In a region long known for populism and polarization, 2018 will be a critical year for Latin America. By the end of the year, 2 out of 3 citizens will have voted for a president. Its people, who spend more internet time on social media than those in any other region, feel more empowered than ever. And a regionwide corruption scandal has created strong demands for transparency and accountability.
The year’s first election, held in Costa Rica last Sunday, shows what is possible. Latin America’s oldest and most stable democracy held a clean vote with the kind of campaigning that, while hard fought, revealed a wide tolerance for differing views. Carlos Alvarado Quesada, a former government minister and a novelist who promises inclusive government, won handily against a one-issue social conservative, evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz.
The dark side of social media – false reports and slander – were more evident than ever during the campaign, but Costa Ricans preferred to vote based on qualities of leadership and big issues such as government debt and inequality. The winner’s running mate, Epsy Campbell Barr, will be the first black female vice president in the Americas.
“We must not forget that differences in opinion are part of a plural society,” wrote La Nacion newspaper columnist Juan Carlos Hidalgo after the vote. “Instead of demonizing divergence, one must know how to tolerate it.”
Democracy may be under siege worldwide but recent elections in Latin America, which came out of a period of military dictatorship only three decades ago, show there may be no turning back. On April 13, leaders of the Western Hemisphere will gather for a summit in Peru under the theme “Democratic Governance against Corruption.” In a show of democratic solidarity, Venezuela’s president has been disinvited from the summit because of his country’s authoritarianism.
Through the region’s decades of political upheavals, Costa Rica has reminded other Latin Americans of what democracy is all about. When the people rule, rather than demagogues and military generals, a country can enjoy freedom and prosperity.