Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Catholic Social Thought in Latin America

Catholic Social Thought in Latin America

U.S. policy toward Latin America revolves primarily around questions of democratization and economic reform. Since the end of the Cold War, policymakers in Washington have been able to address these issues on their own merits, without the distraction of interference from Moscow or Havana. With competitive democratic party systems in place in all of Latin America except Cuba, the role of political parties as policymakers is increasingly important. Among other things, ruling parties have the final say on the speed and direction of economic reform, including the option for no reform at all.

Analysis of party types in Latin America, therefore, is a useful predictor of the future of economic reform and democratization. Free market reform, in particular, places severe strains on democratization, since the short-term effects of such reform are invariably disruptive and painful to many. For U.S. policymakers, it is vital to recognize which reform programs are likely to succeed in freeing an economy and in sustaining democracy.

Substantial evidence exists that Latin Americans desire free market reform, but also insist upon policies that mitigate the initial, painful effects. Pure neoliberal reform is either rejected at the polls or rejected once in place. A party with both a genuine respect for, and healthy fear of, capitalism reflects the desires of the majority of Latin American voters. That is why Catholic social thought, which combines this respect and fear and appeals to Latin America’s overwhelmingly Catholic majority, stands the best chance of implementing free market reform in Latin America without undermining the region’s hard-won democratization. Thus, U.S. foreign policymakers must understand Catholic social thought and the Christian Democratic parties that promote it. The latter was not always the case…

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