American Sociological Association

From Promoting Political Polyarchy to Defeating Participatory Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy towards the Far Left in Latin America

During the 1980s, the United States initiated an explicit policy of democracy promotion throughout the world. William Robinson (1996) more accurately described this initiative as “promoting polyarchy,” whereby the United States supported moderate elite actors that promoted neoliberal economic policies to displace both right-wing and communist despots, such as General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Soviet rulers in Eastern Europe. While much of Latin America remained characterized by polyarchies throughout the late 20th Century, Latin American citizens began to reject these political arrangements and to elect anti-neoliberal candidates that promoted participatory democracy by the turn of the 21st Century, particularly in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. How has the United States changed its democracy promotion strategies to respond to these new dynamics? The purpose of this paper is to illustrate how the U.S. government, through agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID, has altered the main thrust of its foreign policy in Latin America, from promoting polyarchy and displacing despotic leaders, to supporting opposition actors to unseat democratically-elected far leftist leaders that promote participatory democracy. This paper deploys a case study method involving recent U.S. foreign policy in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and it utilizes both U.S. diplomatic cables and interviews with U.S. state elites to illustrate this shift.


Timothy M Gill





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