The prospects for democracy in Latin America in 2022

Dinorah Azpuru

7 mins - 7 de Enero de 2022, 13:40

Of the 19 Latin American countries, 12 were invited to the December Summit for Democracy convened by U.S. President Joe Biden. However, seven countries were not invited. At the beginning of a new year and after an intense electoral cycle in the region in 2021, it is worth asking what is the state of democracy in Latin America.

Scholars who study democracy know that the very concept of democracy has multiple meanings that emphasize various aspects. One of the most accepted definitions is the one based on Robert Dahl's concept of polyarchy, which has eight components that emphasize inclusion and competition to attain power and is generally associated with the concept of electoral democracy. In addition to the eight components of electoral democracy, the more thorough concept of liberal democracy requires a strong rule of law, equality before the law and the protection of civil liberties, judicial independence, and an effective system of checks and balances. Figure 1 shows that third-wave democracies in Latin America have made further progress in the components of an electoral democracy than in those associated with liberal democracy.

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On the opposite side of democracy are countries with authoritarian regimes, which can also be of two types: dictatorships (authoritarian regimes that do not meet the requirements of a liberal democracy, and not even the competition requirement of an electoral democracy), and electoral-authoritarian regimes (which hold façade elections, supposedly competitive, in which the governing party is guaranteed a favorable result).

The aggregate democracy indicators compiled annually by organizations such as  V-Dem, Freedom House, The Economist, and International IDEA, can give an overview of the state of democracy in the Latin American region. It is important to  note that indicators  may  have limitations. One of the biggest drawbacks is  that each organization uses different  criteria to build its democracy index. V-Dem uses the components that are closest to the academic discussion regime types. The eight components of Dahl's polyarchy are included in the V-Dem Electoral Democracy Index, while the most advanced level of democracy is measured through the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index. At the other extreme, The Economist index includes criteria related to social policy and political culture—among other things—that do not adhere to the strict academic definition of democracy. At the end of the day, each organization has decided to include different things, and, in fact, the only component included in all indicators is the requirement for free and fair elections.

Despite the differences in the methodology and components used to construct each democracy index, it is important asking whether they produce dissimilar results for the countries of the Latin American region. Table 1 shows a comparison of the most recent results for Latin America.

Figure 2 shows the distribution of different Latin American countries in two of the indicators, the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index and The Economist Democracy Index.


Although there is no room in this article to discuss the results of Table 1 (and Figure 2) in detail, it is important to highlight a few points:
  • There is coincidence in all indices regarding the three most democratic countries in Latin America, although in different order (Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica).
  • There is also agreement in all the indices regarding the three least democratic countries in Latin America, although in different order (Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba).
  • Latin American countries score much higher on the Electoral Democracy Index than on the Liberal Democracy Index. This means that electoral processes and elements of a procedural democracy have developed much more in third wave Latin American democracies, while elements of a liberal democracy remain weak.
  • The three countries considered authoritarian in all indices (Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba) were excluded from the Summit for Democracy. But the other four countries that were excluded  (Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) score low on most indices  (with the exception of the Electoral Democracy Index for El Salvador and Guatemala). The exclusion of these latter countries from the Summit is due to the democratic erosion suffered in 2021, particularly actions against judicial independence.
  • The analysis of each country can be done by seeing if it is above or below the regional average. In general, the regional average in all indices is low.
To what extent can these indices be expected to change in 2022? Most new indices are publicly presented in the first quarter of the year.

The 2021 election cycle in Latin America was intense and the way elections unfolded in various countries may also influence the indicators in 2022. For example, Honduras’ scores are likely to improve slightly given the high turnout and transparency in the November 28 election. It is possible that the democracy indices of Ecuador and Argentina will also benefit from their respective electoral processes. The effect of the 2021 elections on democracy scores in 2022 for Peru and Chile is less clear (at the time of publishing this article Chile’s second round of elections had not taken place).

At the other extreme, elections in countries considered electoral-authoritarian regimes will not change their status or score. The 2021 electoral process in Venezuela was uneven (with advantages for the ruling party). And there is no doubt that the façade elections and the imprisonment of opponents in Nicaragua will further lower that country’s ratings.

It is important to remember that democracy, and in consequence the democracy indices, go far beyond elections. In this sense, it is likely that some countries will suffer a decrease in the different indices due to measures taken by their leaders, especially those  that seek the concentration of executive power at the expense of other branches of government (for example, El Salvador, Mexico and to some extent Brazil). In countries where anti-government protests were held, the reaction of authorities to the protests may also influence the ratings for 2022 (for example, indicators for Cuba may fall even further).

Finally, Table 1 also includes two indicators not directly related to the level of democracy (they may correlate with democracy but are not elements of it): the Transparency International Corruption Index and LAPOP's percentage of support for democracy. In general terms, the three Latin American countries that score high in all democracy indices    also show higher levels of transparency, as well as higher levels of support for democracy than the rest of the countries.

In conclusion, democracy in Latin America faces serious challenges in 2022. While formal election processes continue to be successful in many countries, the high levels of polarization, the continuing and seemingly unsolvable corruption, and the deterioration of the economic and social conditions (particularly because of the pandemic) do not bode well for the strengthening democracy in the region. Many countries are far from improving the rule of law, the protection of civil liberties, judicial independence and an effective system of checks and balances. In other words, Latin America is far from becoming a region in which liberal democracies prevail, and it is likely to remain one of the few regions of the developing world in which electoral democracy lingers (despite the setbacks that took place in some countries in 2021).
(Here, the Spanish version)
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