The democratic health of Latin America is going through its most delicate moment in two decades. The region has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, which has aggravated a problem of institutional legitimacy that had been dragging on in recent years. Half of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Barbados and Uruguay) show signs of erosion in their democracy, while Brazil continues to deepen its democratic decline, according to the report The State of Democracy in the Americas 2021, of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
The report, which will be presented this Wednesday in Panama and which has been written by Daniel Zovatto, Tomás Quesada Alpizar and Alberto Fernández Gibaja, draws a difficult horizon for a region marked by deep social unrest. Citizen discontent already existed before the pandemic, as demonstrated by the social protests of 2019 in countries such as Colombia, Peru or Chile, but everything indicates that it will increase. The COVID crisis has raised poverty and inequality rates “to levels never before reached in the last decade.”
One of the most significant points the study points to is the democratic deterioration in Brazil. IDEA fixed in 2016, year in which the impeachment against then-president Dilma Rousseff, the starting point of Brazil’s democratic decline. A country that in the 1990s and early 2000s was above the regional average in key indicators such as clean elections, civil liberties, government control, and civil society participation. The setback, he adds, has been prolonged and “exacerbated especially in the last two years”, coinciding with the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.
The document highlights the “vital dimension of democracy in youth” which, if taken advantage of and channeled “could become the main democratic reserve of the next decade.” The protests at the end of 2019, he points out, evidenced the deep discontent with the political elites, whom the majority of the population considers disconnected from the needs of citizens and focused on defending their own interests and privileges, and those of a few groups. powerful. “The traditional institutions of representation – political parties and parliaments – are mired in a deep crisis of legitimacy and trust,” he argues.
Few regions of the world embraced democracy as Latin America did in the past two decades after years of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. The signing 20 years ago of the Inter-American Democratic Charter by the Organization of American States (OAS) was the starting point of the best democratic moment in the region in the middle of the first decade of this millennium. The report calls attention to the OAS document, which was created to be a guarantor and avoid the traumatic experiences of the past, due to not being able to face the challenges and attacks against the rule of law in time in several countries of the region: “His promises and his mechanisms for protecting democracy are insufficient,” he highlights. Along the way, since 2007, the region has lost four democracies: Haiti and Honduras, which the study describes as “hybrid regimes in the process of deterioration” and Nicaragua and Venezuela, whose “authoritarian traits, which add to the authoritarian experience of long history of Cuba, they continue to deepen ”.
The situation, beyond these four countries, is deteriorating throughout the territory. Most of the democracies in the region are stuck at what IDEA considers a medium performance level (Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago), four others (El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Paraguay) are underperforming. Uruguay is the only Latin American democracy with what is considered a high performance.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
States of emergency in the face of the pandemic
The document warns that the states of emergency that were declared to contain the pandemic affected, sometimes arbitrarily, civil liberties, opened a door to corruption, as seen in some purchases of medical supplies, or produced historical setbacks on gender equality. “Excusing or not in the pandemic, some political actors have intensified their attacks against freedom of expression and electoral and judicial authorities, and have unduly involved the armed forces in functions related to the maintenance of public order.”
The report, which does not fall into pessimism despite its stark X-ray of the region, highlights that restoring public trust is “a necessary but not sufficient condition to prevent the rise of populist and authoritarian governments in the region.” In addition, he adds, it is necessary to have independent and well-financed parliaments, judiciary and electoral bodies; with reliable and independent media, and with an empowered citizenry that controls and scrutinizes their leaders.
The strengthening or deterioration of democratic quality also faces the major challenge of reversing the consequences of the pandemic that have not yet faced. While the health and socioeconomic effects can already be seen in all the countries of the region, others such as citizen attachment to the values and principles of democracy will take longer to manifest themselves, warns the report, which asks, once again, to focus in the people: “Citizens continue to play an active role in defending democracy (…) Today more than ever the destiny of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean is tied to its ability to produce tangible results.”
Subscribe here to the newsletter of EL PAÍS América and receive all the informative keys of the present time of the region.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.