As the Summit for Democracy Ends, What is the State of Democracy in Latin America?

Democratic backsliding is occurring in several Latin American countries, and it is not evident that those countries can pivot to a democratic path in the near future.


Source: AP Photo/Susan Walsh.

The Biden administration convened the Second Summit for Democracy from March 28-30, and the event has triggered a backlash from authoritarian countries such as China and Russia, which, as Washington Post Columnist Josh Rogin opined, “are attempting to redefine the world’s understanding of what democracy means.” These attempts to redefine democracy are why it is important to remember that the concept of democracy alludes to multiple characteristics, in addition to fair and free elections—such as freedom of expression and association, an even leveled playfield for opposition parties, judicial independence, and checks and balances, among other metrics. 

The best-known indicators of democracy are the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index (EIU), the Freedom House Index (FHI), and two of the V-Democracy indexes [the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) and the Electoral Democracy Index (EDI)]. Between February and March of 2023, the organizations that compile such indexes released their results on the state of democracy in the world in 2022. The findings show that many countries sorely lack most, if not all, characteristics of democracy. 

Through the summit, the Biden administration sought to bring together the democratic countries of the world. A total of 121 were invited, eight more than those invited to the first summit in December of 2021. Most Latin American countries were invited to the second summit, and one of the top performers in the region, Costa Rica, was one of five co-hosts of the event. Twelve Latin American countries attended the event (and endorsed the Summit’s final declaration). Six countries in the region were not invited, and Brazil chose not to attend. 

The democracy indicators underscore why some Latin American countries were or were not invited. Regarding Latin America, all indexes agree on the most democratic countries in the region, and they also agree regarding the most authoritarian countries. Additionally, they acknowledge that democracy is not doing well in particular countries, while showing conflicting results for others.

Using 2021 data, Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñan classified the countries of Latin America as follows, high-level democracies: Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay. Mid-level democracies: Argentina, Panama, Brazil, and Peru. Low-level democracies: Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Paraguay, Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Honduras. Competitive-authoritarian regimes: El Salvador. Closed authoritarian regimes: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. 

Based on these classifications, the democracy indexes highlight some notable regional trends. All indexes agree that Colombia and Honduras experienced positive changes between 2021 and 2022. Notably, Colombia became a “free” country by Freedom House standards (from a “partly-free” country in earlier years). Honduras also experienced positive changes, although not as marked as those in Colombia. Not surprisingly, Honduras was invited to the Summit for Democracy in 2023, after its exclusion in 2021

On the opposite end of the spectrum, all indexes coincide that Peru and particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua, underwent negative democratic changes. Peru was downgraded to a “partly-free” country by Freedom House (from the “free” status of previous years) and also downgraded by the EIU from a “flawed democracy” to a “hybrid regime.” El Salvador and Nicaragua did not change status vis-à-vis 2021 in any of the indexes, but their scores declined significantly in all of them. Other countries with a negative trajectory were Mexico, Bolivia, and Guatemala: with each respective democracy score notably declining in three of the four indexes. Guatemala was in fact downgraded from an “electoral democracy” to an “electoral autocracy” by V-Dem. 

Unsurprisingly, Uruguay continued as one of the top performers in the region but also dropped slightly in three of the four indexes; in contrast, Argentina improved slightly in three of them. In the rest of the countries the four indexes produced contrasting results. In countries such as Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay some of the democracy indicators showed no change, while others showed a slight decline or improvement. Chile, for example, improved its EIU score (and as a consequence returned to the rank of full democracy), but declined slightly in the V-Dem indicators. Regarding openly authoritarian countries, Cuba and Venezuela declined slightly according to some indicators, but remained unchanged according to others. (See Table 1).

How can the lack of coincidence in the assessment of some countries by the different indexes be explained? Each scoring system employed varies: V-Dem scores range from 0 to 1, The EIU scores range from 0 to 10, and Freedom House scores range from 0 to 100. Likewise, the categories they use to classify countries differ: V-Dem distinguishes between liberal democracies, electoral democracies, electoral autocracies, and closed autocracies. Meanwhile, the EIU classifies countries as full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. Lastly, Freedom House classifies countries as free, partly free, or not free. While many countries fall clearly on the positive or negative classifications, some countries in the middle are placed in distinct categories by each index. For instance, Ecuador is classified as a free country by Freedom House, but as a hybrid regime by the EIU. Additionally, some countries considered partly free by Freedom House are considered hybrid regimes by the EIU or electoral autocracies by V-Dem. The cut-off point for the classification of countries also varies in the different indicators.

In terms of the scores themselves, the differences come down to the methodology employed by each of the indicators. V-Dem indicators (LDI and EDI) are the most closely associated with the characteristics of democracy proposed by prominent political scientist Robert Dahl. Freedom House evaluates mostly the state of political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world, while the EIU includes measures such as political culture that are not included in any of the other indexes. All the indicators use expert surveys as their main source, but some also use citizens’ surveys and aggregate data.

Overall, according to democracy indicators, the results for Latin America in 2022 are a mixed bag. On the positive side, many countries remain as electoral (flawed) democracies, where free and fair electoral processes occur regularly, but most have never achieved the status of liberal (full) democracies—only three countries have that status in 2023. On the negative side, Latin America now has three openly authoritarian regimes, and there are concerning developments in several countries, especially in El Salvador and Guatemala.

While the erosion of democracy is a recent, global phenomenon, Latin America once represented a region of the developing world where democratic development had been stronger vis-à-vis others since the beginning of the third wave of democracy in the 1980s. Democratic backsliding is occurring in several Latin American countries, and it is not evident that those countries can pivot to a democratic path in the near future. Two things that could help turn the tide would be to have a less fractionalized opposition inside the countries that are experiencing autocratization, and to present a concerted international approach—involving not only policy-makers from the United States and other advanced industrial democracies, but also international organizations (some organizations currently fund countries that violate human rights). 

Dinorah Azpuru is a professor of political science at Wichita State University. Her research focuses on democratization and democracy assistance to developing nations, political behavior (survey research) in Latin America, and U.S.-Latin America relations.

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