Latin America's democracy crossroad

Democracy looks strong, but it will be put to the test.

Latin America's string of successful elections from late 2005 to early 2007, accompanied by the greatest region-wide economic boom in decades, instilled justifiable feelings of pride and optimism about the state of democracy in the region.

However, in this new era of uncertainty, democratic institutions will be put to the test. The effects of the global economic slowdown are already visible in most countries in the region. As Latin America prepares for the new challenge, what is the state of regional democracy?

The results of the 2009 edition of Freedom House's annual publication, Freedom in the World, illustrate once again the relative strength of freedom and democracy in the region. On our scale, 25 of the Western Hemisphere's 35 nations are classified as "free." Nine more are in the "partly free" category, and only Cuba, despite slight improvements in 2008, remains "not free."

Judging by the survey's results, however, democracy remains vulnerable in some important respects. Overall, the rule of law remains the area of gravest deficiencies. The unceasing violence in Mexico was certainly 2008's most lurid headline-grabber, but other countries – including Venezuela and a number of Central American and Caribbean states – also witnessed increasing crime rates.

In many states, corruption and lack of transparency also distort policymaking and remain a huge drag on improved state efficiency. Moreover, progress on correcting the social exclusion of poor and minority groups has been insufficient in recent years.

The vibrancy of democracy also varies considerably from country to country. Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Chile are considered models for the developing world. Paraguay experienced an enormously positive change with Fernando Lugo's defeat of the ossified Colorado party regime, while Bolivia and Ecuador moved forward with constitutional reforms that, if approved (in Bolivia's case) and implemented in a spirit of fairness and tolerance, could reinvigorate those countries' historically dysfunctional democracies.

Conversely, Nicaragua, where the centralization and arbitrary exercise of power under President Daniel Ortega increased considerably throughout the 2008, is the country where democracy has declined most markedly.

Colombia featured some high-profile successes – the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and other hostages from FARC guerrillas foremost among them – but also experienced a rise in internal displacement and extrajudicial executions as well as increased institutional uncertainty over the prospect of a potential third term for popular president Alvaro Uribe. The campaign for Venezuela's state and local elections, in which the government disqualified multiple opposition candidates and abused state resources during the campaign, exemplified the Chávez administration's mastery of the art of free but unfair elections. Mexicans were deeply troubled by their government's seeming incapacity to combat the wave of drug-related violence.

While these developments were unwelcome, from a broad perspective democracy appears to be strong, especially in comparison with the dictatorship-laden region of the 1970s. Notably, free elections and the rotation of power are now customary in the region, with only a few exceptions. Political pluralism is also in good condition; while party fragmentation and excessive polarization are concerns, outright repression is rare. Press freedom faces important challenges, but public debate generally remains spirited. Perhaps most important, civilian control over militaries remains strong.

Ideally, reform efforts would have gained greater momentum during the economic boom. Health and education improvements remain woefully necessary. So are reforms to sustain and broaden growth, including rule of law reforms to increase legal fairness and predictability and lower security costs.

As the downturn hits, policymaker attention will prioritize anticrisis planning over institutional reform, and it is certainly conceivable that democratic rights could be seriously stressed should problems deepen or persist for several years. Citizens and leaders in the Andean countries and Central America, where democracy is most fragile and polarized, will be particularly tested. Nonetheless, any pessimism should be tempered by the knowledge that in comparison with past economic crises, the region enters the storm with a sturdy democratic base.

Jake Dizard is a Latin America analyst and managing editor of Countries at the Crossroads at Freedom House.

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