You are here

Latin America's beleaguered democracies

Jul 13,2023 - Last updated at Jul 13,2023

NEW YORK — Threats to democracy in Latin America are nothing new. The emergence of authoritarian populism in the region has eroded democratic norms and institutions, and illiberal politicians seeking to bolster their power have only hastened their decline.

But more worrisome is the spread of such behaviour to at-risk democracies. Even in countries with strong institutions, recently elected left-of-center governments have struggled to execute their agendas. All signs point to an alarming rise in anti-democratic sentiment, and a brief examination of recent political developments (excluding the exceedingly complex case of Mexico) suggests that challenges to democratic governance will likely intensify.

Not surprisingly, Latin Americahave embraced increasingly repressive tactics. Ahead of next year’s elections, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has effectively reshuffled the country’s electoral council: following the mass resignation of officials linked to the ruling party, a committee featuring Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, will select the council’s new members. His government also disqualified opposition leader María Corina Machado from running for president.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega has disregarded a resolution from the Organisation of American States urging the country to cease human-rights violations, release political prisoners, and respect religious freedoms (his regime has propagated a years-long crackdown on the Catholic Church). The country also held talks with Iran earlier in the year about bolstering military cooperation. While this continued slide into autocracy is nothing new, it has heralded the weakening of democracy across the region.

In “flawed” democratic regimes, such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, things have taken a turn for the worse. Several opposition candidates were banned ahead of Guatemala’s presidential election in June, and a court later postponed the official publication of the first-round results. Honduran President Xiomara Castro has adopted neighbouring El Salvador’s hardline anti-gang tactics, including the mass detention of alleged gang members and the suspension of some constitutional rights. Most troubling is President Nayib Bukele’s decision to run for reelection in El Salvador, in clear violation of the country’s constitution.

Likewise, Peru’s political imbroglio drags on, exposing the government’s dysfunction. After a bungled coup attempt last year, former president Pedro Castillo was jailed, along with other former Peruvian presidents, and is awaiting trial. Dina Boluarte, Castillo’s vice president, was sworn into office and initially called for early elections, but recently announced that she will remain in power until 2026. If recent history is any indication, Boluarte will likely end up in prison, increasing the temptation to rule with an iron fist (the United Nations condemned her government’s deadly repression of demonstrators in early 2023).

Most troubling are the difficulties facing relatively new governments in Brazil, Chile and Colombia, which came to power with a desire to implement bold social reforms, a strong commitment to democratic rule, and respect for fiscal rigor.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in particular, has struggled to pass his economic and social agenda through a hostile and divided congress. This is partly because of Brazil’s near-miss in January, when former president Jair Bolsonaro’s four-year term, a far-right nightmare, culminated in the storming of government buildings in Brasília by his supporters. Revelations of high-level military complicity in the insurrection are emerging, and Brazil’s electoral court has banned Bolsonaro from seeking office until 2030 because of false claims he made about the voting system in the months before the election. Perversely, the longer the government appears gridlocked, the greater the chance that extremist forces will regroup behind another anti-democratic candidate.

In Chile, where the president is limited to a single four-year term, Gabriel Boric is beginning to look like a lame duck, owing to the limit. Although a new constitution will most likely be approved in a referendum by the end of the year (the first draft was rejected in 2022), Boric’s administration has been marred by electoral defeats, congress’s rejection of his tax reform, a corruption scandal in the housing ministry, and an uneven, albeit principled, approach to foreign affairs. This creates an opening for another far-right populist, José Antonio Kast, who lost to Boric in 2021 but is currently leading the polls, partly because a law-and-order hysteria has gripped one of Latin America’s safest countries. As the 50th anniversary of the coup that overthrew president Salvador Allende approaches, the prospects for Chilean democracy appear dim.

The situation in Colombia is similar: a promising left-wing president, with an ostensible majority in congress and plans to pursue tax, health-care, pension and labour reforms, suddenly finds himself paralysed, attacked from all sides and with scant support in congress. While there does not appear to be an anti-democratic drift in Colombia, President Gustavo Petro’s insistence on taking his agenda to the streets may well unleash an authoritarian response from the country’s conservatives. In a traditionally conservative society, that could prove to be a majority.

Like Colombia, Argentina is faring somewhat better, but just barely. Presidential elections will be held in October, with mandatory primaries on August 13. Several of the important candidates are worrisome. Libertarian Javier Milei, an eccentric, radical economist who wants to abolish the central bank and dollarise the economy, is attempting to break the Peronist lock on the presidency and could make it to a run-off. He may have authoritarian leanings, as is true of former security minister Patricia Bullrich, a hardline candidate best known for her tough-on-crime agenda. Sergio Massa, the Peronist candidate and current economy minister, has overseen a nearly year-long economic slump and is not likely to pose much of a challenge to his rivals.

For years now, polls have shown diminishing support for democratic rule in Latin America. Fragile economic conditions, new post-pandemic social demands, and polarised, distrustful electorates are fueling a politics of backlash that is likely to intensify threats to democracy in the region in the coming years.


Jorge G. Castañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico, is a professor at New York University and the author of “America Through Foreign Eyes” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

46 users have voted.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.