Four decades ago, people in Latin America cheered as one after another dictatorship fell and gave way to democratic systems, with free elections, uncensored expression, and increasingly independent institutions. That transition, a part of the third wave of democratization, transformed Latin America and the Caribbean from a place of oppressive military regimes into the most democratic region in the developing world and filled people with hope that governments of their choosing would dramatically improve their lives.
Today, public sentiment in the region is less hopeful and support for democracy, if far from dead, is in need of critical care. The latest version of Latinobarómetro, an annual public opinion survey of 18 countries of the region, paints a sobering picture of a region disenchanted with representative government: Satisfaction with democracy in the 2018 study now stands at only 24%, down from 44% in 2010 — the lowest level since the survey began asking the question more than 20 years ago. Meanwhile, trust in political parties is at a historic low of 13%. Not surprisingly, traditional political parties took a beating at the polls last year: most dramatically with the fall from power of the Workers Party (PT) in Brazil and the defeat of the Institutional RevolutionaryParty (PRI).
Democracy versus authoritarianism
The 2018 edition of the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, classifies only two countries, Costa Rica and Uruguay, to be fully democratic, while Nicaragua for the first time joined Venezuela and Cuba in the group of authoritarian countries. In fact, public support for democracy over authoritarian government, according to the Latinobarómetro survey,is now at only 48%, down from 61% in 2010 — a reminder that the robustness and stability of democracies in the region, however flawed, is hardly assured.
How did we get to this place where so many people are unsure whether democracy or authoritarian government is better?
Causes of discontent
Part of the explanation has to do with economic stagnation. Economic growth has been stuck at around 1% since 2013 in Latin America, and, as a result, per capita incomes have declined. Despite a reduction in inequality during the years of the commodity boom of the 2000s, Latin America remains one of the most unequal regions of the world. Together with unemployment, this fuels resentment against political elites.
Crime is another factor: Living with a homicide rate that is four times the world’s average, citizens have become fed up with the chronic problems of organized crime, gangs and street violence. They are tired of living in fear and paying the personal costs of poor public safety.
Corruption scandals continue to shake the region. More than a dozen former presidents and vice-presidents have been indicted or convicted on corruption charges in recent years. Around half of Latin Americans believe that most of their national and local officials are involved in corruption, with 65% saying the problem is getting worse, according to the 2018 Latinobarómetro.
Polarization in many Latin American and Caribbean societies exacerbates these problems. The region consists in many cases of divided societies: there is a lack of consensus among the population on key issues and a distrust of opponents. According to the latest World Values Survey, in which respondents are asked to place themselves on an ideological left-right scale, the nine countries in our region that were surveyed show more voter polarization on average than 13 developed nations, including the United States. With a population so riven, compromise among policymakers is hard to come by. This has thwarted the kind of good governance that can find solutions to problems like economic stagnation, crime and corruption.
Restoring trust in democracy
Latin America needs better governance, and, by implication, stronger democracies. Governments will have to work hard to restore trust in political institutions. They should encourage the community engagement, grass roots activism, and independent media that support vibrant civic societies and political participation. They must encourage entrepreneurship: not government transfers, but fair laws and regulations that allow small and medium-sized businesses to flourish. Ultimately, citizens who take ownership of their economic and political choices will build the middle class that is so essential to stable and well-functioning democracies.
In what remains of 2019, Latin America will have four presidential elections, in Argentina, Bolivia Uruguay and Guatemala. There is no time like the present for all candidates to uphold these principles and demonstrate the legitimacy of the democratic process.
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