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The State of the Region: Findings of the AmericasBarometer 2012 Survey

By Laura Zaccagnino
December 10, 2012

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A copy of the 2012 AmericasBarometer survey may be accessed here.

Spearheaded by Vanderbilt University, AmericasBarometer is the only truly regional public opinion survey in the Americas, covering 26 countries and sampling 178,000 people. What makes the project unique is that interviews are conducted face-to-face by universities in each home country to ensure an on-the-ground perspective. The newly published 2012 survey covers many of the most pressing and volatile issues in the region, such as democracy, governance, inequality, and citizen security.

On December 10, the Dialogue in conjunction with USAID co-hosted a public discussion with Mitchell Seligson and Elizabeth Zechmeister, directors of AmericasBarometer, about their findings and the implications for Latin America.

Overall, the results show the region is moving in the right direction. Most encouraging was the data on economic growth and income inequality. Latin America weathered the fiscal crisis quite well, even growing in spite of it; there has been a steady upward trend from 2004 to 2012 in how Latin Americans view their national economies. And though the region remains the most unequal in the world, the results show a steady decline in household wealth inequality and an increase in life satisfaction. Mark Feierstein, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at USAID, noted that Latin America is the only region in the world where the Gini coefficient is decreasing. He remained optimistic that in many countries foreign aid may no longer be necessary, citing rising star Panama, as more governments develop the capacity to fuel their own development. 

Still, according to Zechmesiter, corruption remains a “vexing problem” for the Americas as the level of corruption victimization reported in 2012 bounced back up to 2008 levels. Ironically, she noted, there is a perverse relationship between corruption and economic growth; in countries where the economy is doing well, people are more likely to tolerate corruption. However, Seligson cautioned against generalizing any of the findings. For instance, although overall results show decreasing inequality and crime victimization for 2012, both issues vary greatly across countries and sectors of society. Family background is still the best predictor of education and the traditionally marginalized are the most fearful about crime in their neighborhoods. And while feelings of insecurity have dropped in several countries, crime still remains a large concern in Mexico and Venezuela.

Support for democracy has increased over time, yet there are some troubling trends within the region. Several countries, including Honduras, Peru, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Ecuador, reported low levels of political tolerance- a potential red flag for democratic stability. Trust in political institutions also remains low, though not as low as in the past. The justice system, parliament, and political parties all received below 50% approval ratings, and only 36 percent of the region trusts political parties.  Sonia Picado, president of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica, suggested that many of the region’s institutions are in the midst of “crisis.” She cited the example of her home country in which discontent is high, as citizens feel the political system is too disconnected and unresponsive to their demands. It is therefore extremely important for governments across the region to increase the capacity of institutions responsible for economic policy, crime-fighting, and basic public service delivery.