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Democratization means the transition of a political system from autocracy to democracy. The relevance of democratization for the Americas is obvious. Today, with the exception of Cuba, all countries are headed by freely elected governments. A few decades ago, only a minority of American countries experienced democracy. As a result, the Americas have become the most democratic region in the world.

Historical development of democratization

Modern research on democratization was pushed heavily during the course of the “third wave” of democratization. The term “wave of democratization” was coined by Samuel P. Huntington and depicts a number of transitions “from nondemocratic to democratic regimes that occur within a specified period of time and that significantly outnumber transitions in the opposite direction during that period” (Huntington 1991: 15). The “third wave” started in the 1970s in Southern Europe, spilled over to South America, some Asian and African countries, and culminated in the democratization of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe (for more information on waves of democratization cf. Berg-Schlosser 2009, Markoff 1996).

According to Huntington, the first wave, initiated by the Independence of the USA and the French Revolution, two incidents which brought democracy to the stage of history, was long and slow, starting in 1828 and lasting until 1926. In the course of this wave, the USA and Canada democratized. Huntington mentions male suffrage as a central criterion for democratization (Huntington 1991: 16). While male suffrage had been the norm in the USA since independence, in reality requirements to own property or pay taxes limited franchise. With the elections of 1828, the era of Jacksonian democracy began, expanding real suffrage to all white males without any limitations. By 1850, all state restrictions had been abolished. Suffrage was finally expanded to all females, too, by the nineteenth amendment in 1920. However, real universal suffrage was not achieved until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enabling poor whites and especially Afro-Americans, who had previously been disfranchised by states restrictions, to vote.

In Canada, British colonial rule granted autonomy and, in the Statute of Westminster in 1931, effective legislative independence. In 1920, the Dominion Elections Act granted near-universal suffrage to men and women after a long, but in no way steady and smooth expansion of political franchise.

Democracy did not only arrive in Northern America during the first wave. After Independence constitutional governments were created formally in almost all Latin American Countries. In reality, civil wars, dictatorships or limited franchise inhibited democratization. If elections existed at all, suffrage was restricted to a small group of wealthy white men, usually no more than one to ten percent of the population, resulting in highly oligarchic political systems.

During the second wave of democratization, three countries democratized: Costa Rica in 1947, and Colombia and Venezuela in 1958. Elite settlements were crucial for establishing democracy and for ending civil war or dictatorships. Despite all problems, constitutional democratic government has never been suspended since then. In Costa Rica, the most stable democracy in the Americas next to the USA and Canada was established, a genuine Latin American success story (cf. Peeler 1985).

Major changes then occurred in Latin America during the third wave of democratization (cf. Smith 2011). Military dictatorships eroded (e.g. in Chile, Brazil or Uruguay) and handed over power or simply collapsed (e.g. in Argentina because of the lost Falklands / Malvinas war) and civilian governments were established (see table 1). Finally, Mexico experienced democratization. The eighty years lasting dominance of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) ended in 1997, when PRI lost majority in parliament. In 2000, the opposition candidate Fox won the presidential elections.


As mentioned above, the Americas are today the most democratic region in the world. Canada and the USA experienced a slow and steady development towards democracy, beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century. Contrary to North America, democratization was not a steady process in Latin America, but characterized by back and forth movements. Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela established democracy in the mid-twentieth century. A major drive for democratization then occurred at the end of the twentieth century, when almost all remaining autocracies in Latin America democratized. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that free elections with universal suffrage are the criterion for democracy. This criterion is met today by all countries in the region except Cuba. Critics may argue that this is a rather thin concept of democracy. And indeed, the focus of analysis has shifted from a transition from autocracy towards a development of a real democracy, with a thick concept including rule of law and social rights. In this sense, democratization not only describes the transition from autocratic rule towards electoral democracy, but also a never-ending process of developing and deepening further democracy.

Wolfgang Muno

Please cite as: Muno, Wolfgang. 2012. “Democratization.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


Berg-Schlosser, Dirk. 2009. "Long Waves and Conjunctures of Democratization", in: Christian Haerpfer et al. (Ed.): Democratization, Oxford: pp. 41-54.

Huntington, Samuel P. 1991. The Third Wave. Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Norman.

Markoff, John. 1996. Waves of Democracy. Social Movements and Political Change, Thousand Oaks.

Peeler, John. 1985. Latin American Democracies: Colombia, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Chapel Hill.

Smith, Peter H. 2011. Democracy in Latin America, 2nd. ed., Oxford.

Thiery, Peter/Merkel, Wolfgang. 2010. "Die dritte Demokratisierungswelle: Lateinamerika", in: Merkel, Wolfgang (2010): Systemtransformation. Eine Einführung in die Theorie und Empirie der Transformationsforschung, 2nd ed., Wiesbaden.

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