A Forgotten History of Democratic Institutions in Mexico and Peru
Carlos Forment discusses his new book on the growth of civil society in Latin America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Published: Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Carlos Forment, Director of the Centro de Investigación y Documentación de la Vida Pública (Research Center on Public Life) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, gave a talk (April 14) titled "Democracy in Latin America, 1760–1900: Civic Selfhood and Public Life in Mexico and Peru," based on his recent book of the same title (University of Chicago Press, 2003). Forment's visit to UCLA was part of the Latin American Center's Social Science Colloquium series.
Forment offered a bold thesis: that democracy flourished in Latin America during the 1800s, a century better known for political chaos, authoritarian caudillos, and, toward its end, oligarchic order. As the title and subtitle of his book and talk suggest, its theoretical anchor is Tocquevillian. Forment argued that, particularly after the middle of the century and more so in Mexico than Peru, citizens founded a plethora of voluntary associations that became "stages" of civic democracy. Here members engaged in open deliberations and debates, the constitution of statutes regulating rights and privileges, elections, decision-making based on majority rule, and other practices of quotidian democracy rooted in the notions of individual liberty and collective sovereignty. Through these performances, an increasing number of Latin Americans acquired the social and narrative resources for democratic citizenship, and routinization turned the practices into ingrained habits. The very success of associative life, however, encouraged participants to retain this activism at the horizontal level of secondary associations rather than moving it vertically to less receptive and more authoritarian tertiary institutions. The result, Forment maintains, was an asymmetrical democracy, robust in civil society but weak in the political terrain and marred by racial inequality, a condition that perhaps continues to characterize much of Latin American politics and public life.