Poll: Latin Americans' optimism strong, despite concerns about crime, poverty

The annual Latinobarómetro survey found that Latin Americans are more confident in government than Europeans, are worried about crime and the economy, and are not fans of Fidel Castro.

Felipe Dana/AP
Cable cars are seen at the Complexo do Alemao slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Oct. 24. The Complexo do Alemao Cable Railway was inaugurated in July 2011 and have the capacity to transport 30,000 people a day, helping residents shorten their commutes and offering a new route.

Throughout the global financial crisis, concerns about unemployment, and political confrontation including a coup, Latin America remained as a whole optimistic about its progress – underscored, oddly, by a drop in that optimism.

In 2011, as politics and economic troubles have stabilized, Latin Americans' perception of progress fell four points – the first drop in six years. But that may be because so much progress has been made in recent years that expectations and incomes have grown, giving people an opportunity to turn a critical eye to other areas like health care and education, says Latinobarómetro executive director Marta Lagos.

Overall, Latin Americans today support the consolidation of democracy in the region but are less satisfied with a host of policy issues, from the way their taxes are spent to the availability of housing. "As there are higher education levels, there are higher expectations and demands grow," says Ms. Lagos. "It is the growing expectations ... of an already mobilized middle class."

The Latinobarómetro survey, the largest of its kind for measuring attitudes and perceptions in the region over time, has been published annually since 1995, and polls residents of 18 Latin American nations. Among the 2011 poll findings:

  • Confidence in government grew from 19 percent in 2003 to 40 percent in 2011. That is significantly higher than in Europe, where confidence in government stands at just 29 percent.
  • Today the percentage of those who fear unemployment and economic problems has been halved since 2002, dropping from 76 percent to 37 percent.
  • The economy and crime continue to be the top concerns among those surveyed – the latter being the biggest concern in the majority of countries surveyed. Brazil was among the least concerned about crime, just behind Nicaragua. Venezuela is the most concerned.
  • The drop in perceptions of progress fell most precipitously in Chile and Brazil, by 26 and 16 points respectively. Those two countries happen to be considered the most "successful" in the region. But in a positive sign, citizens in both countries are worrying less about crime and the economy; Brazilians now say their nation's top problem is health care, while Chileans cite education as theirs.
  • The poll also measures views of international leaders. On approval ratings for presidents, Barack Obama got the highest points. Cuba's former leader Fidel Castro got the lowest rating.
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