Democracy in Latin America: Miles Traveled and Miles to Go

Kevin Casas-Zamora

Just a few weeks ago, the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), based at Vanderbilt University, released the Americas Barometer 2010. Published every two years since 2002, LAPOP’s survey is the most comprehensive effort to probe political, economic and social attitudes throughout the Western Hemisphere. The latest batch of results distills more than 40,000 interviews made in 26 countries, including the whole of Latin America, most of the Caribbean (with the glaring exception of Cuba), Canada and the United States. The latter is an important difference with respect to other regional surveys, such as Latinobarómetro, exclusively focused on Latin America.

In a fashion resembling Latinobarómetro 2010, whose results I also commented on, the Americas Barometer 2010 brings forth good news about the resilience of democracy in Latin America, though it is admittedly interspersed with nagging questions about its sustainability. Considering that the interviews were carried out during and in the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, the good news was by no means pre-ordained. Indeed, one year ago many observers, including myself, were speculating on the effects that the economic downturn would have for democratic systems in Latin America. Though no one I know predicted a major political devastation or a wholesale reversal to authoritarianism, there were concerns about the real possibility that the crisis would erode the region’s hard won gains in terms of democratic consolidation.

This new survey suggests that, despite problematic findings in a few countries, democracy in Latin America is, in general, as robust as it was two years ago, if not more. While “abstract” support for democracy (i.e. preference for democracy over any other government system) declined very slightly in the Americas, both support for the political system (i.e. “specific” support for democratic institutions in a given context) and satisfaction with democracy grew marginally. This is remarkable. It is not merely that democracy has become “the only game in town” in the Western Hemisphere, but that it is much more resilient than anybody thought. While it is true that for most Latin American countries the Great Recession was far from the worst economic upheaval experienced in the past generation, a regional economic contraction of almost 2% and the interruption of a growth spike that had greatly raised social expectations are not trivial events. That democratic attitudes emerged unscathed from the crisis is the best piece of political news that Latin America has seen in a long time, particularly when coupled with the completion of yet another exemplary continent-wide election cycle. And not just any cycle. This one saw the emergence of two new female presidents in Costa Rica and Brazil, as well as unprecedented opposition victories in El Salvador and Paraguay. This really is Latin America’s finest political hour. 

A cynical observer may of course point out that given Latin America’s terrible political history this doesn’t amount to much. Sadly, there would be more than a grain of truth to such a comment. For the fact is that, amid the justifiable optimism conveyed by the survey, quite a few areas of concern emerge from it. Three of them are of particular consequence.

First, for all the democratic progress, the survey detects that only 29% of the population in the Americas is in the comfort zone where stable democracies thrive, i.e. a situation defined by high levels of support for the political system and high levels of political tolerance. Conversely, a far from insignificant 22% of the population manifests the combination of low support for the system and low political tolerance that makes democracies live dangerously. The rest of the population is somewhere in the middle, displaying deficits in either of the two dimensions. What this means is that approximately 200 million people in the Americas are hostile to the democratic institutions they have or to the basic mores that make them function properly. Even this very serious finding may not convey the whole extent of the problem. For it is indeed very likely that the opinions of the latter group are far more intensely held than those of the former group. At the very least these numbers suggest the existence of a goldmine for the demagogues and populists that are an unfortunate part of the political landscape in societies defined by high inequality and outrageous levels of violence, such as those in Latin America.

Second, the survey consistently found that the perception of governmental economic performance and opinions about the president are among the most important factors underlying democratic attitudes in Latin America. Both variables are statistically significant to explain support for democracy, support for the political system, and satisfaction with democracy. This is as interesting as it is unnerving. For what this implies is that two of the crucial factors that explain the resilience of democratic attitudes are highly volatile. These results suggest that a lot of people in the Americas appear to like democracy because they are fond of their current government or president. Yet, we know well that public opinion can be terribly fickle when it comes to judging governments and leaders.

The more interesting question is why opinions of the government’s and the president’s performance have come to matter so much to explain support for democracy as a whole in the Americas. Part of the answer is clearly inherent in the nature of the presidential system –prevalent in the region—, an institutional arrangement in which politics largely revolves around the presidential figure. To this we must add the impact of television, which gives visibility to leaders rather than parties and institutions, and hence turns political debates into personality contests. All this is straightforward and, in the case of television, is happening more or less everywhere.

Yet, I suspect that the sheer consistency and intensity of this finding in the Americas is related to the very low opinions that citizens have of other critical representative institutions, such as political parties and congresses, a low regard that the Americas Barometer confirms. Even in a region riddled with law enforcement inefficacy, corruption and brutality, the national police (46.9 on a 0 to 100 scale) and the judiciary (46.5), are more trusted than Congress (45.2) and political parties (35.2). Levels of trust in the latter, in particular, trail by a long margin those enjoyed by any other institution. The truth is that people in Latin America care very little about parties and congresses, and expect even less from them. What this survey seems to be saying is that citizens in Latin America support the political system and feel represented by it to the extent that they perceive that the president and the government deliver tangible benefits to them.

This is risky. When parties and congresses are endowed with greater legitimacy, democratic systems have an extra layer of protection against the reversals of fortune of governments and presidents. The citizenry’s demand for representation and accountability as well as their expectations for a functioning political system are shared by a broader range of political actors, in a way that makes the system more resilient to the faults and shortcomings of any one of them. This is obviously better for the sake of democratic stability.

Third, as in other opinion polls, crime and insecurity emerge in the Americas Barometer 2010 as very serious obstacles for democratic consolidation. While some of the national crime victimization figures provided by the survey appear counterintuitive (showing, for instance, that twice as many people are victims of crime in Ecuador and Peru as in Honduras), the 31% victimization rate detected by the survey for the region as a whole is in fact exactly the same figure yielded for Latin America by Latinobarómetro 2010. This number is twice as high as the average rate detected in thirty developed countries by the International Crime Victimization Survey in 2005. Moreover, the Americas Barometer shows that for eleven countries in Latin America where this question has been consistently asked, the victimization rate has grown almost 50% since 2004.

The deleterious political effects of both crime victimization and perception of insecurity are extensive. According to the results of this survey, both variables visibly and negatively affect support for the political system, levels of interpersonal trust, and support for the rule of law. They make people less likely to be in the comfort zone for democracy (i.e. where high support for political system and high tolerance are robust). Interestingly, the real danger here is less that people in Latin America would be willing to support a dictatorship to solve the security problems. Given the generally low level of support for authoritarian regimes detected in the region, this is in fact doubtful. What is clear from the data, however, is that as more citizens experience crime and society grows more fearful, they are more willing to accommodate a cavalier attitude towards the rule of law. The survey unequivocally shows this. It also shows that in the eleven countries for which there are repeated observations –which include Mexico and all of Central America, where the security situation has ostensibly deteriorated in the past five years—support for the rule of law has decreased since 2004. The clear and present danger posed by crime and insecurity to democracy in Latin America is less about potential democratic breakdowns than about the hollowing out of the rule of law.

The signs of this are unmistakable. The regional debate on security has come to prominently feature vociferous pledges to confront insecurity with iron-fisted tactics, that is, with methods that make intensive use of state coercion, in ways characterized by a sense of impatience, if not disdain, for basic human rights. The Latin American population – as frightened as it is eager for public order– is increasingly heading as well as rewarding those loud calls at the polls. This is unfortunate, for the track record exhibited by “iron-fisted” solutions to crime is indeed poor. The recent experiences of both Honduras and El Salvador offer a poignant reminder of this. Despite decade-long repressive efforts to quell spiraling crime rates, both countries had the dubious distinction of topping the world ranking of homicide rates in 2009.

We should beware of soapbox preachers and quack politicians peddling iron-fisted policies to solve Latin America’s security plight. The “iron fist” is an attractive mirage that almost always fails to reduce crime rates but never fails to undermine basic civil rights. The only sustainable way to succeed in the struggle against crime involves implementing effective strategies for social prevention and deepening Latin America’s commitment to furthering human development, reducing inequality, and expanding the opportunities available to young people. The recent positive experiences of places like Bogota and Sao Paulo suggest that balancing ”zero tolerance” for crime with ”zero tolerance” for social exclusion offers a way forward even in dire circumstances.

There are myriad other findings in the Americas Barometer 2010 worth commenting on. For instance, the fact that greater interest in politics makes people more likely to be convinced democrats, thereby giving us an extra reason to counter the dangerous notion that politics is irrelevant; the striking finding that the countries with the weakest states, such as Haiti and Guatemala, seem to develop the most vibrant civil societies; the signs that one of the youngest, most important and, in some ways, most sophisticated democracies in the region, Mexico, exhibits worryingly feeble democratic attitudes; and so on and so forth. But it is impossible to do justice to all of them here. Americas Barometer 2010 is nothing short of a treasure for social scientists in Latin America and beyond.

It is a treasure that gives us, Latin Americans, a sense of achievement and a sense of concern in equal doses; that gives us a true measure of what a long way the region has come politically in the recent past, and just how long a way it still has to go.