How to Stop the Increasingly Authoritarian Slide in Latin America

This commentary was originally published in The Hill on March 2, 2023.

Hard not to throw up one’s hands and bemoan the drift to authoritarianism that one sees in country after country in the Western Hemisphere. As the Economist recently wrote, Latin America has witnessed the sharpest regression in democracy of any region in the twenty-first century and is “heading in the wrong direction.” 

The Economist not only lists the outright authoritarian regimes of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the failed state of Haiti, it also cites eight others in Latin America that are hybrid or flawed. They still have vestiges of democracy but govern poorly and corruptly with low political participation.

What is key, as U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) administrator Samantha Power also recently argued in Foreign Affairs, is to do more and to do it much better in countering the causes of democratic backsliding. She supports strengthening civil society, independent journalists, and free and fair elections, but she argues to also address the “indignity of corruption, inequality and a lack of economic opportunity.”

Researcher José Miguel Cruz raised a more difficult issue for those seeking more effective security forces to counter drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations. When police and military power are deployed with weak or corrupt courts and tainted or neutered prosecutors, violence comes wearing a badge, and often with faces covered in ski masks. He cites El Salvador where the fight against the Maras has become “a justification to strengthen security forces without oversight, ignore human rights standards, and leverage the justice system to serve corrupt government officials.” 

For some, a lack of transparency and disrespect for civil liberties and due process are acceptable losses if gangs are broken up and cartel chiefs are killed. One problem is that short-term results are often illusory; cartels splinter and new and often more brutal leaders appear. Another problem is that innocent families are caught in the crossfire in Central America and Mexico.

The gangs exist in Central America in part because we deported undocumented young men after the Cold War conflicts first drove them north to Los Angeles. Since we had a hand in initiating and perpetuating those conflicts, the United States has a special responsibility to come up with better solutions than charging the military with civilian law enforcement.

We clearly need to do a better job of bolstering democratic leaders in fragile nations. That means using bilateral and multilateral aid and private foundations to actually guarantee health care, decent education, housing and access to public services—to all—not just to those who can pay. It also requires monitoring private investment we endorse to ensure it respects Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) norms, including the right of workers to organize and the need to respect an ever more vulnerable environment.

So what should happen to put some of these ideas into practice? The second Summit for Democracy is coming up March 29–30 in Costa Rica, one of the standout nations in the hemisphere in adherence to democratic norms. This summit is not only hosted by the Biden administration but by the Netherlands, South Korea, and Zambia. 

While the heads of state and senior officials will do most of the speech-making, for the Americas, it would be a good idea for the hosts to bring together hemisphere civil society, business leaders and the next generation of political party leaders. They rarely sit down together. This would be a good occasion for them to try and define a common agenda that includes advancing the rule of law and confronting corruption; supporting security measures that respect constitutional rights and agreeing on economic plans, including taxes, to assure public services, access to jobs and inclusive economic growth in this digitalized world. 

One other thought. Business as usual, clearly, has not been working. The summit host governments also might think about pledging to a new Democracy Fund at the level of $10 billion for Latin America and the Caribbean over the next decade that specifically pursues the political and development goals vital to supporting democracy. Those monies would be over and above what the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and donors currently plan.

To advise them on how to use that Democracy Fund, they might engage an outside nongovernmental panel, perhaps one that drafts former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and former Canadian Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour, both former United Nations High Commissioners of Human Rights and an expert on poverty and equity in the region like Nora Lustig. 

What is clear is that new ways must be found to end the slide toward authoritarianism that we see taking place in the region. To do that, our institutions must demonstrate to people from the pampas of Argentina to the playas of Mexico and the Caribbean that democracy can deliver.

Mark L. Schneider is a senior adviser with the Americas Program and the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and former director of the Peace Corps.

Mark L. Schneider
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Americas Program and Human Rights Initiative