Argentina and Chile in the Late 20th Century: A Far Cry From True Democracy

There is no question that Latin America’s historic struggle with democracy and authoritarianism has left differing results regarding political frameworks and the general success of democracy in the continent. The recent histories of Argentina and Chile portray two of the partial success stories of democracy in the region. Under differing circumstances, both countries smoothly and peacefully transitioned into democracy. However, in both countries, an important point must be noted: the post-authoritarian democracies were not “true” democracies. “In consolidated democracies, actors expect democratic rules to prevail into the foreseeable future; elections are the sole means of determining who governs; and democratic institutions acquire reasonable weight and stability.” 1)

The post-National Reorganization Process and post-Pinochet administrations, respectively, incorporated methods that were inherently undemocratic, threatening the consolidation of true democracy and thus, extended themselves as a link to authoritarianism. Based on the histories of political instability within these countries, it can certainly be considered an achievement that democracy is still intact, but the democracies that developed from the last wave of authoritarianism in Latin America differ greatly from electoral democracies elsewhere in the world.

The legacy left by Argentina’s last bout with authoritarianism was not at all favorable. The survival of the nation’s democracy is remarkable considering its lengthy past bouts with authoritarian rule (and limited democratic rule) and its poor economic and social performance of the authoritarian period. The most significant characteristics of the military regime in Argentina from 1976-1983 pertain to its adherence to the bureaucratic-authoritarian model. The bureaucratic-authoritarian model, historically shown to be the “expansion of market relations, political participation, and industrialization together [that] resulted in a state structure and in state policies that were not democratic, redistributive, or humanitarian.” 2)

The authoritarian regime that took power in 1976, designed to restructure Argentine society and prevent the political instability of the previous Peronist and authoritarian regimes, undertook an appalling mission of torture, kidnapping, and social repression of brutality seldom seen elsewhere in the world. These elements of violence, repression, and omnipotent military authority were the culminating factors in the shift to democracy in the 1980s. The impetus for reform undoubtedly came from groups in Argentine society opposed to continuing military rule. The military regime, weakened by defeat by the British in the Falklands / Malvinas war in 1982, yielded to demands for political reform, marking the beginning of democratic transition in Argentina. 3)

The democratically elected Radical Raúl Alfonsín and his administration established several organizational changes to reduce the autonomy and control of the military in the political realm. “The transfer of these issues away from the armed forces created an important sphere of civilian authority.” 4) Clearly, Alfonsín’s administration brought much needed reforms to Argentina’s political framework. However, economic crisis and instability has historically been a catalyst for political instability, and “although Alfonsín inherited a dire economic legacy from his predecessors, his administration’s misguided policies exacerbated economic problems.” 5) Despite continuing economic failure, democracy remained intact in the region. However, the ongoing failure of the Alfonsín administration’s policies as the 1989 election neared created a political atmosphere in which heated electoral competition proved multilateral resolution of key constitutional issues unattainable. Both Alfonsín and Menem sought to establish their party as the predominant political force. Argentina’s democracy had “thus been threatened by the reluctance of key political actors to see themselves as parts of a larger system, a defining feature of democracy.” 6)

The heated 1989 election brought an opposition candidate to the presidential stage — an achievement that suggested a chance for the survival of democracy in Argentina. As Menem took the presidency, the country’s “phase of consolidation of democracy began. This was not, of course, the democracy dreamt of in 1983, but it did at least represent a smooth transition from one freely elected regime to another.” 7) With economic crisis still pending, and with the legacy of the country’s rocky transition to electoral politics, Menem’s administration instituted blatantly undemocratic policies, constituting a “delegative democracy” in which the president was granted nearly autocratic power.8)

“Over the past several years a variant type of regime…a delegative democracy, has emerged and begun to consolidate…President Carlos Menem has been freely elected but has governed the country as ‘he sees fit’ without significant political impediments, checks and balances, or other regulatory supervision.”

Over the course of Menem’s rule, institutions established to insure that checks and balances on executive power exist became branches of his personal power. With the uncompromising policies of privatization of state enterprises — which were innately anti-Peronist and would presumably cause public discontent regarding Menem’s political affiliation with the Peronist party — as well as digging Argentina into the economic pitfall of an overvalued currency, rumors of mass resentment of Menem’s rule surfaced. So inherent in Argentina’s democratic legacy, however, is a tremendous need for political stability, so a coup was never attempted. Menem, so unpopular by the approach of the next election, neglected to run for re-election and the presidency. It is apparent that Argentina’s historic struggle with authoritarian rule and unsuccessful democracy dictated the survival of electoral democracy in the 1980s and 90s.9)

“Although disenchantment has not led to increased tolerance of authoritarianism and militarism, the demobilized civil society it has created and the withdrawal from the public arena to the private constitute a poor basis for the development of a democratic citizenry…Reaction [to political corruption and social inadequacies] has been muted because of the overwhelming desire for stability, but the damage to the body politic is undoubted.”

It is important to note that Argentina’s system of “delegative democracy,” though considered established and relatively stable, lacks fundamental democratic institutions, distinguishing it from traditional democracies seen elsewhere in the world, and with the opportunity for authoritarian rule — albeit by free election — constantly threatens public discontent and social instability. Argentina’s legacy with democracy has been dictated primarily by a social contract — an unwillingness of the people to disturb the social order, which could in turn revive the chaos and subsequently, the military rule of the country’s past. Chile’s democracy, though sharing several similar characteristics with Argentina, was developed in an entirely different fashion.

Chile, after the military coup in 1973, was a highly authoritarian military state. One of the most important characteristics of the Pinochet regime was the economic legacy it left for a Chilean democracy after 1988. Unlike its authoritarian counterparts elsewhere in Latin America — Argentina, for example — the Pinochet regime successfully introduced measures for modernizing the state and the economy. Reducing soaring inflation, privatizing state firms, promoting free trade — while conspicuously leaving masses of poor Chileans without the essentials to survive — Pinochet’s regime established a framework for the economic liberalization that would be required for its successful entrance into the global economy in the post-authoritarian period. The economic legacy left by the Pinochet regime was far superior to that or Argentina, whose military regime neglected to launch measures to modernize the economic structure. Given favorable initial conditions, the Aylwin government was able to continue with unprecedented growth, which insured political stability and thus, the consolidation of democracy in the region.10)

Despite favorable economic conditions that promoted the stability of democracy in the region, the political atmosphere during the closing years of the Pinochet regime was chaotic. The opposition to Pinochet was very fragmented; the potential political actors in Chile during the late 1980s were unable to coalesce to form an alternative to a transitional democracy that allowed for undemocratic and authoritarian policies to continue.11)

“Not only did the government and the opposition refer to different concepts when they spoke of return to democracy in the Chile of 1986, but the opposition in Chile remained divided, fragmented, disoriented, frustrated, and subject to episodic regime terror. Most importantly, it was an opposition unable to agree on a viable legitimate alternative, either as a form of government, a socio/economic strategy, or even a short-term coalition to manage the transition from direct military dictatorship to some form of limited democracy with military participation.”

Countless groups — opposed to Pinochet’s regime, the authoritarian governing model, the political repression of the left, or the constitution of 1980 — resisted Pinochet and his plans to instill right wing politics in a democratic Chile through constitutional amendment, but their lack of cohesion prevented them from keeping his regime from making significant changes to Chile’s political structure. In addition, Chile’s old elites, poised to continue to benefit from the Pinochet regime’s policies, remained a viable force in society — the looming democratic transition did not effectively displace the elite by counter-elites. “The old elites both resisted change and exerted a high degree of control over the transition process. They were thus able to enforce a quid quo pro whereby the viability of the transition hinged upon the democratic opposition’s acceptance of overtly undemocratic features.” 12).

As a result of these social circumstances, coupled with the political fragmentation of Pinochet’s opposition, the authoritarian regime was able to reform the constitution — keeping Pinochet in power of the army until 1998 and placing a number of senators in office by appointment in lieu of free election, among other undemocratic provisions — ingraining an omnipresent legacy of Pinochet’s rule on Chile’s transition to democracy. In contrast to Argentina’s transitional process, in which the political actors accepted a restricted form of democracy in exchange for stability,13) Chile’s shift to democracy was characterized by undemocratic policies forced upon an effectively disenfranchised opposition, resulting in a far more limited democracy than had been envisioned by opposition supporters.

In contrast to the “delegative democracy” of Argentina in which the freely elected president had nearly dictatorial authority, the first freely elected administrations in Chile — the Aylwin and Frei governments — held insufficient power to amend the constitution, suffering numerous humiliating defeats in attempting to reform the authoritarian provisions put into place by the Pinochet regime.14) Thus, although Chile’s democratic consolidation can be viewed as successful in that the post-Pinochet political framework allowed for a relatively smooth and peaceful transition to electoral democracy, it could also be viewed as unsuccessful for inherently lacking the qualities of true democracy. A vital characteristic of traditional democracy is that “elections are the sole means of determining who governs.” 15) In the immediate years following Pinochet’s presidential rule, the freely elected presidents and their respective parties were unable to make democratic reforms because of the inherently undemocratic veto power of appointed senators, among other obstacles.

Likewise, in Argentina, undemocratic courses of action under third wave democracy were prevalent — Menem ruled in a manner as authoritarian in practice as dictatorial rulers of the past under the justification of having been popularly elected. Unlike Chile, however, the perpetuation of this incomplete form of democracy was caused not by a constitutional legacy left by the preceding authoritarian regime, but rather by a social legacy of instability, culminating in an unwillingness to upset the political system, the downfall of which could plunge Argentine society back into the chaos and violence that had preceded the current democracy.16)

“In a country where powerful nationalist political movements (such as Peronism) and social corporations (such as the trade unions and the military) held sway, the new mood imposed the primacy of parliament and the rule of law. There was a virtual cultural pact between the people and the political parties…centered around the requirement of democratic institutions.”

It is certain that in Argentina’s post-military administrations, democratic institutions demanded by society were in place — a bicameral legislature, free multiparty elections, and subordination of the armed forces to civilian authority — but the legacy left by the political and social turmoil of the 20th century and especially of the 1976-1983 military regime insured that the people would not disturb the political system despite leanings of the system towards authoritarianism.

Taken together, the cases of re-democratization in Argentina and Chile, though different in the legacies that dictated their abilities to transition smoothly and in the class structure that determined social influence on the transition processes, developed into similar outcomes with comparable levels of success. Both countries, despite differing economic conditions, achieved a peaceful move towards democracy with several free elections and relatively stable political atmospheres. Still yet, both Argentina and Chile, though successful in consolidating some form of democracy, cannot be looked at in the same regard as most consolidated electoral democracies around the world. The third wave of authoritarianism in Latin America simply created a set of circumstances within these countries that enabled authoritarian methods to be employed under a limited democracy without blatantly disturbing the social order. Naturally under these circumstances, the third wave of democracy that ensued thereafter in the 1980s and 90s was not entirely a wave of democracy: as exemplified in Argentina and Chile, it was also an extension of the authoritarian tradition which preceded it.


  • William L. Canak, 1984, “The Peripheral State Debate: State Capitalist and Bureaucratic-Authoritarian Regimes in Latin America,” JSTOR, 1984, 3-36,, 4 May 2007.
  • Wendy Hunter, 1997, “Continuity or Change? Civil-Military Relations in Democratic Argentina, Chile, and Peru,” JSTOR, 1997, 453-475,, 4 May 2007.
  • Christopher Larkins, 1998, “The Judiciary and Delegative Democracy in Argentina,” Comparative Politics, Vol. 30.4 (New York: City University of New York, 1998), 423-442.
  • Brian Loveman, 1987, “Military Dictatorship and Political Opposition in Chile, 1973-1986,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 28.4 (Miami: School of International Studies, University of Miami, 1987), 1-38.
  • Scott Mainwaring, 1995, “Democracy in Brazil and the Southern Cone: Achievements and Problems,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 37.1 (Miami: School of International Studies, University of Miami, 1995), 113-179.
  • Gerardo L. Munck, 1994, “Democratic Stability and Its Limits: An Analysis of Chile’s 1993 Elections,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, Vol. 36.2 (Miami: School of International Studies, University of Miami, 1994), 1-38.
  • Gerardo L. Munck and Carol Skalnik Leff, 1997, “Modes of Transition and Democratization: South America and Eastern Europe in Comparative Perspective,” JSTOR, 1997, 343-362,, 5 May 2007.
  • Ronald Munck, 1997, “Introduction: A Thin Democracy,” JSTOR, 1997, 5-21,, 5 May 2007.
  • Alexander Wilde, 1999, “Irruptions of Memory: Expressive Politics in Chile’s Transition to Democracy,” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 31.2 (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 473-500.
1) , 15)
Mainwaring, 121
Canak, 14
Gerardo L. Munck and Carol Skalnik Leff, 353
Hunter, 464
Mainwaring, 123
Gerardo L. Munck and Carol Skalnik Leff, 354
Ronald Munck, 8
Larkins, 423
Ronald Munck, 12
Mainwaring, 139
Loveman, 3
12) , 13)
Gerardo L. Munck and Carol Skalnik Leff, 347
Wilde, 480
Ronald Munck, 6

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