Latin America’s democratic moment?


guatemalaWhen street protests forced Guatemala’s president to step down last fall amid a corruption scandal (left), it seemed a rare break in a long and lucrative tradition of impunity in Latin America, The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reports:

Now that event looks like a first salvo in a sweeping new push for cleaner government. Bribery and influence-peddling scandals are roiling countries from Mexico to Chile. Armed with new legal tools and the supercharged activism of social media, an emerging, anxious middle class is increasingly well-informed, unintimidated and unwilling to accept the notion of public office as a path to self-enrichment…. But democracy has matured in many parts of Latin America, analysts say. The human rights groups that courageously stood up to military dictatorships a generation ago are today joined by civil society organizations pushing for more transparency and accountability. Press freedom has improved in many countries. Social media has given ordinary citizens a powerful tool to amplify their anger and channel it into the streets.

lat am democracy“We’ve always had corruption, but there has been a fundamental shift in its exposure and the ability to take it on,” said Shannon O’Neil, an expert on the region at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the latest issue of The Journal of Democracy, Marcus André Melo explains in “Crisis and Integrity in Brazil” that rule of law in the country is strong. Other essays address the defeat of the Chavistas in Venezuela’s 2015 legislative elections, and the prospects for a democratic transition there; the victory of Mauricio Macri and the downfall of Peronism in Argentina’s 2015 presidential election; the dashed expectations for reform in Mexico; and the mounting troubles in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

“In the context of economic deceleration and budget tightening, unabated or even growing corruption in much of the region becomes particularly unseemly,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a D.C. think tank specializing in Latin America. “Public revulsion towards such tawdry behavior is spreading.”

On the other hand, “much of what is going on in Latin America right now happens to be good,” especially in Argentina, argues Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Progress in Argentina would show that those who violate the law can be held accountable, that excessive state intervention in the economy leads to insolvency and promotes corruption, and that democracy and markets represent the future. Cuba in ten years is more likely to resemble its more politically and economically open neighbors than vice versa,” he writes:

Again, none of this is to say that Latin America lacks real problems and challenges. On the contrary, it has plenty of both. But for the most part, these are matters of political and economic governance, state capacity, and corruption within states. Missing almost entirely are problems stemming from relations between states – geopolitics – that so dominate and plague other parts of the world. This is a tremendous advantage, as it means that governments’ attention and resources can be focused on meeting domestic needs.


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