Democracy in Latin America: Misperceptions Shock Surveyors


Español “The image that Latin Americans have towards democracy in their own country, and in other countries, doesn’t match the one from the experts,” concludes a newly released report from a Chile-based NGO.

Last week, the nonprofit Latinobarómetro released its annual study: “Images of Countries and Democracies.” It analyzes a 2013 survey of 20,000 people from 18 Latin-American countries on their perceptions of democracy in their own country as well as the rest of the region. The results offer insights into the global perspectives of the more than 600 million inhabitants in Latin America, with some jarring surprises.

Using a scale from one to 10, one being “not democratic at all” and 10 being “completely democratic,” Latin Americans graded several countries of the region, including their own, as well as others such as the United States, Spain, Israel, Iran, and China. The average respondent rated the United States at 6.9, Spain at 6.3, and China at 5.3, while they graded their own democracy at 6.2.

Going by citizens’ perspectives alone, China has a democracy; China and the United States even share similar levels of democracy. Only 11 percent of the Latin-American respondents believe that the Asian country doesn’t have a democracy, assigning scores of one or two out of 10.

On the other hand, the difference between the Latin-American perceptions of US democracy, versus their own, is minimal. The difference between both scores was barely 0.7 points.

“The mechanism of institutions, the separation between powers, and the rule of law aren’t exactly clear in the citizens’ minds when they evaluate the degree of democracy in those countries,” the report asserts.

Democracy Grass Not Greener

Some of the most notable conclusions were regarding the perceptions that Latin Americans have towards their own forms of government.

President of Uruguay, José Mujica. (Flickr)
President of Uruguay, José Mujica. (Flickr)

In the region, Uruguayans gave themselves the highest grade. With 7.6 points, they perceive themselves with a high level of democracy, even higher than the United States, which they rank give 6.5 points. Nonetheless, they believe that China (6.2) has a democracy, and that it’s better than the one in other countries, such as Spain (4.3).

Another remarkable fact is that Venezuela was the second country, after Uruguay, that received the highest score from citizens respondents. According to Venezuelans, their democracy deserves 7.0 points, higher than both the United States and Spain.

Even the citizens of Nicaragua gave their democracy a higher score than any other country in the region (6.4 points). This positive evaluation comes despite the fact that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has been in power for three presidential terms, while the constitution limits the number of terms to two, and he has recently pushed for unlimited presidential reelection.

On the other hand, Guatemala is the country where citizens grade their democracy with the lowest score. Guatemalans rated it with 5.4 points, far lower than the United States and China, which received 7.1, and 5.5 respectively. In other words, Guatemalans feel they have less democracy than China.

Given these results, one may wonder what “democracy” means for Latin Americans?

Nicaraguans and Venezuelans may not be focused specifically on a separation of powers, a functioning rule of law, or a precise role for institutions when they think about this concept. It also may not be a coincidence that the five countries that have better perceptions of their own democracies are progressive governments: Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

According to the report, the concept of democracy that experts know and talk about is clearly not the same as the one that Latin-American citizens have. While experts may analyze democracy based on its rule of law, institutions, and separation of powers, Latin-American citizens are measuring it based on their perceptions of the government’s performance regarding social inequality.

“Democracy in institutions is not the evaluating factor when answering this question, but rather the level of social inclusion,” the report notes.

Venezuela, Not So Popular Elsewhere

President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. (AVN)

Despite its populism, oil giveaways, and “Latin-American integration” rhetoric, Venezuela is the nation with the worst reputation in the region, worse than Iran and Israel. Only 43 percent of Latin Americans have a very good or good opinion of democracy in Venezuela, while the majority didn’t.

Not even its South American buddies gave it a lift. Only a minority in Argentina (42 percent), Brazil (38 percent), and Chile (37 percent) have a good opinion on Venezuela. In fact, its neighbor country, Colombia, is the one that grades it the worst, with only 17 percent positively rating the nation. Only Nicaragua (70 percent) and El Salvador (60 percent) have a positive view of Nicolás Maduro’s ruled nation.

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