Latin America's Hour of Optimism: On the Results of Latinobarómetro 2010

As has been the case for the past 15 years, Santiago-based polling firm Latinobarómetro has recently released the results of its 2010 survey, spanning 17 Latin American countries, more than 20,000 interviews, and a wide range of topics, from the state of the economy to politics and foreign affairs. At this point, Latinobarómetro has become one of Latin America’s most important sources of self-knowledge, as well as an inevitable reference point in the region’s policy debates. Any short opinion piece will fail to do justice to the wealth of information generated by this edition of the survey. However, I would use the next paragraphs to comment on four particularly salient issues raised by this new batch of results.

The first is the remarkable optimism underscored by the survey. Latin Americans seem to think that they never had it so good. There is plenty of good news in these results, the most important of which conveys the strides democracy has made to become “the only game in town” in Latin America. Today, 61% of Latin Americans prefer democracy to any other political system, up from 54% three years ago. This is the first time that this figure has gone up four consecutive years in Latinobarómetro. Equally noteworthy is the fact that 44% of respondents claim to be satisfied with the way democracy works in their countries, a repeat of the 2009 figure and the highest number since the series began in 1996. While other indicators –including the perception that democracy favors the interest of the wealthy few (60% say it does)—remain problematic, the poll’s findings with regards to democratic attitudes are remarkably positive. As the survey’s report rightly maintains, democratic consolidation is not about huge leaps forward in political attitudes but about the accumulation of small positive changes. While the adoption of a democratic routine in the region is, in many ways, the product of a three-decade long process, it is very clear that the past few years have been crucial in crystallizing this trend. Economic contraction notwithstanding –the 2009 recession caused the region’s GDP to fall 1.9%— since 2003 Latin America has had the best cycle of economic growth in nearly fifty years, one that has pulled more than forty million people out of poverty and thrust them into the middle classes. Even more remarkably, over the past decade, income inequality –the region’s bitter trademark—has fallen in 15 out of 18 Latin American countries, partly due to significant increases in social outlays and the adoption of many innovative policies. Simply put, the combination of sustained economic growth and aggressive social policies, able to make a dent on poverty and inequality, has proven to be a very powerful tonic for democracy. Not only has it bolstered up support for democracy and popular satisfaction with it, but also made democracy more resilient. The last few years have built up a reservoir of political good will that allows democracy to withstand crises –such as the 2009 economic slump—with far greater ease.

Another positive development concerns the region’s sense of progress, the fact that many more people feel that their countries are moving forward (39% today, up from 27% a decade ago). However, here the story is more complicated, for the poll highlights a clear divide between South America, on the one hand, and Central America and Mexico, on the other. South American countries are far more optimistic about the future. Generally speaking, their economies have recovered very well from the global economic crisis and are growing faster than those in the other group. But there is more to this. Rightly or wrongly, South American countries seem to think that they have sorted out their integration into the global economy. They are big providers of raw materials and stand to benefit mightily from Asia’s economic expansion, and they know it. With the exception of Panama, Central America and Mexico still retain unresolved question on how to mitigate their enormous dependence on the U.S. economy, on how to cope with China’s manufacturing competition, and on how to be globally competitive. Add to this the twin issues of violence and organized crime, which afflict them with particular intensity, and these societies have real reasons to remain wary about their future.

The second issue is about political pragmatism and consensus. If the much-hyped talk about Latin America’s turn to the Left was never very compelling, at this point it really makes little sense. What Latinobarómetro 2010 clearly shows is a region that has converged towards the center of the spectrum. A region-wide consensus on what good governance is all about seems to have emerged, and it does not matter much whether candidates hail from the Left or the Right. There is a sort of “Consensus of Brasilia” that contends that good governance is, first, about being elected in free and fair elections; second, it is about paying close attention to macroeconomic equilibriums, and being aware that playing fast and loose with them is a very bad idea; and third, it is about implementing aggressive social policies, able to combat both poverty and inequality.

The admission of all these things amounts to a massive intellectual and political shift in Latin America. Latin American societies are slaying fairly big dragons that have arrested their development for a very long time.

Alas, these are not the only dragons that matter. The question now is whether Latin America will seize the current cycle of optimism and economic expansion to tackle the very difficult tasks that are still pending. Three of them are particularly important:

·  Solving the fiscal question: Outside Brazil, tax revenue in Latin America (18.4% of GDP on average) is just too low to provide for the public goods on which social justice and capitalist accumulation depend;

·  Raising the productivity of economies: This is about improving the region’s dismal situation in the realms of infrastructure, public education and scientific innovation;

· Last but not least, reducing the current, very serious, levels of crime and violence, on which more below.

It is to be hoped that Latin America will take advantage of the current favorable winds to tackle these huge, unresolved issues, and that its societies and political elites will come to certain basic agreements on what needs to be done about them. The region has had many a favorable cycle before, and we, Latin Americans, have too often let them go to waste. Let us hope to break that curse this time around.

The third point is about crime and violence. Crime is the one dark cloud that mars the optimistic outlook conveyed by the survey. Assertions that crime is the region’s most pressing problem have grown five-fold over the past 15 years in Latinobarómetro. The anxieties surrounding crime in Latin America are simply extraordinary. Only 1 in 10 Latin Americans claims not to fear the possibility of being victim of a violent crime. There are plenty of reasons for this. Latin America’s murder rate is more than three times as high as the murder rate for the world as a whole. Moreover, as Latinobarómetro has routinely reported, roughly one third of the region’s population, 200 million people approximately, are victims of a criminal deed, either directly or in their immediate family, every year. This is a social calamity by any standard and one that can only be expected to have political consequences.

A recent study conducted by political scientist José Miguel Cruz, from Vanderbilt University, shows that support for democracy is visibly affected by high perceptions of insecurity as well as by opinions of the government’s success or failure in fighting against crime (José Miguel Cruz, “The impact of violent crime on the political culture of Latin America: The special case of Central America,” in Mitchell Seligson, ed., Challenges to Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean: Evidence from the Americas Barometer 2006-2007, Nashville, LAPOP - Vanderbilt University, 2008). Even more troubling is the finding that Latin Americans cite crime as the problem that could most easily motivate them to justify a coup d’etat. According to Cruz, 47% of the region’s population would be willing to endure a return to authoritarianism, if such a step would help to tackle public insecurity. The threshold for defecting from democracy is lower with insecurity than it is with any other social challenge in the region.

There is no mystery here: people, generally speaking, do prefer dictatorship to chaos. This is not cheap alarmism. Some years ago, Nancy Bermeo, of Oxford University, wrote a very interesting paper that showed that the one consistent factor in the breakdown of democracies in interwar Europe was a widespread perception that public order was unravelling. The dictators who seized control of Europe’s failed democracies in the interwar years were a very diverse lot. What united them all was their promise to restore order (Nancy Bermeo, “Getting mad or going mad? Citizens, scarcity and the breakdown of democracy in interwar Europe”, Center for the Study of Democracy, University of California – Irvine, 1997).

Latin American societies, policy makers and political leaders must heed this warning seriously. This means overcoming the troubling sense of perplexity that one finds throughout the region, i.e. the sense that no one really knows what to do about the challenge of crime. It is, to be fair, a truly vexing problem with multiple causes. But solutions do exist. Latin America itself has recently seen successful crime reduction experiences, particularly at the local level, in places like Bogota and Sao Paulo, which provide very clear clues as to what should be done to turn the situation around. The evidence suggests that successful experiences have rather little to do with the iron-fisted policies that have become a feature of political discourse in the region, especially during campaign cycles. The best instances of crime reduction illustrate that good solutions entail combining “zero tolerance” for crime with “zero tolerance” for social exclusion and marginalization. Latinobarómetro 2010 clearly suggests that, as of today, the issue of crime is, by far, the biggest weakness of democratic consolidation in Latin America.

The fourth issue is about Venezuela and support for democracy. For a few years now, one of the most striking findings of Latinobarómetro has been the sharp increase in support for democracy detected in Venezuela and, also, to a lesser extent, in Bolivia and Ecuador. With 84% of Venezuelans voicing their preference for democracy over any other political system, Venezuela exhibits levels of support for democracy that dwarf even those of nations like Uruguay and Costa Rica, which have historically topped regional results for this indicator. This phenomenon demands more attention than it has received. Whatever misgivings one may have about the political situation in Venezuela, it has to be recognized that the presence of President Hugo Chávez has conferred considerable dynamism to debates on democracy in Latin America. In fact, looking back, one cannot help but to notice the extent to which discussions on democracy and on social policies in Latin America over the past decade have been framed by the Venezuelan experience.

Chávez’s Venezuela has, at times, afforded us a good example, at others, a bad example, at yet others, a consummate warning. The good example comes from recognizing that all these leaders –Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa— paid attention to an unmet demand for political participation and representation from groups in their countries that rightly felt disenfranchised. In all likelihood, it is their success in giving voice to these constituencies that is at the heart of spiking figures of support for democracy. Whatever else we may say about them, these leaders have proven able to bring forth more inclusive democracies, albeit not ones that are very good at checking the exercise of political power. It is here, of course, where good meets bad in the Venezuelan example. Chávez has enriched our democratic debate by reminding us of the simple point that it is not enough to open up the political system and be elected democratically – governing democratically is also essential. This implies respecting checks and balances, freedom of expression, freedom of association and the whole range of civil and political liberties that define democracies worthy of that name. Finally, and perhaps fundamentally, Chávez’s Venezuela has also provided a cautionary tale, one which has been instrumental in convincing Latin American economic elites that they can live, and live very well indeed, with a more moderate, pragmatic and gradualist Left, capable of setting in motion progressive social policies. In short, Chávez has served as a warning to elites that they would be very wise to coexist with Lula and his ilk.  

Latin America’s democrats should thus be careful not to dismiss the legacy of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution outright, because on close inspection its recent contribution to democracy in the region may not have been small at all. In any case, it ought to be borne in mind that the final page of the Venezuelan process has not yet been written, and perhaps the more enlightened aspects of Chávez’s revolution will eventually prevail. Who knows? For someone living through the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution, it would have been difficult to imagine that something positive would come out of all the horror. But here comes to mind the famous quip attributed to Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai, when asked in the 1970s about the effects of the French Revolution. With China’s 4,000 years behind him, Zhou simply replied, “It’s too soon to say.” Perhaps Venezuelans, and Bolivians and Ecuadorians may still end up getting what the great Venezuelan jurist Pedro Nikken has said most people in his country ultimately seek: something more socially advanced than what they once had, but more democratic than what they now have.

I have no particular interest in becoming a cheerleader for Hugo Chávez’s revolution, but will nonetheless share the insight that this year’s Latinobarómetro figures allowed me to glean: namely that, whatever the unsavory aspects of the Venezuelan process, and however paradoxically, the emergence of the “Consensus of Brasilia” in Latin America owes more to Commander Chávez than we usually care to admit.