Is democracy weakening across Latin America?

and . Jan 23, 2020
democracy People crowds protesting at Santiago de Chile. Photo: AbriendoMundo/Shutterstock People crowds protesting at Santiago de Chile. Photo: AbriendoMundo/Shutterstock

The year 2019 will go down in history as a setback for democracies around the globe. Social unrest, protests, and rising inequality have worsened the quality of political systems globally, as underlined by the latest figures from The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index, which showed the lowest average worldwide score since its inception in 2006. The index stood at 5.44 worldwide (on a scale of 0 to 10), mainly “driven by sharp regressions in the average regional scores in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Only three Latin American nations—Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Chile—were rated as “full democracies.” Meanwhile, three others, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, went down as flat-out “authoritarian” states. Latin America as a whole saw its average score fall to 6.13—its fourth decrease in a row. However, it retained its place as the most democratic of emerging markets, sitting behind only Western Europe and North America.

Brazil, in turn, was classified as a “flawed democracy,” along with almost all of its immediate neighbors. Its final “democracy score” of 6.86 equals the country’s worst result since the index began.

democracy index

Self-proclaimed presidents

While Brazil posted poor scores in “functioning of government” and “political culture,” the problems elsewhere in the continent are significantly more severe, defined by the region-wide wave of “self-declared leaders.”

This process picked up steam in Peru, in September of last year, where President Martín Vizcarra dissolved the opposition-controlled Congress and called new parliamentary elections. Lawmakers immediately turned against Mr. Vizcarra and, by the end of the day, he was suspended for “immorality.”

In a final twist on a hectic and democratically troubling day, Peru’s Vice President Mercedes Aráoz was sworn in as the country’s rightful president, leaving Peru with “two presidents” and no Congress.

Bolivia, classified by The Economist as a “hybrid regime,” followed a different script. After a military coup put an end to 13 years of Evo Morales as president—an opposition senator Jeanine Áñez was herself sworn in as interim president, in a congressional session without the required quorum.

Once again, the government and its opposition had a president each. The cases of Peru and Bolivia, however, weren’t even the first in 2019. Since January, Venezuela has been enduring the same dilemma, as President Nicolás Maduro and self-declared interim Juan Guaidó are still struggling for legitimacy.

According to Paulo Velasco, a foreign affairs professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), this constant process of seizure has to do with the region’s “poorly consolidated” democracy measures. “The region is historically very prone to problems with democratic pacts. Though countries went through [post-dictatorship] re-democratization processes in the late 1980s, there’s still a lack of political maturity. And the institutions suffer from it,” he told The Brazilian Report

Besides Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, countries in Central America have suffered from unsolved crimes from their respective dictatorships, which also helped to undermine institutional power. Mr. Velasco also mentioned the relatively short space of time between the period of independence from Spanish colonies and today, occurring less than 200 years ago.

This problematic cycle of social formation led to residual corruption, which contaminates the image of politics. “We don’t only have self-proclaimed [presidents] at the constitutional level, but there is also little effort from political forces in this framework. They are examples of inconsistency for the voting population.”

Corruption as the scourge of democracy in Latin America

The perception of widespread corruption is a common factor among Latin American nations. The Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) for Latin America and the Caribbean, published in 2019, said nearly 56 million citizens across 18 countries are involved in the payment of bribes, and 75 percent of the population fears retaliation when denouncing corruption. 

But while political representatives are constantly seen with a lack of faith, the electorate appears to be confident in its own efforts to change their countries: 75 percent of people think that citizens can help stop corruption.

This has led to a denial of the political class around the region, causing a new phenomenon in Latin America: a wave of popular frenzy for independent anti-corruption committees. 

One such example is the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), positioning itself as an “extra arm” of the country’s justice system, prosecuting many high-profile corruption cases, such as former President Otto Perez Molina’s involvement with bribery, criminal association, and fraud in 2015. 

In the Guatemalan elections that followed, ex-comedian Jimmy Morales was elected president on an anti-corruption platform, positioning himself as an “outsider.” But it didn’t last long: Mr. Morales himself soon became one of CICIG’s targets for alleged illicit campaign financing. 

But instead of giving Guatemalans a semblance of transparency to hold on to, Mr. Morales decided not to prolong the CICIG’s mandate beyond 2019. At the end of his term, Mr. Morales left office with high rejection rates and a population even less trusting in politics. 

Inspired by Guatemala, El Salvador launched its own International Commission Against Impunity (CICIES), by way of a decree of President Nayib Bukele in September 2019. The script is similar: Mr. Bukele was a newcomer candidate, elected in a public claim for justice. The future will reveal whether the Salvadorans will become victims of the long-lasting institutional crisis, surviving only on small independent commissions.[/restricted]

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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