Lessons from Latin America: Building Institutions on Weak Foundations

Issue Date April 2013
Volume 24
Issue 2
Page Numbers 93-107
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This article examines patterns of institutional change in Latin America. It argues that unlike advanced industrialized democracies, where institutions evolve gradually and wholesale change is rare, many new democracies in Latin America are characterized by serial displacement, in which constitutions, electoral rules, and other institutions change both radically and frequently. Serial displacement is a product of extreme uncertainty and frequent incongruence between formal rule-makers and real power holders, which, in turn, are a product of regime instability, electoral volatility, frequent institutional borrowing, social inequality, and rapid institutional design. The article also examines how variation in enforcement affects institutional change. It argues that limited enforcement is often a source of institutional stability, and that varying levels of enforcement can be a substantively important source of institutional change. Because the activation of formal rules via enforcement is often easier than legal change, it may provide a useful focal point for civil society activism.

About the Authors

Steven Levitsky

Steven Levitsky is professor of government at Harvard University and co-chair of the Journal of Democracy Editorial Board.

View all work by Steven Levitsky

María Victoria Murillo

María Victoria Murillo is professor of political science and international and public affairs and director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University.

View all work by María Victoria Murillo