Agrarian Elites and Democracy in Latin America after the Third Wave
- Belén Fernández MilmandaBelén Fernández MilmandaDepartment of Government, Harvard University
The historical role of landed elites as obstacles to democratic consolidation in Latin America has been widely studied. Four decades after the onset of the third wave, however, the issue of how these elites have adapted to the new democratic context remains unexplored. The question of why these elites who supported military coups each time a government threatened their interests have mostly played by the democratic rulebook during the past four decades still needs to be answered.
Important structural and political transformations took place in Latin America during the last half of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century that affected agrarian elites’ incentives and capacity to organize politically. The first change was urbanization, which undermined agrarian elites’ capacity to mobilize the votes of the rural poor in favor of their political representatives. The second was an increase in the importance of agricultural exports as a source of foreign exchange and revenue for Latin American countries thanks to the commodity boom of the 2000s. The third change was the arrival to power of left-wing parties with redistributive agendas, threatening agrarian elites’ interests in the region with the highest land inequality in the world. However, the fact that these governments relied on revenues from agriculture to fund their policy agendas created tension between the leftists’ ideological preferences for a more equal distribution of land and their fiscal needs.
Dominant theories in political science suggest that democratization should lead to redistribution from the rich to the poor, as democracies represent the preferences of a wider spectrum of citizens than nondemocracies. Landowners, given the fixed nature of their assets, should be easy targets for increased taxation or expropriation. However, these theories understate landowners’ capacity to organize politically and use democratic institutions to their advantage. In fact, if we look at contemporary Latin America, we see that four decades of democracy have not changed the region’s extremely high land inequality.
Agrarian elites in Latin America have deployed a variety of political influence strategies to protect themselves from redistribution. In some cases, such as Chile and El Salvador, they have built conservative parties to represent their interests in Congress. In others, like Brazil, they have invested in multiparty representation through a congressional caucus. Lastly, in other countries such as Argentina and Bolivia, agrarian elites have not been able to organize their electoral representation and instead have protected their interests from outside the policymaking arena through protests.