Democracy: how and where are we going?

“They treat us like criminals, but we are saving democracy”. These were the words a Brazilian woman told a reporter after being arrested for breaking into the Brazilian Congress. With that sentence, perhaps without knowing it, that woman summarized a narrative of political post-truth, which prevails in our region, but also, and here is the paradox, a truth about democracy: its constant dispute.

The various crises that have occurred since World War II have opened gaps that democracy, as a form of government, has been unable to resolve. It is not by chance that this Brazilian woman justified herself by arguing that her actions defended democracy because, as for many citizens in the region, defending a form of democracy that solves those gaps is more important than ever.

Consequently, the current dispute is framed in a state of decline in democracies worldwide. Year by year since 2008, we are regressing in the basic indicators of good democratic health. It is no coincidence that last year’s World Values Survey, conducted in 77 countries, showed that the percentage of respondents who would support a leader who did not have to contend with their Congress or other political forces was 52%, while in 2009 it was 38%. So, it should come as no surprise that, of those surveyed, less than half (47.4%) responded that democracy is important to their society.

For its part, in its most recent report on the global state of democracy, International IDEA reinforces a trend it has been measuring for the past five years, namely that the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double those that are consolidating as democracies. Citizens are voting for solutions, not for debates, rights, or freedoms.

In this global context, Latin America also shows a trend toward decline (despite being one of the regions with the most democratic systems). To illustrate this situation, International IDEA highlights, among other issues, the institutional setbacks in Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala; fake news and disinformation as catalysts of polarization; the increase in mass protests due to the ineffectiveness of social programs; and the consolidation of autocracies in Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have joined Cuba.

Unfortunately, these findings are not surprising, but at the same time, they invite us to question ourselves about the actions and responsibilities for their deepening or solution. We have the advantage of being aware of the crisis and, consequently, of reflecting on issues and problems that are uncomfortable but urgent.

Are Latin American governments concerned about the welfare of the people or about their continuity in power? The “new progressive wave” will be judged either by the strength it has had for breaking hegemonic pacts or for having made up its social policies in pink, green, or purple. We must be alert to find out whether the disturbances in Brazil and Peru are symptoms of the same regional disease or whether they are temporary events in each country. But, above all, we should be concerned that polarization has turned us into absolute enemies.

How is democracy doing? Falling. The paradox resulting from this context of crisis is worrying (but fascinating as a subject of study) because, as that Brazilian citizen warned, today defending democracy seems to imply weakening its foundations in order to gain a monopoly on its duty and definition. Our current dispute on democracy has a heroic dimension in which “saving democracy” implies symbolic and material violence that we may not know how to avoid.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva

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