Uruguay and Costa Rica global role models as democracies

Democracy in Latin America is under pressure. The region continues to be the continent outside Western Europe and North America with the highest density of democracy in the world. Uruguay and Costa Rica even rank ahead of many European countries and the USA.

by Alexander Busch, Latin America correspondent for Handelsblatt and Neue Zürcher Zeitung


The bad news first: in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) annual Democracy Index, the quality of democracies in Latin America fell for the sixth consecutive year. “Not only was this the sharpest decline recorded by the index in the world in 2021,” the EIU said, “it was also the largest deterioration experienced by any region since the Democracy Index was launched.”

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened frustration with politics. Democratic governments seem increasingly unable to respond adequately to social and economic problems. As in previous years, there were large protests throughout Latin America in 2021.

At the same time, tolerance of authoritarian governments has grown. The popularity of governments that openly oppose democratic institutions, such as those of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, or Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, demonstrate this.

In total, five Latin American countries were downgraded in the 2021 Index: Chile, still a “full democracy” in 2019, became a “flawed democracy” again as a result of the pandemic. Ecuador, Mexico and Paraguay dropped to the status of “hybrid regimes. Haiti joined the group of authoritarian regimes Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.

The good news is that Latin America – along with Western Europe and North America – remains the region with the highest average democracy score. Around 80 percent of the 664 million people there live in democracies.

The top position of some countries in the index is astonishingly positive: Uruguay, for example, is in 13th place, two places ahead of Germany. Uruguay is one of the few countries worldwide that has improved its democracy in the index for more than 15 years. Costa Rica is the second Latin American country among the 22 complete democracies of Latin America, on the same level as Austria. And Chile, ranked 25th in the world, is also on the same level as Spain, for example, in the quality of its democracy.

By comparison, all three countries are well ahead of the USA, Italy or Belgium on the EIU’s index.

After the sometimes highly polarized 2021 elections in Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Honduras, decisions are due this year in Latin America in Colombia and Brazil. These will be fiercely contested, with candidates on the right and left of the political spectrum with little in common.

For the further development of democracies in Latin America, the course and outcome of the elections and the formation of governments in these two countries will be key events for the entire region.

COVID-19 in Latin America

Development of case numbers in the region

Currently reported cases in the countries

Share of people vaccinated by country

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