Latin America’s democratic gem

A new report shows why Uruguay is an icon of political virtues in a regional prone to autocratic, populist leaders.

A boy waves a Uruguayan national flag as he plays on the seafront of Montevideo, Uruguay.

At a time when the world’s democracies are on a back foot against a pandemic and creeping authoritarianism, a new study finds hope in Latin America. The reason is a surprising exception in the region’s political landscape.

Latin America’s second-smallest country, Uruguay, remains a vibrant democracy in a continent still prone to the force of autocratic, populist leaders. That country’s people show a growing trust in stable democratic institutions relatively free of corruption.

“Corruption has historically been a hurdle for Latin America, undermining growth, democracy and governance, and violating the rights of millions,” states the report, “The 2020 Capacity to Combat Corruption Index.” Uruguay ranked highest in protecting judicial independence, upholding strong democratic processes, and encouraging robust investigative journalism.

Notice that last point. The private sector, such as media, business, and civil society, plays a crucial role against corruption. In Uruguay, a sense of self-governance has made a big difference. In 2016, after journalists uncovered a scandal involving the vice president, the country’s anti-corruption agency conducted a probe that led to his resignation.

Voters there are both well-informed and organized to send corrective signals to leaders. Last December, for example, discontent over rising crime and economic drift resulted in the election ouster of the center-left Broad Front coalition. But voters also sent a signal to the center-right National Party when it took over in March. Elected by a tight margin, it has been careful so far to avoid a sharp partisan swing, blending economic reform with its predecessor’s social justice agenda.

“There are no significant anti-democratic actors in Uruguay, whether on the extreme left or right, and when such an actor publicly appears, they are immediately condemned and isolated,” according to BTI, a global think-tank on democratic change.

Uruguay also stands out in its global outreach. Among Latin American countries, it provides by far the largest number of United Nations peacekeepers.

Like other parts of the world, Latin America shows signs of “democratic fatigue.” While the region has the highest levels of election participation in the world (voting is mandatory in some countries), overall trust in political parties is now a low 13%. A wave of anti-corruption efforts a few years ago has either stalled or reversed. The Brookings Institution says the region is marred by “reduced space for civic action, weakened democratic checks and balances, high levels of inequality and attacks on human rights.”

That makes the political dynamics in Uruguay both an exception and a model. With the fallout of the pandemic undermining public confidence from one country to the next, the temptation to fall back on personality-based politics in Latin America may rise. Uruguay shows the reasons not to.

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