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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest

By David Roberts:

First the good news. Support for democracy in Latin America is at its highest level since the late 1990s, according to the latest version of the highly respected Latinobarómetro survey, published a few days ago. And that's despite the quasi coup in Honduras and the financial crisis-cum-economic slump.

Overall explicit support for democracy - those believing it is preferable to any other system of government - stands at 59%, according to the survey of some 18,000 people in all Latin American countries except Cuba. Last year the figure came in at 57% and the year before 54%.

"Implicit" approval, meaning accepting democracy has its shortcomings but it's still better than other systems - what Latinobarómetro calls Churchillian democracy based on his famous quote paraphrased in the headline of this column - stands at 76% in the 2009 survey.

"In summary… Latin America is more democratic after the 2009 crisis, it is more tolerant, is happier," the survey's authors conclude, as reforms in the region are starting to bear fruit. It seems we've never had it so good, to paraphrase another former British prime minister.

Interestingly, support is strongest in Venezuela, a country where many regard democracy as being under threat at present, at 85% in the explicit category and 90% in the implicit one, the 2009 version of the survey concludes. Perhaps if Cuba had been included it would have scored even higher. Next, in the explicit category, come Uruguay, Costa Rica and Bolivia.

A little disturbingly, however, at the other end of the scale support is a mere 42% in Mexico (explicit) and 62% implicit. It's also worryingly low in Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Guatemala, at least according to the 115 page survey produced by the Santiago-based NGO.

It's easy to pick holes in a survey of this type, but one thing is for sure: Latin America is in much better shape now than it was two or three decades ago, at least in terms of democracy and stability.

In the 1970s and 80s, military regimes ruled large parts of South America (Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay) while Paraguay was under the iron fist of Alfredo Stroessner. Bolivia's "palace coups" were all too frequent, and Mexico was effectively a one-party state.

In the 1980s, civil wars were raging in Central America, Cuba was seen as a real military threat to much of the region and Peru was rocked by terrorist violence, while Colombia was being torn apart by guerrillas, drug barons and paramilitaries. Then there was the US invasion of Panama, and in the 1990s came the Zapatista "uprising" in Mexico's Chiapas.

And while the recent crisis has hit the region hard, especially Mexico and those countries more dependent on manufacturing and US markets, things need to be put into perspective. In the 1980s, we had hyperinflation in many countries in the region, the infamous debt crisis and banking meltdown after meltdown, and that's not to mention the Tequila and Asian crises that followed.

Today, with the one obvious exception of Cuba and the less obvious one of Honduras given the recent elections and the prospect that the "civil coup" will simply peter out after Porfirio Lobo takes office, democracy in some form or another prevails universally throughout the region, as witnessed most recently by Sunday's elections in Chile. In the meantime, there are plenty of signs that the region and the world are emerging from the recent economic crisis.

So, reasons to be cheerful there are indeed, although as Latinobarómetro says, the positive results of this year's survey provide no motive to celebrate just yet given the problems in the region and the potential to return to instability.