One of the most striking political changes in Latin America over the last decade has been the increasing salience and centrality of local government. Since Latin America has become a largely urban continent in 2000, the United Nations estimates that 75.4% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean lives in urban areas [United Nations 1998, 93]), municipal government has become the arena of a emerging set of major challenges and opportunities. In a continent whose history is one of centralization, and whose population until the early 1960s was predominantly rural, this represents an unprecedented new reality. The institutional and political format within which urban local government is being represented is a result of a long period of political and civic activity, dating back to the early 1960s. While it is not necessary to analyze this gestation period in the present context, suffice it to say that in many countries the multiple influences of a number of factors combined to focus more attention on the local: these factors included the explosion of urban social movements, the increasing impact of informality and the precariousness of large marginal urban populations, a heavy debt burden at the central government level, and a general movement toward decentralization and political pluralism as authoritarian regimes played themselves out. If it is to take account of these important new realities, a social sciences research program for Latin America will need to address a number of key questions. The conceptual and research background to these questions is discussed.
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