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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 29-08-2023 10:09

Eduardo Porter: Latin America is waxing nostalgic for dictators

Fifty years after Augusto Pinochet infamously squashed democracy in Chile, the false promise of authoritarian rule once again tempts the region’s citizens.

In two weeks, Chile will observe the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest moments in Latin America’s tortuous chapter of the Cold War: the coup d’état by General Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973, that ousted president Salvador Allende and squashed Chilean democracy.

The US-backed coup is a key episode in a bloody history marked by military takeovers from Argentina and Brazil to El Salvador and Guatemala; of strongmen imposing their will at the point of a gun, “disappearing” opponents, scarring the land with mass graves.

We can only hope this era stays behind us.

Democracy has taken hold across most of the region since the end of the Cold War curbed Washington’s interest in toppling governments of the left. A referendum in 1988 put an end to Pinochet’s bloody rule, ushering in a multiparty democracy that led Chile to become the best performing economy in Latin America, ranked highest in the region by the United Nations Human Development Index.

And yet despite the scars left by juntas and dictators, citizens across Latin America somehow find themselves tempted by the prospect of authoritarian rule.

According to the latest Latinobarómetro poll, a set of face-to-face surveys of some 20,000 people across Latin America from February to April, democracy is losing friends pretty much everywhere.

Only 48 percent of respondents to the poll agreed that democracy is preferable to any other form of government. This is 15 percentage points less than in 2010. It is the lowest share since the survey began in 1995.

By contrast, 54 percent of respondents said they wouldn’t mind a non-democratic government coming to power if it could solve the nation’s problems, 10 percentage points more than 20 years ago.

The decline in support for democracy has been precipitous in some countries. Only 35 percent of Mexicans believe democracy is the best form of government, down from 43 percent just three years ago. Some 70 percent of Hondurans and 63 percent of Salvadoreans wouldn’t mind a non-democratic government that could fix things.

Democracy’s popularity is holding up comparatively well in Chile. Still, it has slipped to only 58 percent. And only 28 percent of Chileans say they are satisfied with how democracy is working in their country, half the share of 2010.

According to another poll , taken between May and July by Chile’s Centre for Public Studies, two-thirds of Chileans agree with the proposition that “instead of worrying so much about people’s rights, what this country needs is a firm government.” That’s more than twice the share that endorsed the statement in 2019. 

Democracy’s troubles are not exclusive to Latin America. The V-Dem Institute reports that 5.7 billion people lived under autocratic governments last year. That’s 72 percent of the world’s population, up from 46 percent 10 years before. “Advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out,” it noted.

Authoritarianism has also been making strides in the United States. According to a poll published last month by NORC and the Associated Press, 49 percent of Americans say democracy is not working . Still, dissatisfaction in Latin America seems more extreme: 69 percent of respondents to the Latinobarómetro survey said democracy is not working for them.

What’s going on? Insecurity — the reality or perception of violence careening out of control — surely plays a big role.

Consider El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele’s scorched earth tactics against criminal gangs enjoy such popularity that the president has decided to defy the constitution and run for re-election.

Four of five Salvadorans say their country is progressing, the highest share in Latin America by far. Only 28 percent think Salvadoran society needs profound or radical change, the lowest share in the region. Nine out of ten approve of their government. And 64 percent claim to be satisfied with democracy — the highest share since the survey started in 1995.

A lot of this flows from a single fact: Three-quarters of Salvadorans believe they are safe, protected from crime. Indeed, the murder rate in El Salvador declined to under eight per 100,000 inhabitants last year — down from over 52 per 100,000 in 2018. In 2018 only 11 percent of Salvadorans were satisfied with how democracy worked.

Chile offers a telling contrast. It remains one of the safest countries in Latin America — with a homicide rate of only five per 100,000. Still, only 17 percent of Chileans believe themselves safe from crime. Not coincidentally, 69 percent of them believe their country needs deep changes and only a quarter believe it is making progress. Barely 40 percent support their government, according to the Latinobarómetro survey.

The rising concern over public security, however, cannot completely account for the increasing disillusionment of Latin American voters, who have booted incumbent parties out of office in 18 of the last 19 presidential elections, including the one last Sunday in Guatemala, where Bernardo Arévalo of the tiny Semilla Movement trounced former first lady Sandra Torres, representing the country’s political elite. 

Democracy, it seems, is not delivering in more ways than one. Seven out of 10 respondents to Latinobarómetro’s surveys say governments in the region are in the hands of a small clique of powerful elites serving their own interests. Three-quarters believe income distribution in their countries is unjust, and fewer than half think there is equality of opportunity.

Fewer than a third believe there has been progress in the battle against corruption. Only 16 percent trust political parties, fewer than a quarter trust Congress and only 29 percent trust the judiciary. Only 36 percent of people in the region express trust in their president.

Overall, the tableau sketched out by Latinobarómetro looks a lot like an indictment. With the phantom of hardline authoritarianism looming in the rearview mirror, it suggests ominous prospects for the political future of Latin America’s young democracies.

It might not portend a return to military dictatorship. Indeed, 61 percent of respondents in the Latinobarómetro poll said that under no conditions could they support a military government, a share that has remained roughly stable over the last 20 years.But authoritarianism can take a different face, that of populist outsiders coming to rescue the nation. Inevitably, they find themselves tempted to curtail civil rights and undermine democratic institutions in the service of their power.

The list is getting long, from Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro to Mexico’s current one, Andrés Manuel López Obrador; from Bukele in El Salvador to Javier Milei, Argentina’s presidential frontrunner, who has pledged to “blow up” the political status quo.

The poll by Chile’s Centre for Public Studies asked Chileans about their partisan sympathies. The most popular, by far, is the Republican Party — heir to the legacy of General Augusto Pinochet. 


* Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration.

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by Eduardo Porter, Bloomberg


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