Roots and Future of the Democratic Tradition
in Latin America

a conference at Yale University

December 2-3, 2011

Henry R. Luce Hall
2nd Floor, Room 203
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT

Sponsored by the Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund, the Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies, the MacMillan Center, and the Department of History


This conference is part of a collaborative project between New York University, Columbia, and Yale. The meeting at Yale (December 2-3, 2011) represents a continuation of the discussions begun at an earlier meeting hosted at NYU in April, 2011.

Like its predecessor, this conference will offer a historically grounded alternative to the social-science consensus that has taken shape on Latin America over the last few decades. Much of that scholarly literature in political science, sociology, and economics is organized around answering some version of the following question: what explains the fragility of Latin American democracy? The diverse answers to this question – which tended to focus on the region’s Jacobin populist political culture, corporatist mentalité, and state-directed economics – generated many prescriptive policy recommendations during the region’s late- and post-cold war “transition to democracy.” Our conference will argue that this question is exactly backwards. The real historical challenge is to explain the remarkable endurance of democracy in the region, reflected in ideals and everyday life, if not always in government institutions.

A brief comparison with other regions will highlight the challenge. In the United States since the end of the cold war, democracy – both as lived experience and an intellectual/legal category (witness the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision) – has become restricted, defined increasingly in terms of political individual rights. In Latin America, in contrast, the idea of social democracy still holds great sway, reflected both in polls indicating that many Latin Americans still consider some degree of development and welfare to be a central element of democracy and in new constitutions and social movements challenging the absolute right to private property enshrined in many cold-war charters. In other areas of the world, the decades since the cold war ended have witnessed a rise in extremism and militancy, much of which takes the form of anti-Enlightenment religious fundamentalist movements. Latin America has its share of violence, despair, and extremism; yet considering the degree of repression visited on the region’s progressive movements during the cold war, the ongoing vitality of social-democratic movements – both traditional (unions and peasant organizations) and new (feminist, gay rights, indigenous, and environmental) – pushing to widen civic participation, increase cultural and political pluralism, and demand some form of social and economic justice is impressive and merits scholarly inquiry. Where rights have contracted elsewhere, in Latin America they are expanding in many places, including important advances in women’s and gay rights in Mexico and South America (though not everywhere: witness the Dominican Republic’s new anti-gay constitution; or El Salvador and Nicaragua’s draconian anti-abortion laws).

As a tentative answer to why this is the case, our conference suggests that there exist three broad intellectual and/or ethical well-springs of social democracy (we do not mean the term ‘social democracy’ to refer to specific political parties nor to suggest an opposition to Communist Parties or the armed new left; rather, we mean it to imply a definition of democracy that emphasizes economic justice as well as political liberty) in Latin America: Catholic humanism; rural/indigenous and urban collectivities and solidarities; and a Spanish and French rights tradition that emphasized the importance of the state taking positive action to achieve the common good (in contrast to an Anglo rights tradition that stressed individual freedom).

To identify the intellectual origins of social democracy does not account for its historical persistence in the face of great obstacles and concerted attempts to extinguish it. This meeting will include historians, political scientists, and anthropologists who will discuss the evolution of the ideals of justice, solidarity, and equality within a context of social exploitation, authoritarianism, foreign intervention, racism, and patriarchy. One important field of analysis will be the inter-state system, where for nearly two centuries Latin American nationalists, intellectuals, and activists defined themselves in relationship to the gap that separated the values the United States claimed to represent from the actions it took as a rising superpower. This “immanent critique” gave rise to a strong liberal internationalist and social democratic tradition. Latin America has played an important role in creating the legal concepts, diplomatic institutions, and moral instruments – including nearly all of the social-rights provisions in the UN Declaration of Human Rights – that organized the post-WWII global order. This role has been generally unacknowledged.

TThe Yale meeting in December 2011 will feature a keynote speaker and five panels, organized around the democratic traditions and themes mentioned above:

1) Christian and Catholic Humanism – will cover topics ranging from the colonial origins of natural law and human rights and the role of religion in the contemporary movements of civil society.

2) Citizens and the State – will examine the emergence of the new nations in the Nineteenth Century and the role that Liberalism played in the both the successes and failures of the new states in shaping of the new societies and the inclusion of its indigenous, native, and immigrant populations.

3) Collective Solidarities – will examine attempts in various sectors of society that have sought to use democratic principles, or at times the language of such principles, to better the conditions of members of those sectors. Urban movements, agrarian reform, indigenous rights movements, and labor and workers rights movements will serve as examples.

4) The New Politics – will examine the thrust of a variety of new solidarities and tendencies in political life that have mobilized political action in recent times. These include youth and student movements, “green” and environmental groups, as well as groups based on gender or sexual identity.

5) The Current Political Spectrum – will examine the current status of democracy in a number of contemporary Latin American societies, including Bolivia, Venezuela, and Brazil. These examples will serve as points of departure for a more general discussion of democracy’s prospects in the present century.

The conference will feature the presentation of scholarly papers and a broad and frank discussion of the issues they raise. Each presenter will submit a paper that will be placed online on the conference webpage. Oral presentations will be limited to 10 minutes and will be followed by a critical comment by a specialist that will then lead to an open discussion by the participants and the audience. In addition, Paul Drake (University of California, San Diego) will deliver an opening keynote address, while James Scott (Yale University) will offer a critical comparative discussion to conclude the event.