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In the face of severe challenges, democracy is under stress – but still supported – across Latin America and the Caribbean

Protesters in El Salvador declare 'Yes to democracy. No to authoritarianism' during a demonstration on Jan. 14, 2024. <a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/women-walk-holding-up-a-sign-with-the-legend-yes-to-news-photo/1925903965?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:PHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images;elm:context_link;itc:0;sec:content-canvas" class="link ">PHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images</a>

Threats to economic and physical security have become persistent and pervasive across Latin America and the Caribbean – and that is affecting the way people view the state of democracy in the region.

Those are among the findings of the latest AmericasBarometer, a study of the experiences and attitudes of people across the Western Hemisphere that we conduct every two years along with other members of Vanderbilt University’s LAPOP Lab.

The 2023 round of AmericasBarometer, which includes nationally representative surveys of 39,074 individuals across 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, reveals widespread pessimism and adversity, decreased satisfaction with the status quo, and yet also resilience in popular support for democracy.

Elevated economic and physical insecurity

Across the region, just shy of two-thirds of adults (64%) think the national economic situation in their country has worsened. Remarkably, 32% report that they have run out of food in the last three months, an indicator of food insecurity that tracks with estimates reported by the Pan-American Health Organization.

Two in five people feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, and nearly one-quarter – 22% – report having been the victim of a crime in the past 12 months. Homicide rates in the region have also been rising.

In brief, despite variation among different countries, the average resident of the region has been facing elevated economic and physical security challenges for over a decade, our surveys have found.

The factors generating and sustaining this reality are complex.

In the mid-2010s, a global economic commodity boom ended, and the region’s economic recovery has been thwarted by structural issues, including low productivity and high income inequality. Economic recovery has been further hampered by major corruption scandals, crime and violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The implications of a sustained economic slump are stark. In nearly every Latin American and Caribbean country, food insecurity has increased in the past decade.

The uptick in crime and insecurity is similarly driven by a range of factors, including economic crises and the growth of well-armed transnational criminal syndicates. In Ecuador, as one extreme example shows, a shocking 36% of adults report having been the victim of at least one crime in the past year, an 11-percentage-point increase from just two years ago.

Disillusionment is a challenge to democracy

These problems could spell trouble for democracy in the region.

Some experts have predicted that financial stress and food insecurity could contribute to political unrest in the region in the coming years. The threat of organized crime and gang violence may also fuel a desire for authoritarian leadership.

Globally, democracy appears to be on the defensive. Within the Latin America and the Caribbean, countries such as Brazil, El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua have registered recent turns toward authoritarianism.

Our results show that disillusionment with the democratic status quo is strikingly high in the region, with only 40% thinking democracy is working. This low level of satisfaction has appeared in our surveys for the past 10 years.

Although the root causes are debated, disillusionment with the status quo fuels support for populist leaders with autocratic tendencies. El Salvador stands as an example of how disillusionment can undermine democracy. President Nayib Bukele was reelected on Feb. 4, 2024, with what appears to be over 80% of the vote while overtly flaunting democratic norms.

During his first term, Bukele tackled high levels of gang violence with policies that undermined checks and balances and civil liberties. He cheekily referred to himself on social media as a “dictator”, while his running mate spoke of their program to eliminate democracy.

There is no denying that Bukele’s strongman approach has delivered results: Our survey finds that 84% of Salvadorans feel secure in their neighborhood, compared with just 54% in 2018, the year before Bukele was elected. Food insecurity remains a challenge, with 28% reporting they have experienced running out of food; yet that statistic is slightly lower in 2023 than it was in 2012, in contrast to the upward trend in nearly all other countries.

Democracy retains popular support

Despite general gloom about how well democracy is performing, there is reason for optimism: Support for democratic governance has largely held steady over the last decade of our survey.

Across the region, on average, 58% say that they believe democracy is the best form of government. This is approximately the same percentage we have recorded since 2016. In all but three countries – Guatemala, Honduras and Suriname – majorities say they prefer democracy.

Although the possibility of democratic backsliding looms, most countries in the region have yet to undergo significant overhauls to their political or economic systems. And as former U.S. ambassador to Peru, Colombia and Brazil P. Michael McKinley noted in a recent article, a slate of radical proposals by new leaders in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico proved unpopular and were rejected by voters, courts and legislatures. In these cases, democratic institutions are doing their job.

Democratic governance also delivers something that strongman populist governments do not: widespread freedom of speech.

Our 2021 AmericasBarometer regional report highlighted the value the public places on freedom of speech. Vast majorities say they would not trade away freedom of speech for material well-being.

In 2023, we see that in countries with strongman populist leaders, those who disapprove of the president report strikingly high levels of concern about freedom of speech. In El Salvador, 89% of government critics say they have too little freedom to express their political views without fear, up from 70% in 2016.

In the face of significant challenges, Latin America and the Caribbean is at a crossroads between the allure of strongman populist leadership and a commitment to democratic institutions and processes. For now, at least, an enduring belief in democracy may facilitate efforts by leaders in and outside the region to champion and strengthen democratic governance.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Noam Lupu, Vanderbilt University; Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, Vanderbilt University, and Luke Plutowski, Vanderbilt University

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Noam Lupu co-directs the AmericasBarometer, which has been supported by grants from USAID, the US National Science Foundation, and the Inter-American Development Bank. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or any other funding agency.

Elizabeth J. Zechmeister co-directs the AmericasBarometer, which has been supported by grants from USAID, the US National Science Foundation, and the Inter-American Development Bank. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or any other funding agency.

Luke Plutowski is a staff member at LAPOP Lab, the lab responsible for the AmericasBarometer, which has been supported by grants from USAID, the US National Science Foundation, and the Inter-American Development Bank. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or any other funding agency.