Latin America as Institution-Building Model

On a number of occasions recently, I’ve found myself wondering why Latin America doesn’t figure more prominently in not only discussions of institution-building and democracy promotion, but in some of those missions currently in progress. This NYT story about Chilean President Michelle Bachelet — who is leaving office with 70 percent approval ratings due to a single-term limit — offers a good opportunity to articulate that thought.

Bachelet’s success combines equal parts skillful management and political courage. And in the broader global discussion regarding the future of progressive-left parties (failing dismally in Europe these days), her combination of fiscal responsibility in the service of a progressive social program is instructive:

Ms. Bachelet resisted the cries of politicians to use revenues fromcopper sales to try to close Chile’s inequality gap, one of the world’sworst. Instead, during her first three years in office, her governmentset aside $35 billion in revenue from the boom. . . .

With billions of dollars saved, Ms. Bachelet’s government legalizedalimony payments to divorced women and tripled the number of free earlychild care centers for low-income families. It added a minimum pensionguarantee for the very poor and for low-income homemakers. Thegovernment is on pace to complete its goal of creating 3,500 child carecenters . . .

Oppositionpoliticians who once criticized her social-protection efforts as aretreat to an era of big government are now saying they will try toexpand her programs to the middle class.

That’s another demonstration, in my mind, of the superiority of the Lula/Bachelet model to the Chavez populist model, but also to the Clinton model.

But the fact that Bachelet was even president to begin with is a testament to Chile’s political and cultural maturity, less than a generation after the passage to democracy. And it’s not exclusively a Chilean phenomenon. I’d like to see that experience being brought more to bear on our broader understanding of how these processes work.