Democracy in Latin America, a contested concept

By Manuel J. Ayulo, second year student of the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University

Citing the philosopher W.B. Gallie, Collier and Levitsky remained us that democracy is “the appraisive political concept par excellence”.[1] They are right. In Latin America, democracy continues to be a contested concept. Although the vast majority of the countries are not considered authoritarian, that doesn’t imply that they share or value a homogenous concept of democracy.

The table below is an analysis of 18 Latin American countries. From the left, the second column indicates the percentage of population that support democracy,[2] while the third and the fourth columns present the scores of democratic performance rated by Polity IV and Freedom House respectively. In a way, this table contrast the expert opinion of democracy with the popular one.

Venezuela 77 4 N.F
Argentina 71 8 F.
Uruguay 68 10 F.
Ecuador 67 5 P.F.
Bolivia 64 7 P.F.
Dominican Rep. 60 8 P.F.
Costa Rica 60 10 F.
Paraguay 55 9 P.F.
Chile 54 10 F.
Colombia 54 7 P.F.
Peru 53 9 F.
Mexico 48 8 P.F.
Panama 45 9 F.
Nicaragua 41 9 P.F.
Honduras 41 7 P.F.
El Salvador 36 8 F.
Brazil 32 8 F.
Guatemala 31 8 P.F.

Sources: Latinobarometro 2016 Report, Polity VI 2013, Freedom House 2016 Report

There are two important ideas we can extract from the table. First, Latin-Americans valued there democracies very differently.  Starting with the overwhelming support in Venezuela (77%), to the median support in Peru (53%) and down to Brazil (32%) and Guatemala (31%); the support for democracy varies considerably between countries.

The second and most interesting idea is the differences between the popular and the expert appraised for a country’s democratic qualities. If “democracy” was a homogenous concept, then we would expect to find more results like Uruguay, which ranks third in popular support and has top rankings in both expert reports.

However, there are a considerable number of cases that do not follow this straightforward logic. Let’s look at Chile. For experts, Chile has excellent democratic qualities, yet it ranks at the middle of the table in popular support. In contrast, Venezuela is considered “Not Free” by Freedom House and an “Open Anocracy” by Polity IV, nevertheless, it leads the table in popular support.

Moreover, if we look at the top five countries with more popular support for their democracies, only Uruguay shows top expert scores while Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are internationally considered to have a very low quality of democracy.

Is it not weird that hydride regimens such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia score significantly better in their support for their democracy? Shouldn’t countries like Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay have a considerable advantage in that regard? Alternatively, could citizen´s support to democracy be driven by the popularity of the president at the time of the polls? If so, how reliable are citizens for evaluating democracy?

Latin America is a very interesting laboratory to evaluate and contrast the meaning of democracy. The third wave of democratization, the different transitional process, the economic performances and the rise of the new left have produced particular subtypes of democracies. Historical process seem to matter. For example, Venezuela´s democracy has been associated with distribution of oil rents [4] and in Brazil, the structural weakness of the political party system tends to produce strong presidents and feeble democracy.[5]

What seems clear enough is that democratic and hybrid regimens, shaped by ad-hoc historical processes, are part of the landscape in Latin America. The different available alternatives of democracy – e.g. “participatory”, “multicultural” or “Bolivariana”-, allow social movements and political parties to compete in contested times claiming to be the agents of a more legitimate, truer form of democracy.

In Latin America, the term “democracy” as understand by Polity VI, Freedom House and other experts is not the only game in the region.


[1] Collier and Levitsky, 1997, p.433

[2]  The question is: with which of the following statements do you most agree: a) Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, b) Under some circumstances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one and c) For people like me, it doesn’t matter whether we have democratic or non-democratic regime. The % shows the first alternative. Latinobarometro considers this question to best represent support for democracy in any given country in the region.

[3] N.F. = “Not Free”, F. =”Free”, P.F. = “Partly Free”.

[4] Hellinger, 2004.

[5] O’Donnell, 1994.