Latin America’s Wavering Democracies

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written by
Arch Puddington
Vice President for Research

For some time, Latin America was identified as one of the success stories from the wave of democratic development that accompanied the waning years of the Cold War. Over the span of a relatively few years, a region notable for violent insurgencies, military juntas, oligarchies, and caudillo rule underwent a historic transformation that left practically every country with a freely elected government and a civic environment in which an array of liberties were respected. After the democratic upsurge, the lone holdout was Cuba, with its inflexible and increasingly anachronistic Communist dictatorship. Over the past decade, however, the commitment of governments in the region to democratic standards has wavered, in some cases considerably.

To be sure, the region’s largest and most economically powerful country, Brazil, has experienced a strengthening of free institutions even as it has notched years of impressive economic growth.  Chile and Uruguay continue to rank among the world’s leading democracies, and Colombia has registered gains for civil liberties as its violent insurgencies wind down. As the first graph below indicates, fully half of the region’s 20 countries hold a Freedom House ranking of Free, and only Cuba falls into the Not Free category.

 

But the dominant recent story has been the steady decline of a critical mass of countries in the region, a process that has accelerated over the past five years. The countries that have retreated from records of relatively impressive democratic performance can be lumped into three categories:

  1. Countries governed by regimes of what Jorge Castaneda called the “irresponsible left.”  Venezuela under Hugo Chávez is front and center here, followed by Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and, to a less clear-cut degree, Argentina.
  2. Countries where criminal violence, often driven by drug-trafficking rivalries, has spiraled so completely out of control as to have weakened press freedom, rule of law, and other democratic indicators. Mexico, which has fallen from a Freedom in the World ranking of Free to Partly Free, is the principal example. Drug-related violence has also retarded the growth of democratic institutions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.   
  3. Countries that have experienced less-than-democratic leadership upheavals. The main examples are Honduras, which has yet to fully recover from the 2009 coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya from office, and Paraguay, where President Fernando Lugo was ousted in an impeachment process that lasted barely 24 hours.

As we can see in the next graph, the region’s average aggregate score in Freedom in the World has registered declines in each year between 2007 and 2011, with substantial downgrades in 2007 and 2009. Five countries are largely responsible for the overall regional slippage: Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua.

 

The final graph reflects the average performance of Latin American countries over the past five years on the seven specific subcategories measured by Freedom in the World. As the chart shows, the regional average experienced essentially no change in two subcategories, made progress in one (reflecting government effectiveness and transparency), and showed notable declines in four. Significantly, the subcategory that recorded the sharpest regression reflects observance of freedom of association, including the treatment of nongovernmental organizations, freedom of assembly, and the ability of workers to engage in union activity. The other important setbacks occurred in electoral process, political pluralism and participation, and freedom of expression and belief.

The record of decline, as set forth by the subcategory trends, provides a revealing picture of the strategy of governments that are either tolerating the erosion of democratic institutions or—more disturbingly—deliberately undermining freedom in order to marginalize potential sources of political opposition. Thus:

  1. The decline in freedom of association reflects the growing determination of autocratic-leaning leaders to neuter civil society organizations, especially those with political or quasi-political agendas. With traditional political parties weakened through internal decay or regime pressure, the locus of serious opposition is increasingly found outside the parties and within civil society. Leaders like Chávez are working to smother these sources of organized criticism, much as they have done to the old party structures.
  2. While opposition political parties have often contributed to their own decline, aggressive actions meant to tilt the field in the regime’s favor represent a threat to electoral competitiveness in a number of Latin American societies. 
  3. The press has become a principal target of left-populist leaders, notably in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Their tactics include a great expansion of state-controlled media (especially in television), the use of punitive libel laws to silence critics, the abuse of licensing powers to threaten or shut down critical media, and the introduction of antimonopoly laws that force opposition press owners to surrender control of outlets.

To reiterate a point made earlier, democracy, while under pressure, remains the norm in Latin America. The region today is far freer than it was in 1980.  It is almost free of insurgency, elections in most countries are competitive, and the military is, with a few notable exceptions, out of the business of government.

But there is much to deplore in those countries where the “irresponsible left” prevails. In a region that seemed to have finally escaped the leader-for-life phenomenon, new aspirants to lifetime leadership status have now emerged. Equally disturbing is Hugo Chávez’s integration of the military into the everyday functioning of government, a dangerous move given Latin America’s history of military dictatorship. The drive by more autocratically leaning presidents to thoroughly control and politicize the judiciary is similarly deplorable. As recent experience demonstrates, a pliant judiciary opens the way for corruption and political control of elections, the press, the economy, and civil society.

Freedom in Latin America is wavering, not in deep decline. But the wavering should concern us all, and especially those who recall a time when the region was synonymous with state violence, political extremism, and injustice.

Graphs for this post were prepared by Bret Nelson.

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