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The state of democracy in Latin America

The Summit for Democracy 2023 is being held virtually on March 29 and 30. This is its second edition after Joe Biden’s initiative in his 2020 election campaign. In addition to the United States, the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia are co-sponsors. This is an excellent excuse to reflect on the state of democracy in Latin America, especially when different reports on the state of democracy in the world have been published recently with data collected over the course of 2022. These are consolidated efforts that seek to measure progress or setbacks within each country and to establish comparisons between states. Thanks to the reports, societies and political elites can be aware of their situation and, if necessary, act accordingly, and through the measurements, it is possible to advance the knowledge of politics.

Quantifying the state of politics through measurements is an unquestionable advance in knowledge, a practice that has been commonplace for a century in different disciplines of the social sciences. In economics, today there is no doubt about the validity and usefulness of the indices that measure the wealth of a nation through the term “gross domestic product” or those that calculate the rise in prices and evaluate the cost of living. In sociology, inequality, birth, and death rates are commonplace, as is the intelligence quotient in psychology. These are necessary approximations for a better understanding of reality and have been accompanied in the field of political science by similar efforts in the last two decades.

Freedom House, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the Bertelsmann Foundation (BTI), the V-DEM Project, among others, are institutions that have been specializing in the evaluation of the democratic performance of countries. Based on a conceptual framework solidly rooted in academia around the always complex notion of democracy, the studies carried out operationalize it through indicators that are feasible to assess on scales. Thus, the works of Norberto Bobbio, Hanna Arendt, Robert Dahl, Giovanni Sartori, and Juan J. Linz, among a large group of intellectuals, are used by experts to periodically calibrate the level reached by the different variables. At the same time, different types of scales of varied origin are also used, such as electoral participation percentages, official schooling, and unemployment rates, and survey data measuring habits and values, among others.

All this makes quite sophisticated approaches to democracy feasible, conceived then as a type of regime based on the rule of law and in which public office holders accede to power as a result of periodic, free, and fair electoral processes. But the analysis does not stop there, since it can be complemented by a vision that values the level of equality existing in the country in question, the real participation of the people in the decisions that affect their lives, and the possibility of achieving them through deliberation, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness of the policies implemented in terms of their results.

These instruments reach Latin American countries, which are thus observed with a dispassionate look far from the ideological militancy of each one. Their meticulous comparative analysis, according to the institutions that published their work for 2022, allows for three types of approaches that provide headlines of the state at issue.

First, the enormous heterogeneity of the region is once again noted. Combining the published reports, which have a remarkable degree of unity, the countries can be classified into five groups according to their degree of democracy (other sources indicate the quality of their democracy). Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Chile are in the highest place; Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic are in the medium-high degree; in an intermediate position are Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, and Peru; while Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras appear in the medium-low degree; and at the lowest level are Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

Secondly, 2022 turned out to be the worst year in the series of measurements carried out in most countries. For example, the BTI index since 2008 indicates that this was the case except for Colombia, Cuba, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Paraguay — their best years in the series were 2008 for the first three and 2012 and 2014, — respectively. For the EIU index, 2021 and 2022 were the worst years since 2004 for most countries except Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. The longitudinal comparative analysis between 2004 and 2022 shows the smooth positive evolution of Colombia and the gradual involution of Mexico (for the latter index from 6.67 to 5.25), El Salvador (from 6.22 to 5.06), Guatemala (6.07 to 4.68), Honduras (6.25 to 5.15) and Bolivia (5.98 to 4.51). Nicaragua fell from 5.68 to 2.50 and Venezuela from 5.42 to 2.23. Uruguay (8.91), Costa Rica (8.29), and Chile (8.22) reached their highest values in 2022.

Finally, it should be noted that the studies show a marked decline in the average indexes at the global level, but also by region, which only reinforces the idea of the fatigue that plagues democracy in the world and that the virtual summit will undoubtedly have to face. However, the region in which the average democracy index fell the most between 1998 and 2022 was Latin America and the Caribbean, with a decrease of almost ten percentage points, compared to the three points by which it fell in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, and the five points by which it also fell in Eastern Europe.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Otros artículos del autor

Profesor Emérito de la Universidad de Salamanca y de la UPB (Medellín). Últimos libros publicados (2020): “El oficio de político” (2ª ed., Tecnos, Madrid) y coordinado con Mercedes García Montero y Asbel Bohigues (2024): “Elecciones en América Latina: de pandemia y de derrotas (2020-2023)”, (Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales. Madrid)


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