Latin America was one of the success stories from the wave of democratic development that accompanied the waning of the Cold War, writes Arch Puddington.*
A region notable for violent insurgencies, military juntas, oligarchies, and caudillo rule underwent a transformation that left practically every country with a freely elected government and a civic environment in which liberties were respected. The lone holdout was Cuba, with its inflexible and increasingly anachronistic Communist dictatorship. But over the past decade governments’ commitment to democratic standards has wavered, in some cases considerably.
The dominant recent story has been the steady decline of a critical mass of countries in the region, a process that has accelerated over the past five years. The countries that have retreated from records of relatively impressive democratic performance can be lumped into three categories:
- Countries governed by regimes of what Jorge Castaneda called the “irresponsible left.” Venezuela under Hugo Chávez is front and center here, followed by Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and, to a lesser degree, Argentina.
- Countries where criminal violence, often driven by drug-trafficking rivalries, has spiraled so completely out of control as to have weakened press freedom, rule of law, and other democratic indicators. Drug-related violence has also retarded the growth of democratic institutions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.
- Countries that have experienced less-than-democratic leadership upheavals. The main examples are Honduras, which has yet to fully recover from the 2009 coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya from office, and Paraguay, where President Fernando Lugo was ousted in an impeachment process that lasted barely 24 hours.
As we see from the following graph, the region’s average aggregate score in Freedom in the World has registered declines in each year between 2007 and 2011, with substantial downgrades in 2007 and 2009. Five countries are largely responsible for the overall regional slippage: Venezuela, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, and Nicaragua.
The record of decline, as set forth by the subcategory trends, provides a revealing picture of the strategy of governments that are either tolerating the erosion of democratic institutions or—more disturbingly—deliberately undermining freedom in order to marginalize potential sources of political opposition. Thus:
- The decline in freedom of association reflects the growing determination of autocratic-leaning leaders to neuter civil society organizations, especially those with political or quasi-political agendas. …
- While opposition political parties have often contributed to their own decline, aggressive actions meant to tilt the field in the regime’s favor represent a threat to electoral competitiveness in a number of Latin American societies.
- The press has become a principal target of left-populist leaders, notably in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Their tactics include a great expansion of state-controlled media, the use of punitive libel laws to silence critics, the abuse of licensing powers to threaten or shut down critical media, and the introduction of antimonopoly laws that force opposition press owners to surrender control of outlets.
Democracy, while under pressure, remains the norm in Latin America. But there is much to deplore in those countries where the “irresponsible left” prevails. Equally disturbing is Hugo Chávez’s integration of the military into the everyday functioning of government, a dangerous move given Latin America’s history of military dictatorship.
Freedom in Latin America is wavering, not in deep decline. But the wavering should concern us all, and especially those who recall a time when the region was synonymous with state violence, political extremism, and injustice.
*Vice President for Research at Freedom House. This is an extract from a longer post at FH’s Freedom at Issue blog.