It was four decades ago when several countries in Latin America undertook transitions to more democratic forms of government. Instability, military or non-democratic regimes, social conflict, economic dependency, immigration and displacement, and human rights violations were all common themes in the region before the transitions. In the context of the Cold War framework, which was still alive in the 1980s, the transitions signaled a move away from a polarized global environment.    As the majority of countries in Latin America made the transition to more democratic regimes and societies, hope and aspirations emerged for better opportunities, more stability, and for a new chapter that could finally reap the fruits of the socio-economic potential. Moreover, the democratic wave decreased the chances for radical ideological regimes, right or left. Today, however, Latin America stands again at the cusp of reversing back again into chaos, despair, conflict, poverty and normalizing internal polarization in a left-right continuum. I recently wrote an article trying to explain why Latin America, a region so wealthy in all kinds of resources finds itself again in a perilous vicious circle unable to provide for a majority of its citizens and stacked with old formulas amidst new challenges.  Even before Covid-19, the signs of frustration with government policies were visible.  What happened to the democratic prospects in Latin America?

From Sunshine to Storms

The symbolism in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signaled a new era for change and the expansion of human rights globally.  After a complicated process of economic stabilization, Latin America moved forward with establishing new economic parameters that ushered a relative and dynamic recuperation.  By the first years of the twentieth-first century, Latin America had managed to transform its socio-economic outlook.  Latin America registered by 2013, the lowest incidence of poverty and the largest expansion of the middle class.  Furthermore, by 2015 Latin American countries reduced inequality trends. Moreover, the Latin American economies managed to confront the global economic crisis between 2003-2013.  Nonetheless, by 2016 all signs pointed to the end of the so-called “boom” era and a return to volatility and uncertainty.  The strong dependence on commodities and a lack of sustained strategies generated a gap between citizens expanding expectations and the capacity of the governments to deliver.  Massive social protests ensued between 2019-2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was becoming more visible.   

In parallel, during the same period as the boom-and-bust dynamic in the socio-economic dimension, the democratic dimension in Latin America remained somewhat curtailed.  Countries began to have more national elections, as well as sub-national elections. According to International Idea analysis, today Latin America scores globally the highest in electoral participation.  Similarly, the analysis points out to promising advances in Latin America in political gender equality.  However, in perspective, support for democratic institutions in Latin America has dwindled over the past two decades. According to data from LAPOP, since 2008 there has been a steady decline in support for democracy in Latin America.  In the latest metric of 2018/19, 57.7% of those surveyed regionally indicated support for democracy, a decline of 0.5% point from the 2016/17 survey.   Support for democracy is coming from the most educated, the wealthier cohorts, and the older age cohorts.  LAPOP also shows that since 2004 there is a decline in support of the main components of a democratic system (respect for political institutions, pride in the political system, courts guarantee a fair trial, and basic rights are protected).  Moreover, though there is a variation among countries, trust in democratic institutions, such as political parties, the executive and legislative branches of government, and elections are also showing trends of decline since 2004 according to LAPOP.    

Since 2009, data from the Latinobarometro shows a sharp decline in the confidence of citizens in their governments, in great part due to persistent corruption and increased authoritarian forms of governments.  Data from Latinobarometro also shows that between 2006 and 2018, respondents who say that in Latin America governance is for the “few exclusive and powerful groups to increase their own benefit ” increased from 61% to 79% respectively.  That is in total an increase of 18 percentage points. As we argued in another article, the belief that government is benefiting the few is nourished by low levels of trust in government, in the justice system, in the legislature/congress, and in interpersonal trust, as well as low satisfaction with democracy.   Similarly, one can make the argument that the low levels of institutional and personal trust and the low satisfaction with democracy feed the belief that the government is for the few and not the many.

From Delegative Democracy to Caudillismo 102

Guillermo O’Donnell’s coined in 1994 the concept of Delegative Democracy, to analyze new democracies in Latin America and elsewhere.  Essentially, the concept refers to democratic regimes in which the president and congress are democratically elected, but in which mechanisms of accountability are fragile.  This tendency exacerbated over the past decades in many Latin American countries, in great part due to the fact that Latin America’s political systems are heavily tilted toward strong presidents with unlimited power, and other institutions such as the legislative and judiciary in this context are dwarfed.  Presidents think these other branches of government are obstacles in the decision-making process, and over time, their respective importance has diminished as they are constantly being circumvented or captured by the president and the executive branch. The congresses and legislations in the majority of Latin America are weak and have not played a constructive and/or oversight role on the Executive.  The judiciaries in Latin America have moved from inquisitorial to adversarial systems, and these efforts have begun to make justice more transparent, effective, and fair. Many Latin American countries have also passed specific anticorruption measures. However, in spite of that progress, they remain weak.

The lack of reforms to strengthen democratic governance in most of the region has created a vicious circle.  Strong presidents have ignored or captured horizontal accountability mechanisms (from within the state), they use elections to claim vertical accountability (from outside the state), and in extreme cases like Venezuela and Nicaragua, the authoritarian regimes have closed the civic space and therefore shut down any type of vertical accountability.  Moreover, a populist discourse in elections, from the right or left, continues to enhance the false narrative that institutions do not matter and that strongmen are the State, and only strongmen and the State can quickly resolve all problems. The narrative from the left claims that they can promote social integration and endogenous development, as well as be a defense against neoliberal and capital interests, who in their argument want to take advantage of their patrimony.  The narrative from the right claims that with neo-liberal economic policies and economic trade, development will expand, and help keep tradition and conservative values.  In reality, the populist discourse, branded in the left or right continuum or its radical versions such as socialism or far right, has proven to be detrimental to consolidating democratic regimes in Latin America.  

There is evidence supporting the argument that so-called neoliberal policies cannot sustain reductions in poverty, inequality, and dependence.  But there is also as much evidence about the so-called not-liberal model (baptized with different names in different countries), and how they cannot resolve structural issues that cause waste, corruption, and dependency on extractive development.   The populist discourse does not point to fixing poorly functioning public systems and institutions, but rather fuels actions to further weaken them and pave the way to the rise of the charismatic and authoritarian leader who will “save” the nation from capitalism or socialism.  As Fernando Calderon and Manuel Castells have argued, these types of regimes survive on the backs of weak institutions, social disintegration, despair, and frustration, but paradoxically use elections to legitimize their power.

Figure 1 shows the analysis of the relationship between the percentage of citizens in each country who support democracy using the latest LAPOP data, and the country’s score in the V-Dem’s Electoral Democracy Index.  As can be seen, there is a positive correlation between these two variables supporting the hypothesis that support for democracy is critical for the vitality of democracy.

How Unfreedoms Perpetuate Authoritarian Tendencies in Latin America?

According to Freedom House’s recently released Freedom in the World 2021 report, 9 countries in Latin America were classified as Free, 11 countries as Partially Free, and 3 countries as Not Free (see Figure 2).  In 2021, 13 of the 23 countries in Latin America showed declines in their scores, with El Salvador leading that group with a net decrease of -3, followed by Venezuela with a net decrease of -2, and with Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Peru all decreasing by -1 respectively.  Only 5 countries in Latin America registered improvements (Suriname +3, Bolivia +3, Chile +3, Ecuador +2, Belize +1), while 5 (Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Uruguay) had no change.

A combination of factors has slowly eroded freedoms in most of Latin America over the past two decades. Looking back at the trends in the last fifteen years, the decline of freedoms can be attributed to a steady deterioration in all subcategories used by Freedom House to measure political rights and civil liberties.  For example, under political rights in Latin America, the average aggregated score change over the past 15 years in electoral processes was -7%, in political pluralism and participation -4%, and in the functioning of government  -1%.  With respect to civil liberties, the average aggregated score change over the past 15 years was -5% for freedom of expression and belief, -9% for associational and organizational rights, -3 for the rule of law, and -2% for personal autonomy and individual rights. While other regions, like Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East, and North Africa fared worse than Latin America during the 15-year period, no other region had the same opportunities as Latin America to get ahead and break the cycle of unfulfilled promises.

Looking back at 2011, for example, or the trends in a decade for perspective, six countries in Latin America have shown a steady decline in their overall freedom scores: Venezuela -28, Nicaragua -24, El Salvador -12,  -11, the Dominican Republic -9, Haiti -8, and Honduras -8.  

In 2020, COVID-19 played a key role in accentuating and facilitating authoritarian tendencies in Latin America.  Many governments withheld or distorted crucial information imposed excessive or abusive lockdown rules, or used COVID-19 as a cover to consolidate power and suppress dissent. For example, Colombia’s civil liberties score declined by one point due to instances where armed groups illegally enforced strict pandemic-related lockdowns, murdered people at informal checkpoints, forced some to flee their homes, and trapped human rights defenders and social leaders in locations where they face threats of violence. In Brazil, the pandemic had an adverse impact on the economy, particularly in the informal labor sector, which created record unemployment and left many Brazilians dependent on temporary public assistance and impacted equality of opportunity, and promoted a score decline under civil liberties.  In El Salvador, under the guise of COVID-19, the government suspended public information requests, which denied the population access to crucial health-related information. Salvadoran security forces also disproportionately enforced stringent lockdown measures for a lengthy period of time.

Reversing the Autocratic Wave in Latin America

This September 11 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which is binding on all active member states and commits them to promote and defend democracy.  The current combination of democratic backsliding, and a looming economic and public health crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic will set the stage for significant instability in the short-term for many Latin American countries, and the fallout will likely leave governments burdened by crippling deficits and facing angry demands from voters for action on poverty and improved public services.

As the Nobel Laureate in economics, Amartya Sen noted, freedom can be both an end to, and a means of development.  Key instrumental freedoms, like political rights, civil liberties, access to information, independent media, and educational systems that are free from indoctrination offer individuals and groups opportunities to expand their choices and improve their lives.  As Sen points out when people and groups are deprived of these freedoms, inequality, poverty, and despair ensue.  The time has come to change the course toward stronger and sustainable democratic governance. 

Since 2004, there have been calls for a new social contract as a solution.  However, there was no concrete action.  Latin America now needs new democratic institutions, new leadership, new systems, and new aspirations.  The cliché, thinking out of the box, fits perfectly at this moment in history.  There is a choice: remain with authoritarian regimes and let weak regimes fall to the authoritarian side or aim high towards strengthening democratic regimes, fighting against authoritarianism, and creating a hemispheric democratic alliance.  Chile and Uruguay seem to be offering some potential hope, not only in terms of constitutional reform in the case of Chile but also in how to decentralize democratic governance to sub-national units of government.   Canada and the United States also need to play a more active role in promoting democracy and elevating it to a national interest and security level. This is the time to ask whether presidential systems are serving well and whether to explore parliamentary systems.  It is also time to expand opportunities for women to lead and for a new generation of leadership to emerge.  Regional multilateral organizations cannot remain ambivalent about supporting democracy.  Finally, any vestiges of democracy will die if citizens do not remain active and or if they remain silent ambivalent, or neutral. 

There is no easy solution or blueprint to overturn the rising of authoritarianism in Latin America.  But doing nothing has tremendous consequences for millions of people who would be left in poverty and in despair. The renewal of democracy in Latin America is a long-term project, but will not come from governments, but from the people. Democracy is always an unfinished process and there are many opportunities ahead to invest in the agency of democracy. But is not an automatic process, as it requires ownership by regional, national and local stakeholders, speaking in favor of democratic values, and investing in democratic institutions.  Hopefully, the current state of waning democratic governance in Latin America will ring an alarm in the region and provoke regional and national calls for defending freedom and human rights.

*Source of the photo: Pexels, 2021

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