264. Information Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Abramowitz) to Secretary of State Shultz1


  • Democratic Transitions

I am responding to your request for a quick analysis of democratic transitions, more fun to do than our papers alerting you to perils, substantial or otherwise. The persistence of the democratic ideal—in the face of severe challenges from the extremes of left and right—is a success story.2 It is easier, however, to categorize transitions, as we first do, than to draw up generalizations about their dynamics which comprise the last part of the paper Some caveats:

Transitions are fragile; they require nurturing or they will fail.3
Africa—with the exception of Kenya and Senegal—is absent from this calculus. Colonial, tribal and educational patterns have something to do with this, but it deserves a separate analysis, which I have asked our people to do.4
Except for Turkey and Malaysia, democracy is largely absent from states where the dominant religion is Islamic. In the more secular (Westernized?) states, such as Egypt, there is concern about democratic forms but less attention to substance. (The Asian traditions, however, seem more hospitable, e.g., Japan, Thailand, India.)5
Formulas abound for transitions from traditional authoritarian rule; there isn’t much yet in the way of successful models—particularly peaceful ones—for getting rid of Marxist-Leninist regimes.6

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Transition Categories

In describing categories several approaches are possible, including a time line beginning in 1944 that shows expansion in the late forties and fifties, a marked contraction in the sixties and early seventies, and recovery and expansion from the mid seventies and eighties. We prefer the following scheme:

V-Day Transitions

Colonial Transitions

The Western Tradition countries

The Relative Outsiders

V-Day Transitions - Friend and Foe

The victory of the Allies produced the most successful blanket set of transitions to democracy that the world has yet seen, even though Eastern Europe fell to the Soviet imperium. In Western Europe democracy was restored and we now take for granted the devotion of Germany, Japan, and Italy to democracy.

Colonial Transitions

De-colonization produced over the years a large number of democratic transitions. Many were unsuccessful, particularly in Africa. Nonetheless, they worked in Israel and India (with a brief interruption), in almost all the Caribbean (except Guyana, Suriname and Grenada), in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and, in a singular way, Singapore.

The Western Tradition Countries—From Breach to Observance

Latin America. In 1948 and 1959, respectively, Costa Rica and Venezuela restored democratic institutions. Both have been highly successful ever since. The decade of the sixties—when a number of democratic experiments failed—led scholars to claim, without much reason, that democracy was dead in Latin America and the future belonged either to Castro or to “Nasserite” military. The scholars notwithstanding, the list of transitions in the late 1970s and the 1980s is impressively long. The circumstances varied; some, as in Brazil, were evolutionary, and others, as in Argentina, were more dramatic. The Latin transition can be divided into three categories:

Democracy Restored. Countries with a working democratic tradition, lost for a period, e.g., Costa Rica, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia.
Democracy Retried. Countries with brief, off-again, on-again democratic experiments, e.g., Ecuador, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala.
Democracy Invented. First-timers, e.g., El Salvador, Dominican Republic.

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Each successive transition took heart from the previous ones.7 Many were influenced by the successful transitions in Spain and, to a lesser extent, Portugal.8 All were supported by the United States, usually in bi-partisan9 fashion. Many, though unfortunately not all, were given some support by our western democratic allies.

Some—El Salvador and Peru are obvious examples—are under violent assault from the extreme left.10 All face major economic difficulties and huge debt burdens. But all represent the will of the people and all of them, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, look much better than the alternatives.

Europe. Spain and Portugal, neither of which had ever enjoyed a successful democratic period, engaged in historic transformations, in their different ways as remarkable and as dramatic as the Philippine transformation that we have just witnessed.11 Greece, the cradle of democracy, suffered military rule for a period, but restored democracy.12

The Philippines. A difficulty in understanding the prospects for a Philippine transition—particularly evident in some CIA analysis—lay in underestimating the degree that Western tradition had taken hold in Philippines.13 Of the three layers—Malay, Spanish, and American—that permeate the Philippine culture, two interacted to drive the Filipino toward the dramatic outcome we have just witnessed.14 The Philippine church—an inheritance of Spanish culture—and the long, American inspired, democratic tradition confounded both Marcos and the NPA.15

The Relative Outsiders

Turkey—half Western-half Islamic—has restored democratic institutions after a period of military rule.16

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Thailand has moved on an evolutionary path, shaky though its process may be.

Factors of Transition

We don’t have precise criteria that can be matched to each and every transition as measures of what makes them succeed (or fail.) A reductio ad absurdum helps explain why.

—The King was the “motor of the Spanish transition” and consequently, all transitions require monarchies. (Juan Carlos’ brother-in-law—Constantine—got washed out in the Greek restoration, an example that was constantly before Juan Carlos, who drew from it a valid rule, in the Western World, only a constitutional monarchy can survive.)

There are some fairly rigorous rules, which cover the essentials, though not the precise forms, of what constitutes a functioning democracy, i.e., periodic free and honest elections under conditions of universal suffrage, and constitutional protection for civil liberties. Political development, however, is a chaotic process, subject to national idiosyncrasy. What is crucial one place, may not be elsewhere. Nonetheless, there are certain overlapping fundamentals common to most transitions, which combined with other more singular factors to produce them.

  • The Exhaustion of Legitimacy. The old order fails. Repression, corruption, and economic travail and mismanagement are the most usual causes, as in Manila. In Buenos Aires and Lisbon a bad war was added to the list. Often, as in Peru, economic failure helps persuade the military to leave voluntarily in order to preserve the military institution. In Franco’s Spain legitimacy was personal; it died with him. However it happens, legitimacy is lost and something new takes its place. The more violent and protracted the struggle, as in Managua, the more likely the levers of power will be grasped by revolutionaries of the far left rather than those who want a democratic transition.17
  • The Temper of the People. They have to “want” democracy, if only in a vague sense and their collateral drives have to be consonant with democratic institutions. The Spanish case is instructive; almost to a man the Spanish said “never again” to civil strife, a powerful force for installing democratic institutions as a peaceful means of resolving the contention for political power that would ensue upon Franco’s death.
  • The Temper of the Elites. Democratically minded elites—or at least elites that accept the practical necessity of democracy—are essential. These provide the leadership for the transition. The Makati businessmen of today and the Spanish technocrats of 1976 share a set of attitudes that saw modernization and reform as synonymous with democratization. There are differences, of course. The Philippine elites want to restore democracy; the Spanish elites wanted to institute it and to become part of Europe.
  • The Existence of Western Political and Economic Support. Transitions take place through the efforts of the people themselves, as in the Philippines, but support from the US and the West can be crucial to immediate success and to survival.18 Central America is an obvious case, but most South American transitions would not have occurred without support from the U.S. at crucial points., e.g., Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay, Bolivia.19 In the Iberian peninsula the support of several Western European countries and the U.S. probably made a decisive difference, even though the major credit belongs to the Portuguese and the Spanish.20 Had we been able to achieve a similarly coordinated approach to Central America with the Europeans, the conflict might have taken a better course.
  • Reconciliation and Amnesty. In some states, the magnitude of past abuses requires a degree of accounting, as in Argentina, Venezuela, and at least on the fiscal side, in the Philippines. Nonetheless, an effort to “bind up the wounds,” in Lincoln’s phrase, has been a key element everywhere. In Peru, the military and APRA grudgingly promised to work with each other. In Spain, amnesty and elections healed most of the wounds between the “Two Spains,” though it didn’t end Basque terrorism. In less dramatic circumstances, most Latin governments have not pursued those who previously held de facto power, often a quid pro quo for military support.
  • The Role of the Military. With the exception of Costa Rica, the military have been important. In Venezuela and Portugal, they threw out the dictator, in Spain they had to be contained, in Ecuador they fathered the transition, and in Brasil they set limits on the pace. Generally, the military must at least acquiesce. In Argentina, in Uruguay, and, to some extent, Spain, the military had to swallow it.
  • The Role of the Church. In the western tradition countries, the role of the church, in areas as far flung as Spain and the Philippines, has [Page 1153] been crucial. The excesses of liberation theology notwithstanding, the mainstream of post-Vatican II church thinking in the Luso-Hispanic world has emphasized human rights and democratic institutions in opposition to the arch-conservative church of an earlier day that made common cause with caudillos as well as to the newer “popular church” of Daniel Ortega. In these circumstances, the Church, as in the Philippines and Spain, becomes a mediator and a vehicle for bestowing legitimacy upon the process of democratic change.
  • Keeping Out the Leninists. Democratic elites must frustrate the efforts of Marxist–Leninist groups to take over the levers of change—as they did in Cuba and Nicaragua—or be pushed aside in a transition from one form of dictatorship to another. Managing the left—usually present everywhere—is first a political task, keeping the democratically minded left separate from the Marxist–Leninists. If the predominant communist groups are Euro-communist it helps, as it did in Spain. In making the Communists peaceful, legalization of the party has sometimes been useful (e.g. Iberia, Costa Rica, Venezuela). Third world Leninists, however are often insurrectionists and new democratic governments frequently face a military as well as a political dimension. One of Mrs. Aquino’s tasks will be to wean away through political means as many guerrillas as possible. Then she will probably have to fight the rest.
  • The Rules of the Road—A Consensual Approach. Derivative of popular and elite attitudes and of the nature of the change, successful transitions generally take a consensual approach to the establishment of the new legitimacy, an agreement to submerge to a degree partisan differences while constructing a representative framework in which political forces compete for power on a level playing field. Neither the framers of the American or Spanish constitutions found this easy; nor will Mrs. Aquino.
  • Leadership. The democratically minded elites provide the leadership in successful transitions and to some degree the circumstances call forth the leaders, as in the Philippines. But success is not guaranteed, and the failure of democratic leadership was an important component in the failed democracies, both in the post-colonial transitions and in the Latin America of the 1960s and early 70s, e.g. the collapse of democracy in Uruguay.

Finally, there are set forth below a few circumstances which are not absolutes, but which are relevant to the process of democratic political development.

  • Rupture vs. Reform. On the record, a generalization cannot be made about whether it is preferable to throw out the old regime or take an evolutionary path. It is contingent on circumstance. Venezuela and Portugal threw out the old regimes. Ecuador and Brasil evolved gradually. [Page 1154] Both worked. In Spain, they had their cake and ate it too, a “reform” of the Franco structures that produced a “rupture” with the past.
  • A reasonably literate society, remembering, however, that illiterates can make informed political choices, as in Guatemala and El Salvador.
  • A large or, at least significant, middle-class, e.g. Spain, Brasil, Argentina, Costa Rica, Venezuela, etc. Even in countries with a small middle class, such as Peru, Guatemala and Honduras, one can argue that it provided the leadership and the values that made the transition possible.
  • A concomitant degree of economic growth certainly makes it easier. On the recent record, democracies—because of their popular legitimacy—are better able to cope in the short run with severe economic problems and austerity than authoritarian regimes, who often tend to be economically inept, lacking understanding of the market mechanism and the rigors of the international economy. At writing, however, most of the third world democracies, particularly but not exclusively in South America, face prolonged economic hardship, dwindling resource flows and a heavy debt burden. Over time these factors will undermine their legitimacy and some will probably fall, as they have before, if there is no relief.
  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/P Files, Memoranda and Correspondence from the Director of the Policy Planning Staff to the Secretary and Other Seventh Floor Principals: Lot 89D149, S/P Chrons 3/1–31/86. Confidential. An unknown hand wrote “3/6/86 INR memo w/RHS penciled comments” in the top right-hand corner of the memorandum. Solomon wrote in the top right-hand corner of the memorandum: “1. List of who became democratic. 2. fragility & west support (p.4).” Abramowitz signed “Mort A.” next to his last name in the “From” line.
  2. Solomon underlined most of this sentence.
  3. Solomon underlined “Transitions are fragile” and “nurturing or.”
  4. Not found.
  5. In the right-hand margin next to this point, Solomon wrote “Pakist[an] — [unclear].”
  6. Solomon placed a checkmark in the right-hand margin next to this point.
  7. Solomon underlined “successive transition took heart from.”
  8. Solomon underlined “by the successful” and “extent, Portugal.” He also placed a checkmark in the right-hand margin next to this sentence.
  9. Solomon underlined “United States, usually in bi-partisan.”
  10. Solomon placed a checkmark in the right-hand margin next to this sentence.
  11. Solomon underlined “Spain and Portugal.”
  12. Solomon underlined “Greece.” He also placed a vertical line in the right-hand margin next to this paragraph and placed a checkmark to the right of it.
  13. Solomon underlined “in underestimating the degree that Western tradition had taken hold in the Philippines.”
  14. Marcos called for Presidential elections to take place in the Philippines on February 7. A U.S. election observer team, headed by Lugar and Murtha, alleged electoral fraud and claimed that Marcos’ opponent Corazon Aquino had won the Presidency. Marcos fled the Philippines on February 26 after military officials had defected to Aquino. (Congress and the Nation, vol. VII, 1985–1988, pp. 184–185)
  15. Solomon placed a vertical line in the right-hand margin next to this sentence and placed a checkmark to the right of it.
  16. Solomon underlined most of this sentence.
  17. Solomon underlined “more violent and protracted the struggle” and “the levers of power will be grasped.” He also bracketed this sentence in the right-hand margin and placed a checkmark to the right of it.
  18. Solomon underlined “can be crucial to immediate success.”
  19. Solomon underlined “obvious case, but most South,” and “e.g. Ecuador, the Dominican Republic.” He also bracketed this sentence in the right-hand margin.
  20. Solomon bracketed this sentence in the right-hand margin.