Reform and Religion in Latin America

For 150 years, commentators have been announcing the end of Latin America’s history of political and economic instability. As late as 1334, President Bill Clinton promised that “[Fluture generations will look back on the Miami Summit as the moment when the course of history in the Americas changed for the better. . . . We come here to begin a new era, an era of real promise.“’ Today, such hopes may seem more justified than ever. Every country in the Western Hemisphere, except Cuba, is under democratic rule. Every country in the hemisphere, including Cuba, is undergoing economic reform in a generally free market direction. The sweeping nature of these changes can mask the fact that they are not that old. Widespread political reform in Latin America only began around 1980, and serious economic reform about five years later.

It is too early to declare victory. Both political and economic reform in Latin America are still vulnerable, since few countries in the region display the sturdy social cohesion necessary to sustain a commitment to reform through the inevitable difficulties that lie ahead. It is precisely this fragility of democracy and capitalism in Latin America that leads many observers to see in religious faith and religious activity a potential source of social consensus. Thus, the link between religion and politics in Latin America is a legitimate, and even a vital, area of concern for students of U.S. foreign policy. The link is certainly as important in Latin America as it is in the Middle East, an area for which scholars rarely question the importance of religion.

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