Perspectives May 4, 2023
Freedom Will Flourish in the Americas if Its Leaders Protect Democratic Institutions
Some of Latin America’s leaders sought to flout or dismantle their nations’ democratic and legal machinery to remain in power or to respond to crises in 2022, risking a half-century of uneven regional progress. They can secure freer, safer, and more prosperous futures for their countries by reversing course.
The 50th edition of Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World report found that the global decline in democracy has extended into its 17th consecutive year. This period of democratic backsliding has buffeted the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that hosts vibrant democracies alongside some of the world’s harshest regimes.
Nicaragua suffered the Americas’ largest score decline in 2022 as President Daniel Ortega closed in on his political opponents. Ongoing humanitarian crises in Venezuela and Haiti have contributed to a stubborn decline in civil liberties in those countries. And people living in Cuba, which has never left the Not Free category in our report’s history, face a deepening economic crisis and a regime that viciously retaliates against dissenters.
But the region’s freer nations also experienced a challenging year. Brazil’s outgoing president sought to sow mistrust in that country’s electoral system before being voted out of office. Peru’s democracy, which has been affected by string of resignations and impeachments in recent years, faced a new crisis when its president attempted to dismiss the legislature. And Central American governments introduced draconian measures to fight crime, putting individual freedoms at risk.
Tripping over political transition
Transfers of power proved to be inflection points in 2022, sometimes for the better. In Colombia’s competitive presidential election, voters propelled guerrilla-turned-candidate Gustavo Petro into office, installing the country’s first left-wing government since the reestablishment of competitive democracy. Petro’s running mate, human rights defender and environmentalist Francia Márquez, became Colombia’s first Black female vice president, a major gain for Afro-Colombian political representation.
Competitive elections did not always herald a seamless transfer of power, however. In Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva returned to the presidency, narrowly defeating incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in an October 2022 run-off. Ahead of the vote, Bolsonaro falsely claimed that the country’s voting system was susceptible to fraud, hinting that he would not accept an electoral loss. While Bolsonaro effectively conceded, some of his supporters went so far as to demand a coup. Not long after Lula’s January 2023 inauguration, Bolsonaro loyalists stormed government offices in Brasília in an echo of the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill insurrection. Although the new administration persevered, Bolsonaro wounded Brazil’s democratic order as he exited.
Peru’s democracy suffered a setback in December 2022 when then president Pedro Castillo, facing impeachment, moved to suspend the legislature. After the attempted self-coup, he was removed by Congress, arrested, and replaced by Vice President Dina Boluarte. Castillo supporters took to the streets calling for his release, while others demanded Boluarte’s resignation and early elections. The protests, which continued into 2023, were met with a brutal state response; at least 60 people died and hundreds were injured, primarily in Peru’s Indigenous regions.
Central America’s dragnet
In Central America, both state and nonstate actors undermined freedoms in 2022. In many parts of El Salvador and Honduras, gangs have replaced the government, using violence and intimidation to regulate markets and control individual movement. Political leaders have responded with undemocratic and disproportionate measures that burden their citizens.
In March 2022, after a truce between the government and the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs apparently collapsed, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele announced a state of exception that suspended several constitutional guarantees, granted unprecedented powers to the executive, and allowed for warrantless arrests. While the state of exception has proven popular and has significantly reduced violence, it has also infringed on due process; over 64,000 people have been arrested since its imposition.
Similar but less drastic efforts were made in Honduras beginning in November 2022, when President Xiomara Castro launched a state of exception that suspended constitutional rights and due process to crack down on gangs. While the crackdown may ultimately disrupt dozens of criminal groups, it will also curtail Hondurans’ rights as it continues. Central America’s beleaguered residents certainly have much to fear from criminal violence, but their governments risk constructing a new security model that is as hostile to them as it is to criminals.
Finding a better way in a new year
As 2023 continues, so do the issues that have affected Latin America. While street protests have recently slowed in Peru, for example, Boluarte and legislators still face tremendous pressure stemming from an underlying crisis of legitimacy. Violence continues to plague Central American nations, with residents continuing to seek safety abroad.
Threats to democracy emerged elsewhere in the region in 2023. In February, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador enacted legal changes that could severely undermine the electoral body’s capacity to oversee credible elections. Tens of thousands of Mexicans turned out to protest the changes in February. In March, the Supreme Court suspended them in anticipation of a lawsuit.
When Freedom House published the first edition of Freedom in the World in 1973, Brazil was ruled by its military, Colombia was reeling from a grueling armed conflict, and Mexicans lived under one-party government. People in these three countries certainly face significant threats to their freedom and safety today, but they also have experienced significant progress in the ensuing years. Unfortunately, not everyone in the region can say so, nor can these gains be taken for granted. But another half-century of positive change is still possible if the region’s leaders are willing to respect democratic ideals, bolster the institutions that make them real, and hold fast to those principles when they are placed under pressure.