Democracy had a tough year in Latin America. But it’s not all doom and gloom

Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela are on the shortlist for this year’s anti-democratic government actors.

Outside of this infamous trio, a number of runners-up were also cause for concern.

Populist leaders in Brazil and Mexico stand at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both have been accused of undermining democratic institutions.

The young president of El Salvador jokes about being called a dictator. Corruption is still endemic in Guatemala.

“There is a threat of contagion, and the spread of these authoritarian trends,” David Altman, professor of political science at the Catholic University of Chile, told CNN. “It is a matter of deep concern.”

Opinion polls support those concerns.

Only 43% of respondents in 22 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the way democracy works in their country, according to the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University’s 2021 Pulse of Democracy survey. .

Authoritarianism on the rise

The spontaneous protests in Cuba that erupted in July over food and medicine shortages amid an economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and US sanctions have been met with crushing repression from the Cuban authorities.

Follow-up protests, scheduled for November, were preemptively suppressed, with authorities preventing some activists from leaving their homes.

This week, dozens of the July 11 protesters were sentenced to decades in prison, according to the US State Department.

In Venezuela, Maduro’s ruling party declared victory over 20 out of 23 states in the November elections, a crushing defeat that the opposition said was rigged from the start.

Election observers from the European Union said the elections were held under better conditions than previous rounds, however, they refused to call the elections free or fair, citing irregularities including how certain candidates were arbitrarily barred from running, and unequal access Other parties to the media, and how the government monitored the voices of state employees.

Maduro expelled them from the country, calling them “spies” who were roaming freely in the country, “spying on … social, economic and political life.”
Woman holding a poster that reads "  Barinas defends her vote "  During a demonstration in Barinas, Venezuela, on November 28, 2021.

But the region’s most surprising democratic collapse came from Nicaragua.

Ortega’s regime has been heading toward authoritarianism for years. Few, however, predicted how quickly the country would turn into what many experts now call a true dictatorship.

Nicaraguan exiles blame Ortega's regime for attacks and threats, as strongman secures fifth term in office

An intense political campaign began in June, when dozens of prominent opposition figures were arrested on vague national security charges. Many of those arrested were either candidates or potential candidates in the presidential elections in Nicaragua.

One by one, Ortega’s regime shut down any credible opposition, paving the way for elections in November that Ortega won by a landslide.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has launched a sustained attack on a number of his country’s democratic institutions.

Earlier this year, he recalled the many dark days of his country’s military dictatorship, after approving a military parade on the same day lawmakers were voting on a controversial change to the country’s voting laws.

While the law was not passed, Bolsonaro has since suggested he would not honor the results of next year’s election, first claiming (without evidence) that the country’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to fraud.

“From what I see … I will not accept any election results that do not announce my victory. I have made my decision,” Bolsonaro said.

Demonstrators wave banners and flags against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a protest against his government on October 2, 2021 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

In Mexico, this populist spirit is all too familiar.

The country calls Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador AMLO for short – and cheers it on as part of his popular appeal standing up for the country’s poor. His argument is that his country’s problems are so innumerable that only he can solve them.

To that end, AMLO has launched a campaign to undermine many of Mexico’s democratic institutions in what some experts say amounts to a zero-sum game taking power.

To the south, in El Salvador, the emergence of the “world’s coolest dictator”, excited many proponents of democracy.

Neb Bokel, the country’s millennial president, may have been joking when he described himself this way on his Twitter page, but his attacks on democratic institutions and the opposition have some worried that he might be the next strongman in Central America.

“The speed … that really surprised us all,” said Ryan Berg, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “what took [Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega] A decade to achieve, through attacks on the independence of the judiciary, the mobilization of the Supreme Court, and the lifting of presidential term limits, Bukele achieved it in ’19.

El Salvador President Neb Bukele gestures during his speech at the closing ceremony of the Bitcoin Latin Conference in Mezata Beach, El Salvador, on November 20, 2021.

awesome job

But it is not only autocratic leaders who are not big fans of democracy. Many people across the region agree with them.

A survey conducted in 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean by Latinobarómetro, a private Chilean NGO, found that less than half (49%) of respondents believed that democracy is the best form of government.

Experts say the reason is simple. Democracy does not work for the people.

“Governments and elites … I mean … in Latin America they have done a terrible job,” said Marta Lagos, Latinobarómetro director.

She said the long-standing issues of violence, corruption and poverty that have plagued many countries across the region have in many cases worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Covid-19 has criticized the region in a huge way – with many governments failing to keep the situation under control.

“You have public health systems that aren’t working, you also have until very recently — a lack of vaccines,” Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center told CNN.

The United Nations says hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean has reached its highest level in two decades

“Lockdown after lockdown has continued to emerge as variables continue to spread – and economic inequality is really very high,” Arnson added, noting that all of these factors contributed to residents’ dissatisfaction with their governments.

The Lationbarómetro survey found that nearly seven in 10 respondents are dissatisfied with how their democracies are working.

Vanderbilt’s LAPOP poll found similar results, with the report concluding that “people’s commitment to democracy appears to be waning because they have become disillusioned with elections and the legitimacy of their elected representatives.”

“If you think about (this) in the very short period (in) the next four years, you might get very worried because things could get much worse,” Lagos said.

But things may not be as bad as they seem, according to the experts CNN spoke to for this article. As 2022 approaches, democracy in the region may be in better shape than you might think.

“Where it’s bad, it’s bad,” Berg said. “But I don’t want to take part in the perfect, bleak school of thought,” he said.

Supporters of Gabriel Borek, the president of Chile, react after the results of the presidential run-off in Santiago, Chile, on Sunday, December 19, 2021.

Hope looms

Lagos argues that despite all the hardships many democracies endure, the notion that at least 49% of people still support democracy as a system of government is an obvious one.

“Why is it 49? I mean, it should be zero,” she said, referring to the social, political and economic difficulties the region has faced.

“There is this clinging to the idea of ​​democracy,” Lagos said. “The idea of ​​democracy is very powerful.”

Other experts agree, saying they are largely surprised that the effects of the pandemic on the region have not dampened popular support for democracy, with pro-regime numbers remaining largely flat year on year in both LAPOP and Latinobarómetro polls.

“I think what the poll shows is that people are not willing to give up democracy per se,” Arnson said. “But they are confident that they will get rid of the power group.”

Chile's President-elect Gabriel Borek gives a public address in Santiago, Chile, on December 19, 2021, after defeating his rival - right-wing candidate Jose Antonio Caste - on the ballot.
A man reads the covers of local newspapers declaring Xiomara Castro the winner of the general election on November 29, 2021 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Countries like Chile and Honduras do just that.

Earlier this month, former left-wing student leader Gabriel Borek, 35, won the presidential run-off, defeating his right-wing opponent, Jose Antonio Caste, a staunch defender of the regime of former dictator General Augusto Pinochet.
And in Honduras, in November, Xiomara Castro won a landslide presidential election, celebrating the left’s return to power 12 years after her husband was ousted in a coup.

“You see the democratic muscle in action, you see we have some kind of institutional backing,” Altman said. “I think we should be optimistic. There are warning signs but at the same time, I think Latin Americans have learned how to use democratic tools to defend ourselves.”

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