By Jorge G Castañeda and Carlos Ominami (*), NEW YORK – The best way to safeguard democracy in Latin America is to build strong welfare states. But since this is a medium- to long-term project, meeting the short-term threat of authoritarian populism will require more immediate solutions.
Recent years have not been good ones for democracy in Latin America. Despite being home to just 8.4% of the world’s population, the region accounted for 26% of total COVID-19 deaths (as of last December), and in 2020, it experienced a fall in GDP twice as steep as the global average, with tens of millions of people pushed into poverty. Just as the recovery got underway, Russia launched its war against Ukraine – dealing another blow to Latin America’s economy and political stability.
What separates democracies from autocracies is the ability to maintain the rule of law and hold the powerful to account. Regardless of the outcome, the trial of Donald Trump – the first of any US president – could one day be remembered as a turning point in the battle for democracy, in the US and abroad.
Starting in the mid-1980s, following a long period dominated by military dictatorships, Latin America experienced a democratic renaissance. But its score in the Democracy Index, produced annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), has been declining for seven years. And popular perceptions have declined along with it: Latinobarómetro reports that, from 2010 to 2019, support for democracy across Latin America fell from m63% to 49%.
While this figure exceeded 60% in Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, these are the only three Latin American countries that the EIU does not label “hybrid regimes,” “authoritarian regimes,” or “flawed democracies.” But even here, there are disturbing trends. For example, while Chile regained the status of “full democracy” in the EIU’s index in 2022, Latinobarómetro finds that only 2% of Chileans would agree. A whopping 53% consider their country a “democracy with major problems.”
But perhaps the clearest indication of Latin America’s democratic decline has been the proliferation of authoritarian populism. Unlike the military dictators of the past, authoritarian populists – from Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo in Nicaragua to Nayib Bukele in El Salvador – use democratic structures for anti-democratic purposes.
Mexico offers a good example of this phenomenon. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has pursued reforms aimed at weakening trust in electoral authority – the very basis of democracy. The EIU now considers Mexico to be a “hybrid regime.” And Mexico is not alone: today, the EIU considers eight Latin American countries to be ruled by hybrid regimes, up from three in 2008.
These are illiberal democracies, not outright dictatorships, and more countries are at risk of joining them. In Chile, the far-right presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, who identifies with former dictator Augusto Pinochet, won 44% of the vote in the 2021 election, and may well be highly competitive in the next one. In populist Argentina, would-be authoritarians have gained ground within the main opposition bloc, and a new outsider, Javier Milei, is winning support with a populist nationalist appeal couched in libertarianism.
The sharp rise in authoritarian populism in Latin America reflects what is known as “democracy fatigue” – or, more specifically, “democratic frustration.” Major segments of the region’s population – not least the middle class – are fed up with successive governments’ failure to tackle social and economic problems, including high crime rates, soaring inflation, low salaries, inadequate education and health services, scant pensions, and precarious and overcrowded transportation.
Authoritarian populists thrive in such a context, as they promote simple solutions that are often popular in the short term. Bukele’s approval rating has soared above 80%, thanks to his use of mass incarceration to rein in gang violence. But they do not generally provide lasting solutions – at least not without eroding democratic structures and principles.
At the same time, lofty rhetoric and vague promises cannot preserve democracy on their own. Delivering concrete solutions to concrete problems is essential. Here, the construction of effective welfare states in Northern Europe remains paradigmatic.
In fact, the countries that rank the highest on the EIU’s Democracy Index – Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark – all have particularly strong social-safety nets. We at Alternativa Latinoamericana – a representative group of Latin American intellectuals and political leaders who have been working since 2020 to formulate a proposal on how to strengthen democracy in the region – are convinced that Latin America must follow suit, building strong welfare states.
But this is a medium- to long-term project, requiring leaders to overcome major obstacles, as the recent experience of Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Chilean President Gabriel Boric has shown. To hold off the immediate threat of authoritarian populism, it is also imperative to devise “fast democratic deliverables” – inventive interventions that can bring tangible results quickly.
One example – which can be replicated, adjusting for local needs – is Bolsa Família. Introduced in 2003, during Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s previous term in office, this “conditional cash-transfer program” offered benefits to households in exchange for actions supporting their ability to escape poverty, such as immunization and school attendance for children. The authoritarian-populist President Jair Bolsonaro – whom Lula defeated in last year’s election – renamed the program and expanded its coverage and benefits, but eliminated some conditionalities.
Another model is Argentina’s “Asignación universal por hijo o hija” – a monthly sum paid for each child under 18 years of age when their parents are unemployed, have informal jobs, or are domestic service workers. Likewise, Uruguay’s National Care System strengthens social protection for dependent people over age 65, people with severe disabilities, and children under the age of three. Chile’s Universal Guaranteed Pension is also worth emulating elsewhere.
But it is in the realm of security and law enforcement that progress is most urgently needed. In countries across Central and South America, the middle classes and leading economic sectors are clamoring for a reduction in violent crime and delinquency. Devising short-term solutions that uphold human and constitutional rights will be no easy feat. But without progress on this front, threats to the region’s democracies will continue to grow. (Project Syndicate)
(*) Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is a professor at New York University and the author of America Through Foreign Eyes (Oxford University Press, 2020). Carlos Ominami , is a former Minister of Economy of Chile