Short History of Christian Democracy in Latin America

The development of Christian politics in the Latin American sub region is not recent, but is part of a complex and sometimes ambiguous historical process. Christian politics as such has had distinct expressions through time depending on the political context (democracy or authoritarianism) and the evolution of attitudes towards the churches (a historically powerful catholic sector, with a growing evangelical sector), among other structural political factors. The support that has always existed for Christian politics in Latin America, and the diversity of its forms, makes it an interesting study object.

This reflection provides some tools to the understanding of the track of Christian politics in the region, both from a combination of political sociology and comparative perspectives. It will identify the challenges and opportunities for the development and strengthening of Christian politics. It does not pretend to be normative, but desires to draw an objective picture – in any case close to objective – of what has been the contribution of Christian politics in the region in its recent history. Such an assessment will allow for a good diagnosis of current Christian political movements.

The aim of this reflection is to present factual information on the history of Christian politics in Latin America. Its aim is not solely informative, but seeks to disentangle the question from a democracy assistance perspective.

A similar research project has been developed by Paul Freston (2008) who explores the relationship between evangelical Christians and their involvement in politics and quality of democracy. However, the approach adopted by Freston is somewhat distinct from ours, because it broaches exclusively the sector that is denominated as evangelical, and its conceptual reflection on the relationship between political participation of evangelical Christians and democratization.

How can political cooperation contribute to the development of Christian politics in the region? What are the specific needs and opportunities to strengthen Christian politics in Latin America? Finally, which elements of the Latin American institutions and political culture should be taken into account when supporting Christian political movements?

To start out, it is important emphasizing that Latin America has always been a catholic continent. Until today, Catholicism is still the predominant confession. This has also had a huge influence on political life. In almost all Latin American countries, Christian-Democrat parties have existed and have had a relatively strong influence throughout history.

In Latin America, the separation between Church and State materializes slowly, but is nowadays a fact in all countries of the region. Costa Rica is the only remaining country in Latin America which has an official religion, after Bolivia removed its reference in its new Constitution (2006). Nowadays, there is an ongoing political debate in Costa Rica concerning the elimination of the reference to God in the Constitution.

The classical – and to a large extent valid – opposition by Duverger (1957) to classify European political parties between confessional and anti-clericals does not apply in the same manner to Latin America. In this traditionally catholic continent, all political actors are to a more or lesser extent “Christian.” Not all parties are confessional, but few parties are explicitly anti-clerical.

Of course, the question remains just how Christian these political actors were and are. Concerning Christian-Democrat parties in particular, it is important to evaluate the scope of the Christian principles, and whether they have really transcended into day to day politics or if only the name of their party was Christian. This is about qualifying the Christian identity of Christian-Democrat parties.

It is difficult to make such an analysis retrospectively, since political discourses (party programs, principles, statements) should be distinguished from political actions, and individual stands should be viewed in the light of the historical context. Furthermore, even those parties that were not openly Christian-Democrat, did have references to Christian values. Even social-democrat or liberal parties refer to a large extent to Christian principles. Thus, in Latin America Christian democrats did never have the monopoly of Christian politics.

Each country’s situation is unique, but there several general characteristics that define Latin America as a whole. During the nineteenth century, party systems were shaped by a traditional opposition between so-called “conservative” and “liberal” parties, who alternated in power, and who made the transition to modernity possible. But this situation was not very ideological, but more an alternation of powers between oligarchies (Dabène 2006).

In some countries, the cleavage between Conservative and Liberal parties persisted until today (particularly Colombia). In other countries, these parties evolved into more modern political parties. Often the cleavage between Conservative and Liberals was substituted by the cleavage between Christian-Democrats and social-democrats, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century, following World War II. In countries like Chile, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and most Central American countries, Conservative parties transformed into Christian-Democrat parties. In other countries, new Christian-Democrat parties were created.

Although Christian Democracy is a political factor that has had some importance in the recent history of Latin America, its forms varied throughout the countries. In some countries the Christian-Democrat party has been a defining element of the party system (Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, and Chile). The most important representatives of this movement are Eduardo Frei who comes to power in Chile in 1964 and Rafael Caldera who becomes President of Venezuela in 1968. In other countries, its participation was confined to the role of minority or hinge party (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and Uruguay).

In some countries, Christian democracy as such has been virtually absent. Christian-Democrat parties existed, but were never big enough to get a hold on power. Mexican politics were for more than seven decades dominated by the same party, the Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI) that was more of an electoral machine than of a programmatic party. The Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) that comes to power in 2000, has Catholic roots and is strongly inspired by Catholic social thought. The PAN has evolved into a rightwing mass party with an unclear ideological foundation. The PAN joined the International Christian Democrat only very late, during the ‘1990’s (Mizrahi 2003). In Bolivia, in a very similar way to Mexico and Argentine, the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR) shaped party political life, since the national revolution of 1952. In Argentine, is still largely defined by the legacy of Juan Domingo Peron’s government, and its continuations in peronismo.

In Nicaragua and El Salvador, the party system is structured around opponents and supporters of the revolutionary movements: the Sandinistas (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) in Nicaragua and the Frente Farabundi Marti de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) in El Salvador (Artiga 2007). In these countries, Christian-Democrat parties existed but remained very small and did not really emerge, as they were absorbed by one of the poles of the political spectrum.

Before describing the historical behavior of Christian Democrat parties in the region, let’s study the ideological roots of Latin American Christian Democracy. Defining historical Christian Democracy is not an easy task, because of the diversity and heterogeneity of Christian-Democrat movements in the region. Montenegro defines Christian Democracy as “the logical confluence between the ethical principles of Christianity and the political philosophy of democracy” (2004, p. 119-125). According to this author, liberal democracy’s individualism is not too far from the Christian free will. The main difference, however, with liberalism is that the Christian ethic criticizes the excesses of liberalism and defends social justice and solidarity. Christian democracy also rejects Marxism as it puts state and society above central Christian institutions, namely the family.

The encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) by Pope Leon XIII, was the starting point of a long political tradition that would give birth to “Christian Democracy.” It can be interpreted both as the church response to the new capitalist system and its negative social consequences, and as a condemnation of the Marxist, communist and socialist solutions. Catholic social thought therefore constitutes the core of the Christian Democrat tradition, at least in Catholic countries, but is placed within a larger tradition since Aristotle, Thomas of Aquino and much more recently Jacques Maritain.

As in Catholic Europe, Christian Democrat parties are not confessional parties but do recognize their Christian inspiration. Other important encyclicals that develop Catholic social thought are Quadragésimo Ano (1931), Mater et Magistra (1961), Pacem in Terris (1963) and Populorum Progressio (1967). Its main principles are altruism, generosity, neighbor love and respect for democratic rule. It tries to reconcile the protection of individual rights and the common good of society.

In fact, Christian democracy is an original – pragmatic – alternative between liberalism and statism, because it rejects both libertarian individualism and communism (Lynch 1993):

“The Christian Democrats were, on the surface, an attractive political movement that seemed to offer something to both poles. They were staunchly anti-Communist, yet they were not trapped in a hopeless reactionary mode. They accepted the need for radical economic and social change, yet they pledged to achieve this change through peaceful means. (…) The Christian Democrats seemed to offer a society in which laborers and capitalists could coexist without struggle and with mutual respect. Private property and social responsibility, they believed, could be similarly juxtaposed.” (Lynch 1993, p. ix).

Its ideology, both in Catholic Europe and in Latin America, was shaped by Catholic social thought. The first Christian-Democrat movements in Latin America authentically intended to put Catholic social thought into practice, in some cases long before similar movements appeared in Europe.

Two important political actors in the development of Christian Democracy in the region should be mentioned here: the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Christian Democrat International, that also has its regional organization, the Organización Democráta Cristiana de América Latina (ODCA). These networks gave Christian-Democrat parties international recognition and allowed for exchange of experiences and sometimes financial support.

Christian Democrat parties have had a strong impact in Latin America, in spite of their limited electoral success, when compared to Europe, as Mainwaring and Scully (2003) show. According to the authors, this situation is explained mainly by unfavorable political environments and overall democratic instability.

Morgenstern & Scully identify six Latin American countries where Christian-Democrat parties “played prominent roles in fighting authoritarian regimes, in building democracy, in contributing to the success of democracy in some cases and to its shortcomings in others” (p. 3). These countries are Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela. In these countries, as well as in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, Christian Democratic parties elected Presidents.

Names differ of Christian-Democrat movements. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala have called themselves “Christian-Democrat Party”. The Costa Rican PUSC (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana), the Ecuadoran DP (Democracia Popular), the Mexican PAN (Partido Acción Nacional), the Venezuelan COPEI (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente), the Colombian Conservative Party and the Dominican PRSC (Partido Reformista Social Cristiano). All these parties belong to the Christian-Democrat International.

The brand name “Christian Democracy” is in some countries damaged, because of the ambiguous and somewhat contradictory relation of Christian-Democrat parties to authoritarian regimes or to corruption scandals more recently. These accusations are only true to a certain extent, but their popularity explains why the negative image of Christian politics is so broadly shared. In part this has to do with the preconceptions towards the totality of the political class, but in part this has to do also with a historical fundament and disappointing experiences. Politics are often considered to be dirty, and so are Christian political actors.

Christian-Democrats often tacitly supported coups against socialist governments, but quickly rallied to resistance (Chile in 1973, Venezuela in 1948). Because of this, Christian-Democrats have often played in important role in democratic transitions (Nicaragua, Chile). In Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala, Christian-Democrats served as first presidents under new democratic regimes.

The hopeful rise of the Christian Democrat movement, particularly with the elections of Eduardo Frei in 1964 in Chile and Rafael Caldera in 1968 in Venezuela, did not consolidate. It remained relatively weak, and declines during the 1980’s en 1990’s. This decline, as Lynch summarizes it, is can be explained by the fact “the Christian Democracy has failed to reach its potential because it has forgotten its ideological roots. This has caused Christian Democratic parties to veer unpredictably to the political left and right, to attempt to imitate their rivals and to fail to present a coherent alternative to these rivals. Most significantly, Christian Democrats have embraced the Latin American state too closely, particularly in their economic policies. They have been far too anxious to involve the state in economic decisions.” (2003, p. x).

Christian-Democrat and social-democrat parties, according to some scholars, did not have many programmatic differences, but were merely tools to get a hold on power. These parties evolved into “catch-all parties”, using Peter Mair’s concept: electoral machines with hollow political programs:

“Christian Democratic parties in Latin America over time tended to become less idealistic and programmatic and more pragmatic catchall parties” (Morgenstern & Scully 2003, p. 364 p.)

Once in power, Christian-Democratic parties had to negotiate with other political actors which leaded to some level of deideologization. Also, in some contexts, Christian-democrats were tempted to use authoritarian means to stay in power and win votes.

These parties functioned in broad international networks – the Socialist International and the Christian-Democrat International, and received financial and organizational support from international foundations, particularly German foundations such as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. The choice of politicians for either one of these two political parties was often motivated by financial incentives coming from these types of foundations and not by ideological identification (Dabène 2006).

Because these parties did not have many ideological differences – they belonged to a vague ideological political center –, especially during the last years of ‘90s, the return of populist tendencies (neopopulismo) in the region and the emergence of political outsiders was expectable. Analyzing their ideological standpoints does not make much sense in contexts of weak party system institutionalization and overall non-programmatic parties.

Mainwaring & Scully (2003) insist on the diversity of Christian-Democrat movements in Latin America. They are not comparable to the centre-right Christian Democratic parties in Catholic Europe and did not necessarily capture the religious vote.

Some Christian-Democrat parties embraced neoliberalism (Costa Rica, Mexico), other defected into “Christian socialism” (Argentina, Peru, Uruguay) inspired by liberation theology, that sought to reconcile the gospels with communism. The historical importance of liberation theology, in countries like Brazil and Central American countries will not be discussed here, but we will constrain to saying it was energetically rejected by both the Catholic Church and the Christian Democrat International. Some Christian-Democrat parties tried to join the Third Way-movement but this did not really materialize into a credible electoral alternative.

Nowadays, the decline of Christian Democracy is noticeable. Christian Democracy does not constitute an important political force anymore. Presidents Calderón of Mexico and Uribe of Colombia are considered to be modern representatives of Christian Democracy, but they never refer explicitly to their Christian-Democrat background.


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Dennis P. Petri
Dennis P. Petri is Director of Plataforma C, Platform for Christian Politics. A political scientist by training, he specializes in comparative politics with a specific interest in Latin America. He is currently working on a dissertation about religious freedom at VU University Amsterdam.

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