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Latin AmericaBureaucratic Authoritarianism

In the second half of the twentieth century, personalist dictators such as Manuel Noriega (r. 1983–1989) in Panama gave way to authoritarian military regimes, particularly in the South American countries of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. These authoritarian regimes were unparalleled in their brutality and suppression of civil society and political movements. Fearing a rising leftist threat, both from electoral coalitions as well as armed guerrilla movements, these authoritarian regimes sought to redraw the structure of their countries along more traditional lines. Rather than relying on the personal power of an individual dictator, these regimes used military institutions to maintain control over society. The resulting bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes fundamentally restructured political and economic institutions to remake their countries along neoliberal lines that dramatically widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Critics claimed that these economic reforms were so unpopular that they could only be imposed through undemocratic means. Popular reactions to structural adjustments that sharply reduced living standards led authoritarian regimes to crack down even more viciously on their opponents.

The Argentine political scientist Guillermo O'Donnell introduced the concept of bureaucratic authoritarianism to describe institutional dictatorships that were not a legacy of Iberian rule but used coercion to respond to what they viewed as threats to the capitalist system. While the revolutionary left condemned these dictatorships as fascist and turned to armed struggle as a means to overthrow them, O'Donnell argued "that the appropriate way to oppose them was through an unconditional commitment to democracy" (O'Donnell, p. xiii). These regimes resulted from a failure of democracy to extend the protections of citizenship to an entire population. A notable gap between liberal principles and exclusionary economic practices led to what O'Donnell terms "low-intensity citizenship" (p. 143). Unfortunately, economic inequalities persisted and even grew as part of neoliberal policies that were retained even after O'Donnell's long-desired return to democratic governance in Latin America.

Alberto Fujimori's (r. 1990–2000) government in Peru in the 1990s provides another important variation on the authoritarian tradition in Latin America. In what came to be known as an autogolpe (self-coup) or "fujicoup," Fujimori launched a coup against himself in April 1992 to shut down the congress and rewrite the country's constitution. Using what George Philip calls "semi-authoritarianism," Fujimori realized some significant policy achievements, including stopping inflation and ending the bloody Shining Path guerrilla insurgency (p. 169). More significantly, his violation of Peru's constitutional order did not lead to a fall in his popularity. Rather, many people believed that the country's crisis legitimized authoritarian measures. By 2000, however, the crisis had passed, and public opinion swung away from support for his abuses of power. His fall from power was neither a triumph of democracy nor a blow against authoritarianism but a result of popular responses to a changing political situation.

In an interesting twist on condemnations of authoritarian traditions in Latin America, James F. Petras and Frank T. Fitzgerald argue that sometimes democratic governments are not authoritarian enough to defend positive social reforms. Pointing specifically to Salvador Allende's (r. 1970–1973) government in Chile in the early 1970s and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s, they note that the ruling classes do not give up their elite privileges without a struggle. This argument contrasts these failed attempts at social, economic, and political transformation to that of Cuba. If the Cuban government had not taken the drastic authoritarian measures that it did in the early 1960s, the revolution's attempts to redistribute wealth to the lower classes and extend education and health care throughout the country would have failed. Because the bourgeoisie and their international allies are not ideologically committed to democratic rule, they do not hesitate to use whatever tactics might be necessary to undermine social reforms when they are implemented through democratic means. Ironically, Petras and Fitzgerald argue, social reformers need to utilize authoritarian tactics to defend democratic processes or risk total failure.

The fall of Salvador Allende's government in Chile is the most noted example in Latin America of a fall of a democratic government to an authoritarian regime. Rooted in a long history of civilian institutions, Allende pledged to put the country on a "Chilean Road to Socialism" that would utilize existing democratic structures to redistribute wealth in an attempt to end extreme economic and social inequalities. When his reforms led to nationalization of U.S.-owned copper mines and other industries, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) helped engineer a bloody military coup on 11 September 1973 that overthrew his government. General Augusto Pinochet (r. 1974–1990) then implemented one of the most savage military dictatorships in the history of Latin America. A country that had one of the longest democratic traditions in Latin America now became a prime example of an authoritarian regime that suppressed the basic principles of liberal democracy, including values of individual freedom, civil liberties, social and economic equality, and free elections. At the same time, these regimes embraced laissez-faire economic systems that critics subsequently termed "savage capitalism." As a type of dictatorship, they outlawed political opposition and greatly restricted individual freedoms.

As relations with the Pinochet dictatorship illustrate, the U.S. government "supported authoritarian regimes that promised stability, anticommunism, and economic trade and investment opportunities." David F. Schmitz notes how this policy conflicted with a theoretical embrace of the principles of liberal democracy and human rights. U.S. officials viewed Latin Americans as racially inferior and strong authoritarian leadership as necessary to maintain order, prevent social and political chaos, and implement neoliberal policies necessary for economic modernization (Schmitz, p. 304). Rather than fostering democratic institutions, U.S. support for authoritarian regimes often led to political polarization, instability, and radical nationalist movements. Critics constantly charge that such support conflicts with U.S. interests, virtually no matter how those interests are conceptualized. "Equating dictators with freedom," Schmitz maintained, "blinded American leaders to the contradictions and failures of their policy" (p. 7). Authoritarian regimes often performed poorly in terms of economic development and, together with extensive human rights violations, lost legitimacy internally. Democracy emerged and economies grew in Latin America in spite of, rather than because of, U.S. policies.

By the end of the twentieth century, with a reemergence of democratic governments throughout Latin America, authoritarianism appeared to be safely buried in the past. Nevertheless, Leigh Payne points to the persistence of an authoritarian tradition in right-wing threats to democratic structures. These "uncivil movements" that use political violence to promote exclusionary objectives do not necessarily seek to overthrow democratic systems, but nevertheless they are able to shape the discourse and practices of democratic institutions. A search for social justice and equality all too often continues to be an elusive goal. In subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways, authoritarianism is still a force to be reckoned with in Latin America.


Black, Jan Knippers. "Introduction: The Evolution of Latin American Studies." In Latin America, Its Problems and Its Promise: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, 3rd ed., edited by Jan Knippers Black, 1–17. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.

Domínguez, Jorge I., ed. Authoritarian and Democratic Regimes in Latin America. New York: Garland, 1994.

Fowler, Will, ed. Authoritarianism in Latin America since Independence. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1996.

Hamill, Hugh M., ed. Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Mainwaring, Scott, and Arturo Valenzuela, eds. Politics, Society, and Democracy: Latin America. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.

O'Donnell, Guillermo A. Counterpoints: Selected Essays on Authoritarianism and Democratization. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999.

Payne, Leigh A. Uncivil Movements: The Armed Right Wing and Democracy in Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Petras, James F., and Frank T. Fitzgerald. "Authoritarianism and Democracy in the Transition to Socialism." Latin American Perspectives 15, no. 1 (winter 1988): 93–111.

Philip, George. Democracy in Latin America: Surviving Conflict and Crisis? Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2003.

Schmitz, David F. Thank God They're on Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921–1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Marc Becker

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: A-series and B-series to Ballistic Missiles - Categories Of Ballistic MissileAuthoritarianism - Latin America - Caudillos, Corporatism, Bureaucratic Authoritarianism, Bibliography