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A Case for Optimism in Latin America

A Case for Optimism in Latin America

On the International Day of Democracy, taking stock of where democracy is making gains around the world.

Casey Cagley, Antonio Garrastazu

In his historic speech to the British Parliament in 1982, President Ronald Reagan observed that “democracy is not a fragile flower; still it needs cultivating.” As we mark the International Day of Democracy this week, it is important to take stock of where democracy is going right and wrong around the world. In Latin America, despite many challenges, there is still a great deal of progress worth celebrating.

This is not to suggest that the region’s democratic backsliding isn’t a problem. Democracy is in decline and under attack: governments are undermining democratic institutions from Mexico, throughout Central America, to the Andes and beyond. Populations demonstrate disturbingly high tolerance for authoritarianism and foreign authoritarian actors are capitalizing on gross discontent with social and economic conditions, further hastening democratic backsliding. But it is important to note that despite these challenges, the Western Hemisphere remains one of the most democratic regions on earth.

Outright dictatorships like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are still an exception in the region, not the norm. While these regimes may get diplomatic reprieves from ideological allies such as Brazil’s Lula or Colombian Vice President Francia Marquez, the leaders of other regional powers such as Chilean President and fellow left-winger Gabriel Boric, Paraguayan President Santiago Peña, and Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou have been outspoken opponents of these despots. That political leaders still feel compelled to speak out against atrocities committed by governments in the region is not only worth recognizing but celebrating.

Even in highly fragile democracies, elections can deliver surprises. Guatemala’s electoral and judicial authorities did nearly everything possible to preclude serious challengers to the status quo. But after four serious opposition candidates were eliminated, anti-corruption campaigner Bernardo Arévalo and his Semillaparty snuck by the government’s defenses and in a crowded field took second place, earning a spot in the August 20 runoff, which he won in a landslide.

Observers rightly worried about last year’s elections in Brazil and Colombia given the disinformation, violence, and vote-buying endemic in both systems. Yet voters in both countries exercised their democratic mandate: the former avoided a much-feared coup attempt, and the latter delivered a historic win for the country’s first left-wing president. Similarly, Argentina has seen major course corrections in recent elections, and the shock victory of Javier Milei in last month’s primary election has upset the status quo and injected new life into the political process.

Beyond these recent headline elections in big countries, democracy carries on in most of the region. Chile’s constitutional reform process has been halting and messy, but advances nonetheless. More women than ever are participating in politics around the region, with a record number represented in national parliaments, and Mexico is poised to have its first woman president next year. In sixteen of the last seventeen presidential elections, all but one incumbent or their party lost—a function of prevailing anti-incumbent sentiments, perhaps, but nonetheless an important illustration that citizens still have a choice in most cases.

Most citizens and their political leaders recognize the need to preserve these hard-won gains. For example, Costa Rica teamed up with the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Panama to launch the Alliance for Development in Democracy with the explicit objective of strengthening democracy. And while polls show increasing tolerance for authoritarianism, especially among young people, Latin American youths are also at the front lines to safeguard democracy and liberty. From Guatemalans recovering their state from the so-called pacto de corruptos, to Bolivians striking in the aftermath of fraudulent elections, to Cubans rising up in the face of so much repression to demand change in July 2021, young people are leading the fight for democracy across the region.

Without a doubt, this is a time of deep frustration and turbulence in Latin American politics. Traditional parties and party systems are being toppled and authoritarian populism seems to be on the march. Corruption, insecurity, and economic stagnation reign in many countries, and the need for stronger, more transparent, and participatory democratic institutions is as urgent as ever. But crucially, this will build upon solid foundations that are a credit to the people of Latin America and their commitment to a democratic future.

Antonio Garrastazu is the senior director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. Casey Cagley is an advisor for Strategy and Innovation for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute.

Image: Then-Guatamalan presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, holds up his voting ballot. (X:@BArevalodeLeon)

DemocracyLatin AmericaPolitical Philosophy