist government ministers (Cuba in 1942) and the first elected Marxist government (Chile in 1970) in capitalist national history. Ruling classes of an extreme narrow-mindedness and cruelty, yet presenting probably the only case where a distinguished sector of a bourgeoisie openly cooperated with Communists at the height of the Cold War (the prominent entrepreneurs in the final cabinet of Arbenz in Guatemalafootnote1). Dependent countries with, in most cases, much more local control over the means of production than Canada. Régimes of massive anti-popular repression confronting mainly non-revolutionary popular classes. The two socio-economically most developed countries (Argentina and Uruguay) suffering two of the most ferocious and backward dictatorships.

Whether a ‘Marxist theory of the state’ exists or not,footnote2 it seems clear that what an understanding of Latin American politics requires from historical materialists is not a purely reflexive discourse on the capitalist, post-colonial, dependent or whatever-you-want-to-call-it state, but research into the relationships between social structures, class struggles and political forms.footnote3 The empirical record has to be collected and clarified before it can be interpreted, concepts have to be questioned before being superimposed, theories have to be hammered out on the anvil of research rather than proclaimed in serene seclusion. Hopefully, such analyses will have some pertinence to political practice; but at a typewriter on the other side of the Atlantic, one had better refrain from handing out ‘practical conclusions’.

But why approach the complexity of Latin American politics from the particular angle of formal democracy—designating a type of government determined by universal and equal suffrage exercised in elections free from state proscription of candidacies, intimidation or fraud? After all, in the rather rare instances where and when democracy in this sense has existed in Latin America, it has made little difference to the ongoing exploitation, underdevelopment, misery and social violence. Several answers might be offered. One would simply refer to an order of exposition. The present work forms part of a larger study on the various forms assumed by capitalist régimes, treating both developed and underdeveloped capitalism;footnote4 a subsequent part will deal with roads to dictatorship—a problem naturally predominant in current Latin American political research. The perspective taken here might also be interpreted as pertaining to a particular political conjuncture, in which democracy has become the main banner around which broad popular resistance rallies in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and elsewhere, after the defeats of the attempted revolutions of the nineteen sixties. However, no critique of arms is intended here. It is simply the case that an examination of Latin American politics from the standpoint of formal democracy provides some important insights that have hitherto been largely neglected.

At first sight, the exceptionality of democracy in Latin America is hardly surprising. After all, how could a tiny, privileged minority possibly be expected to govern in democratic forms? Indeed, if anything, it is the existence of democratic government even in the countries of advanced capitalism which is a paradox. It is, moreover, notorious that the two main factors which explain this paradox—the organized strength of the working class and the labour movement (in some cases allied to a strong petty bourgeoisie); the privileged conjunctures provided by modern wars of national mobilization—are respectively, weak and absent in Latin American.footnote5 Upon further reflection, however, the travail of Latin American bourgeois democracy does nevertheless turn out to be somewhat perplexing. We find the following constellation.

1. Democratic or exclusivist-democratic constitutions were imported very early from the most advanced countries of North America and Western Europe—Mexico constitutionalizing a government based on universal and equal male suffrage in 1857, Panama in 1904, Argentina in 1912.

2. Much greater possibilities exist than in Western Europe and North América for maintaining tight social domination in democratic legal forms. This is due above all to the existence of huge captive rural populations dependent upon local big landowners. In addition, as the us experience shows, a massive urban immigration can rather easily be integrated into a clientelistic system structured by political ‘machines’.

3. The Latin American working class is sometimes very combative, it is true; but it is in most cases relatively small and isolated, only rarely successful in itself creating stable autonomous unions and parties of any size. The peasantry is generally subdued, capable of large-scale independent actions only in a few exceptional cases—for instance, briefly in Bolivia in 1899 or during the Mexican revolution—and even then only in the context of a fierce inter-bourgeois struggles.footnote6 In short, a continent with a ruling class confronted with little serious threat from below—whether by peasant or worker insurrection or at the polls by workers’ or peasants’ parties. Only in two countries have working-class parties ever got even a third of the vote: Chile, and Peru in the Constituent Assembly elections of 1978.