What democracies for Latin America?

At a crucial moment for Latin American democracies, an alliance between Alerta Democrática and DemocraciaAbierta is proposing to monitor the possible scenarios for the region. Español Português

Editorial Board
25 February 2016
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Beyond the fact that, in general, elections are held periodically, democracy in Latin America still has a long way to go to improve its "quality". Issues such as the rule of law, civil liberties, human rights, freedom of association and the participation of civil society in public affairs need to be monitored so as to warn of any possible setback or threat to its consolidation and progress. Despite undisputed progress, the consolidation of democracy in the continent is still far from being irreversible.

After some decades of growth, social policy improvements and fine economic prospects, Latin America should be better prepared now than ever before to address the strengthening of its democracies. However, the degree to which the current economic cycle will end up affecting Latin American economies will determine to a large extent the pace of progress. Besides, the region is dragged down by problems in education and productivity and is strongly dependent on foreign markets where, in the early stages of 2016, expectations appear to be worsening alarmingly.

Meanwhile, some 170 million Latin Americans - that is, 30% of the population – are still living in poverty. Latin America also stands out – negatively - from other regions in the world in aspects such as violence. Nor is the separation of powers and their independence fully guaranteed, and the channels and procedures for institutional strengthening, accountability and prevention of corruption are, in many cases, inadequate.

In some cases, it is necessary to consolidate the democratic State by reinforcing the rule of law through the sound enforcement of justice essential to promote more just and balanced societies. By doing so, the governance difficulties of some Latin American nations that show poor democratic efforts will be overcome, and the low capacity to implement accountable and transparent processes into the social, economic and environmental life will be improved.

In short, significant progress has certainly been made and Latin America is living its longer period ever under democracy, albeit its challenges and potential setbacks remain substantial.

The Alliance beetween Alerta Democrática and DemocraciaAbierta

Among the many ongoing initiatives to address these challenges, Alerta Democrática (Democratic Alert) is significant. It is a multi-actor dialogue-based initiative which has brought together, throughout a year, an exceptional group of Latin American leaders - including journalists, parliamentarians, academics, intellectuals, activists, former officials, indigenous people and university students - with the aim of devising possible scenarios for the future of democracy. Essentially, Alerta Democrática has raised the need for drawing the possible paths for the region in the short, medium and long term (covering fifteen years, from 2015 to 2030).

As part of this exercise, Alerta Democrática provides a conceptual framework (transformative scenario planning) and a common language to allow "a better understanding of the forces that shape and mould the future of democracy in Latin America."

Alerta Democrática has suggested that in 2015, Latin America had reached a branch point where a variety of paths open up for the region to follow. These are the possible pathways for democracy, and the future scenarios will depend on which of these the citizens and the institutions decide to take.

Once built, these scenarios need to be confronted with the dynamic and specific reality of each Latin American country. This is not only conducive to a better understanding of the evolution of the different Latin American societies, but it also helps to prevent regressive drifts that may be already showing up in different parts of the continent.

It is therefore essential that the ideas, the reflection and the analysis of the challenges, the difficulties and the opportunities that are being faced by democracies in the region have an impact on academic debate, politics and civil society, and finally reach the wider public. For this debate to be both robust and relevant, it is crucial that it should involve the plurality of voices which constitutes the strength and richness of democratic societies. It is also essential to encourage and promote spaces which can contribute binding support for dialogue and action in the different countries and sub-regions of Latin America.

To help make all this happen, Alerta Democrática and DemocraciaAbierta, have agreed to establish a strategic alliance. Its avowed aim is to address the opportunities and the alternatives that the different futures of democracy offer, and the risks they pose, and to spread the reflections on these through their networks and audiences in Latin America and globally.

Topics and prospects

There are issues and prospects of great significance, regionally and globally, and their translation into each of the countries south of the Rio Grande is worth a lot of attention.

The Sustainable Development Goals, which extend, broaden and deepen the path taken by the MDGs, are, in some of their specific breakdowns, crucially important in the field of institutions and democracy in Latin America. Moreover, the ongoing debate on measuring development makes it clear that it is increasingly relevant to abandon misleading macroeconomic indicators - such as income per capita -, and to focus on addressing the causes and consequences of inequality, of imbalances in the distribution of wealth and access to healthcare, education and human welfare, which is essential for the strengthening of democratic and peaceful societies.

It is also important to address some of the key obstacles to a fully democratic (human, economic, cultural and social) development of Latin America. These include not only human rights violations, but also the impact of violence, organized crime, corruption and impunity, which require effective social change processes in many countries in the region.

The issue of corruption is paramount, since its expansion and entrenchment seriously threaten the consolidation of civil liberties, transparency and accountability and, ultimately, the progress of society as a whole. Recently, in countries such as Guatemala and Brazil, but also in Honduras, Chile and Mexico, corruption has heated political tension considerably, and has put on the table the need to strengthen democratic institutions further, including the judicial system.

Citizen participation plays a key role here. We have recently seen how social protests merge and gather momentum on the basis of the righteous indignation caused by corruption. This channelling of multiple forces towards a single objective, however, entails some costs for the visibility of the different agendas, and has even some negative effects such as the neutralization of some equally important social demands.

Besides the specific issue of corruption, it is important to watch the continuing effort to bring about a real transformation of the Latin American political culture. The region offers interesting experiences in activism and independent and autonomous mobilization, which include expressions of political experimentation, including experiences of political innovation linked to the use of technologies in the advocacy and mobilization of public causes. All these experiences are potentially very relevant for a vibrant democratic public space in Latin America, and deserve to be known and understood by the global community.

There are many issues, but the agenda is clear. The deployment of the scenarios described by Alerta Democrática under four headings - "Transformation", "Tension", "Mobilization" and "Agony"- will depend to a large extent on what citizens and their governments end up deciding democratically, and not just through elections. To help make these decisions as informed as possible is the task that politicians, civil society, public opinion, the international community and the independent media have in common.

This is the contribution that this strategic alliance wishes to make, through a forthcoming series of articles, in the course of this year. Our aim is to fuel debate and to provide elements that may prove useful in helping to achieve the best possible democratic scenarios across the region.

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