Corruption, free speech, and the fight for democracy in Latin America

Democratic decline is part of a worrying trend that is spreading across various regions of the world. Latin America, with its advances and setbacks, is no exception. Español

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Beverly Goldberg Francesc Badia i Dalmases
12 March 2018

Parque da Cidade Odebrecht project, São Paulo. Source: Odebrecht. All Rights Reserved.

It is commonly accepted that democracy in Latin America is much more consolidated than in the Arab World, in Africa and in large parts of Asia and Eurasia, and yet there is a long way to go.

Continuous setbacks are the expression of a worrying global trend where liberal democracies are undermined by illiberal endeavours that have already been successful in countries like Hungary, Turkey, Kenya and Thailand.

Crucially, in a year that will see major elections across the hemisphere (Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil), Latin America is fighting to hold onto the few regimes that qualify as “full democracies” according to The Economist Democracy Index 2017.

Endemic corruption continues to penetrate society from its very roots up, and self-serving politicians, in a pursuit for power, have left a trail of devastation in their wake. 

A global trend?

As The Economist’s annual report on the state of democracy worldwide this year found, in Latin America as a region there has been an overall decline in its score from 2016 to 2017. This occurs in the context of overall global democratic decline.

According to this year’s index, 89 countries worldwide experienced some form of decline – the worst result since 2010-11. The score for the US remained constant although it had fallen significantly the year before and its classification had been changed from a ‘full democracy’ to a ‘flawed democracy’.

North America’s overall score was stagnant, and all other regions reported a deterioration, with Asia and Australasia as the worst performing of them all.

The index is built on a number of indicators, a key one being political participation. Unfortunately, it remains astoundingly low throughout Latin America in both 2016 and 2017.

The only full democracy in the region, Uruguay, scored only 4,44 for political participation in both years. In 2016 however, 9 out of 24 countries scored above 5 for participation, a number that increased to 13 in 2017, showing an improvement, contradicting what overall continues to be a worrying phenomenon.

Indexes are controversial by nature, as the methodology of establishing the indicators is systematically contested by numerous academics, and ideology inevitably cuts across its design.

The same goes for measuring the indicators’ performance in countries with very diverse political, social, cultural and economic systems, which means there may be distortions causing the misrepresentation of realities, making them incomparable. Thus, comparability is always a big issue when trying to construct a democracy index.

However, as any institution publishing an index of any kind will tell you, unless you have better or alternative methodologies, carry on. Nobody is preventing you from doing so.

Interestingly enough, another influential index is Freedom House’s annual report, where you will encounter few contradictions with The Economist findings.

Many critics, particularly from the South, will point out that the standardized democracy measurements are focused on some aspects of “formal” democracy whilst forgetting local nuances and innovative governance strategies that may favour their “democratic” scores more than election-centred measurements.

Yet, whichever index you use, the consensus is clear: liberal democracy is in decline and illiberalism is thriving.

Venezuela’s downward spiral 

The current political crisis in Venezuela, a crisis fuelled by a severe economic depression and an increasing disregard for the rule of law, was the focus of this year’s The Economist Index. 

According to the Venezuelan NGO Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia, in 2017, 5.535 people were killed at the hands of government officials or police in acts of resistance to authority.

Discussions regarding the democratic quality of Venezuela’s regime are highly ideological in the region and beyond, where a number of analysts and commentators stress the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution (often also referencing the Cuban revolution), prioritizing what is regarded as the guarantee of basic human welfare above liberal democracy as such.

Criticism is systematically parodied as right-wing attacks sponsored by the US and other western “imperialists” aim to see the Venezuelan Bolivarian regime fail and neoliberalism restored. 

But some data is hard to deny. According to the Venezuelan NGO Observatorio Venezolano de la Violencia, in 2017, 5.535 people were killed at the hands of government officials or police in acts of resistance to authority. The biggest blow to democracy in 2017 was the March takeover of the opposition led National Assembly by the loyalist Supreme Court assuming their powers and silencing large parts of the opposition.

The consolidation of President Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian drift came with the stripping of all legislative powers from the parliament by the newly elected Constituent Assembly, confirming intentions to use the constitution drafting assembly as a de facto governing body against all odds.

In 2016, The Economist Democracy Index already reported that Venezuela had begun its downward spiral towards an autocratic state due to the repressive measures of Maduro’s regime.

These involved the Supreme Court rejecting all proposals by the National Assembly, increasing militarisation, and state repression. Despite this bleak scenario, Venezuela was still classed as a hybrid regime in 2016 – a regime in which elections present irregularities and rule of law is weak, but is still not entirely authoritarian.

But Venezuela’s inordinate problems with democracy might be an exception. Many countries in the region democratised during the so-called third wave of democratisation of the 80’s and 90’s, therefore current democracies in Latin America could be considered fairly recent in comparative terms.

From that period until 2017, no country in Latin America that had democratised earlier was victim of a permanent coup or back-tracked entirely towards a dictatorship – a positive development given the unstable past of the region and its familiarity with military dictatorships. 

But sadly, after the continued government silencing of both the opposition led bodies and their leaders, the jailing of opposition politicians and the violent suppression of protests, Venezuela breaks this trend.

Being the first country to fully backslide into an autocracy since this period of democratic prosperity began, it will (probably) hold early elections in the second half of May this year, a move that has further destabilised the internationally sponsored talks with the opposition held in Santo Domingo, who’s leaders initially said they will not participate in the polls firstly called for April, and now are divided.

For a number of reasons, Venezuela has received endorsement from a number of countries in the region that, having governments from the left, they feel compelled to defend their fellow Venezuelans as a matter of principles, even if in private they may concede the many flaws and setbacks its regime has brought on and the deep humanitarian and migratory crisis it has triggered.

In a recent declaration, the Lima Group, assembling the region’s most powerful countries from Brazil and Argentina to Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia, has criticised the elections and has asked Maduro to postpone them until fair conditions are secured and everybody is included.

The scandal involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht that has engulfed the entire continent is especially pertinent to democratic erosion.

There is a silver lining however, and Ecuador provides a glimmer of hope in an otherwise pessimistic report. Ecuador improved from a ‘hybrid regime’ to a ‘flawed democracy’ after the new president Lenin Moreno reformed some of his predecessor Rafael Correa’s repressive measures.

Moreno plans on overhauling the controversial communications law that limited press freedom, and announced a recently held referendum which, among other minor issues, sought to reintroduce presidential term limits after they had been removed by Correa. Ecuadorians voted yes to the move that will no doubt reintroduce democratic practices that the former president had formerly chipped away.

Causes of an overall decline

If we categorise the exact causes of this overall decline, corruption has proved itself as a true frontrunner in this race against democracy. Corruption had a significant impact on general democracy scores. The scandal involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht that has engulfed the entire continent is especially pertinent to democratic erosion in Latin America this year.

Along with other scandals like the Lava Jato (Car Wash) and President Dilma Roussef’s infuriating impeachment, widely qualified as a soft coup, Odebrecht can largely contribute to the drop in Brazil’s score, already downgraded to the 51st place in 2016.

The Odebrecht scandal has implicated over 10 countries in Latin America in a bribery scheme which involved huge pay-outs to corrupt politicians in exchange for construction projects such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics constructions in Rio, or the metro system in Caracas, to name but a few. They funded election campaigns of many politicians, left and right, who are now either in jail or under investigation.

The Odebrecht corruption scandal overwhelmed countries like Peru, which almost experienced the impeachment of president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after allegedly playing a part in the acceptance of bribes in exchange for contracts. Peru’s score declined from 6.65 in 2016 to 6.49 in 2017 in the light of these allegations.

Kucszynski’s pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, purportedly in exchange for putting the impeachment procedure to a halt, has added uncertainty and has undermined both transparency and accountability, two fundamental pillars of democracy.

Additionally, the scandal provoked the removal of Ecuadorian former vice-president Jorge Glas and has implicated Brazil’s president Michel Temer along with 1/3 of his entire government.

President Temer is now under investigation by the Brazilian Supreme Court. Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro has been accused of involvement by former general prosecutor Luisa Ortega; Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos has been accused by his former campaign manager of receiving dirty Odebrecht money, and evidence has been found that Peru’s Keiko Fujimori received financial support during her failed campaign in 2017’s presidential race. The scope of the scandal is devastating. 

Democratic backsliding, term used to describe when a state erodes its own institutions and the rule of law, is also to blame for this overall decline in democracy in Latin America.

Democratic backsliding has been reported throughout 2017 in other countries around the world and is not unique to Latin America. In Hungary and Poland for example, the ruling right wing nationalist parties have gradually made legal changes, including constitutional changes, that have allowed for power to become highly concentrated in the executive (executive aggrandizement) whilst rolling back on media freedoms.

A similar process could also be possible in the US after President Donald Trump’s authoritarian-like behaviour throughout 2017, which involved continuously defaming the media and using state agencies like the FBI or attorney general’s office against his opponents and critics.

In the context of Latin America, this process of backsliding has had the most significant consequences in Bolivia. Evo Morales managed to override the results of a referendum in Bolivia that rejected the extension of term limits, and had a Supreme Court dominated by supporters declare him eligible for a fourth term in 2019.

Bolivia’s scores have declined from 5.63 in 2016 to 5.49 in 2017. This is one of the most significant drops in Latin America, and leaves the country at the bottom of the list, less than one point above Venezuela, that scores 4,68, only just above Haiti (4,03) and Cuba, that keeps the last position with a mere 3,46.

Free speech under attack

The emphasis of the The Economist report this year is how the state of current political regimes around the world has an impact on freedom of expression. The report’s title “Free speech under attack” exemplifies the issue at hand this year, and Latin America is no exception to this.

Mexico ranks only behind Syria and Afghanistan in terms of risk level for journalists.

According to the report, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico are among the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist and very few of the crimes committed against journalists are ever investigated or prosecuted.

Mexico is of particular concern. Violence and assassinations have spiked to intolerable levels, and journalists, especially those covering police abuses, drug trafficking and governmental corruption are no exception. As a consequence, Mexico ranks only behind Syria and Afghanistan in terms of risk level for journalists. 

Ecuador has improved its relationship with the press however is still ranked as largely unfree. The only “fully free” countries are Uruguay, Chile and Jamaica, but journalists still face harassment there on a regular basis. Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela have been ranked as “largely unfree” with regards to freedom of expression.

What is most worrying is that the two regional big powers are among the lowest ranks. Mexico is ranked 71 in the world whilst Brazil is ranked 49, following a global trend of heavy media ownership concentration in a few powerful hands that thwarts the space for pluralism and undermines the democratic public sphere. 

Direct attacks on the free press are now complemented by what can be dubbed as attacks on the nature of truth itself, as the “digitilisation” of news outlets and the interference of social media have become a powerful weapon to discredit opponents and to meddle in electoral processes. The boom of “fake news” is only the tip of the iceberg.

There is much to be done in the region to ensure democracy functions favourably, particularly when some of the main beacons of western democracy are also suffering from decay. But overall, Latin America is still a place of relative freedom in which there is hope for prosperity and improved governance, provided inequality and violence are thwarted, institutions and political parties are strengthened and checks and balances, crucially including the judiciary, are in place.

Ultimately, the fact that many corruption scandals are determining the future of so many politicians puts the region in a global league of democracies fighting for transparency and accountability. Therefore, in the case of Latin America, the pessimism of The Economist’s democracy index, whatever its ideological flaws, must be taken as a warning against the region’s democratic decline, but not as absolute damnation.

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