The Progressive Post

Latin America, democracies at the edge

FEPS Vice-President
Chair of FEPS Scientific Council, Member of the European Parliament Alliance of Socialists and Democrats

The Latin American region is at the edge of not being considered a democratic territory. In the 2022 Democracy Index of The Economist, the entire region scored at 5.79, which is below 6, the threshold beyond which democracies are considered flawed. Before the 2008 financial crisis, the region scored 6.43. This index considers 72 countries in the world living under democratic regimes, 24 full democracies, including, in Latin America, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Chile. In the rest of the region, the index found nine flawed democracies, eight hybrid regimes and four authoritarian ones.

Some countries in the region are at the edge of a new generation of environmental rights, rights of women, indigenous communities and digital rights that are not developed in other regions of the world. However, it does not mean these rights are enjoyed by all citizens in the region, given the prevalent high inequality. Electoral democracy performs better in Latin American region than liberal democracy. The Latin American population’s indifference towards their country’s political regimen is growing, and less than half of the people are committed democrats. All that mixes up with an evolving international context in which Latin America, and especially its resources, are key in the battles and the transitions ahead.

Leading constitutional production vs democratic disaffection

Currently, Latin America is the leading region in the production of new constitutions: since the region’s independence, it makes for half f the global output of new constitutions. This reflects the region’s persistent political conflicts, but it also mirrors a political will to promote new rights. With the increasing global attention to environmental protection, the Andean region stands as a pioneer, granting legal rights to nature itself, which, in the region, is referred to as Pachamama, an Inca term that describes ‘Earth Mother’. The first national constitution to grant rights to nature was Ecuador’s in 2008, and in 2010 a Rights of Nature Statue was added. Other examples are women’s and indigenous rights. In 2007, Venezuela became the first country to enact a specific law addressing obstetric violence, setting an important precedent that prevents the perpetuation of control on women. Although for many years legally excluded and repressed, Honduras’ 1982 Constitution started an acknowledgement for indigenous people’s rights that later spread throughout the continent, with, currently, the Bolivian Constitution of 2009 standing out as a prominent protector.

Latin America leads the inclusion of digital rights too, with Chile’s 2021 attempted constitutional reform, becoming the first to intend to safeguard neuro-rights. Even if the reform, in the end, was not endorsed, it would have been the first-ever constitution to legislate on the information obtained from the activity of neurons containing a representation of brain activity from the instruments that allow a connection for reading, recording or modifying the Central Nervous System and the information coming from it.

The region has undergone constant replacement of their constitutions, but without delivering equal access or functioning democratic institutions. That explains why less than half of Latin Americans are committed democrats and a growing number are indifferent towards their country’s political regime. A large majority of Latin American citizens are deeply dissatisfied with the way their democracies work in practice. They place little trust in their institutions and, although they are opposed to military government, a growing number say they would accept elected ‘caudillos’. Democracy is not delivering to a majority of the people, and high inequality as well as the capture of the political system by economic elites are the drivers for this disaffection.

Inequality is not good for democracy

In Latin America, economic inequality is structural but not impossible to reduce. Take Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff’s governments in Brazil when 20 million people have been lifted out of poverty. As Human Rights Watch mentioned in its World Report 2023: “Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean should address chronic human rights concerns, including poverty, inequality, corruption, insecurity, and environmental degradation while protecting democracy”. The region has the highest annual homicide rate in the world: 21 per 100,000 people. It faces environmental degradation, structural racism and deep patriarchal structures that intersect with the highest global income inequalities. About a third of the population lives in poverty, ten per cent in extreme poverty and income poverty and inequality disproportionately affect women, children, and Indigenous people. Distribution is extremely concentrated in the hands of an elite that controls the economic and political structures in its own interest. Inequality is a main driver for democratic failure.

Covid-19 disproportionally affected the region increasing 50 million Latin Americans living in poverty. The pandemic did not create new problems, but it revealed the existing ones: extreme inequality and the control of democratic processes by economic elites, as repeatedly shown in the Latinobarómetro. These elites intervene in designing policies and controlling democratic institutions for their own benefit, thus generating imbalances in the exercise of rights and political representation – as Oxfam and CLACSO have repeatedly shown – favouring power groups to the detriment of ordinary people who remain dissatisfied with democracies. Controlling extreme inequality is basic to restore citizens’ confidence in the democratic system and institutions. However, international interference makes this transformation difficult, especially in a moment of deep geopolitical transformation as the current one. 

Latin American at the core of geopolitical disputes

Latin America has always been at the core of geopolitical disputes. Starting with its history of colonisation, and continuing through foreign power intervention in its political processes during and after the Cold War, up to the present-day focus on extracting economic benefits from its natural resources. This is especially important in today’s context of the decoupling between the US and China, and other actors, such as the EU, trying to secure access to resources for achieving the green and digital transitions, strategic autonomy and global leading positions, securing agreements and influence with like-minded partners.

In Latin America, alternative discourses to the neoliberal globalization are being generated, where the interests and narratives of powers such as Russia and China have a presence and influence. The EU and its defence of fundamental values and human rights need to be more present in the region, as Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez has stated clearly for the current Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. 

The US has always been the main player in the region. However, in the last decades, the presence of China has been particularly relevant, creating alliances especially powerful through the BRICS bloc. The multipolar world allows some countries to diversify their alliances or their positioning towards the Russian war on Ukraine and the management of sanctions. The creation of the BRICS’ New Development Bank in Shanghai – with former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff at its head – is a good example of this trend after Brazil’s presidency passed from Jair Bolsonaro to Lula da Silva. In fact, changing governments after elections interact with foreign interference.

The Peruvian case illustrates the fight to control the South-Pacific passing from the pro-Chinese Pedro Castillo to the pro-US Dina Boularte, with economic elites facilitating the process. The port of Chancay, a Chinese project, and the Lithium mines in Puno are some of the strategic resources under dispute in a country that still works under an extractive export logic. Peru still sacrifices parts of its land, resources and people’s well-being to the interest of a few. The non-existence of the separation of powers facilitates this, since justice courts do not have democratic safeguards and are ruling to forgive millionaire debts to big business or by treating unequally their own people regarding, for instance, environmental disasters such, as the effects of El-Niño. 

Democracy is under threat in Latin America since people are turning their backs to it. Despite impressive advances on paper, the mere inclusion of new rights in its constitutions is not sufficient, as these rights often lack effective implementation in practice, mainly because of high inequalities and the capture of political regimes by economic elites who often interact with foreign interests and interference. This period of international re-structuring should serve Latin American countries to find less extractive, more equal and democratic ways to exploit their resources. The EU should have a larger presence in the region in order to accompany this real democratic process, while being wary of the growing influence of far-right movements sweeping across Latin America – but also across our own continent. 

Photo credits: www.shutterstock/Jc.roll99

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