Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
28 October 2019

Crisis and possibilities of democracy in Latin America

Our international conference brought together scholars based in Switzerland and Latin America to discuss emerging challenges and possibilities that will shape Latin American democracies in the next decades.

During the 2019 Democracy Week, the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy hosted an international conference entitled “A New Political Wave? Crisis and possibilities of young democracies in Latin America”. Graziella Moraes Silva and Rafael Sánchez, Faculty Affiliates, organised this event as part of the Centre’s activities on democracy in the Latin American context.

The conference, which took place from 30 September to 2 October, was supported by the Swiss Society of Americanists and by the Swiss National Science Foundation. It brought together scholars based in Latin America (Alexandre Werneck, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro-Brazil, and Benjamin Arditi, from Universidad National de Mexico; Margarita Lopez, Universidad Nacional de Venezuela, Max Hering, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and Veronica Toste, Federal University Fluminese-Brazil), six Latin American scholars based in Switzerland (the PI Graziella Moraes Silva, IHEID; Gabriel Abend, University of Lucerne; Rafael Sanchez, IHEID; Aline Helg, UNIGE; Corine Pernet, UNIGE; Dennis Rodgers IHEID), and three PhD students from Swiss institutions (Luc West, St Gallen; Sara Frey, Bern; and Martha Sandoval, Zurich). In addition, approximately 50 graduate students, postdocs and colleagues participated in the different sessions. Through multiple and dynamic sections, by lively informal conversations, the participants approached different dimensions of Latin American democracies. In particular:

  1. It mapped different democracy trajectories in Latin America. Through an analysis of the different national cases, we identified regional commonalities (e.g. commodities boom, rise of multicultural discourses) but also deconstructed a narrative of common crisis of democracy by showing how these commonalities play out in different national contexts. The case of Venezuela and Brazil, for example, were extensively discussed as different dilemmas that could not be placed in a same box, since institutions played very different roles in these two national contexts.

  2. By analysing the moral background and discourses about a democratic crisis, the conference was able to question the narratives of a “extreme-right turn” in the region as well as “polarization”.  Many of the presentations showed how everyday people are not choosing extremes, but they are reacting to political models they see as failed (the case of Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia, for example).

  3. One of the issues raised in the conference is that the narrative of the crisis of democracy was not paying enough attention to the continuity of inequality in the region.  By focusing on discourses and institutional failure, the academic debate might be underplaying political economy issues related to the labour market informality and economic instability.

  4. Finally, the tension between a strengthening agenda of environment and continuities under taxation of transnational financial markets, in particular in the case of commodities, was identified as a key understudied topic, that could deserve more attention, in particular given the key role of Switzerland.

After three days of intense conversations, participants and public left the workshop with many questions but also with some hope about the ongoing and emerging possibilities for these young democracies and beyond.