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On December 2, 2020 the Inter-American Dialogue partnered with Luminate to host the webinar “Democracy in a Post-Pandemic Latin America.” The panel discussed the current state and future prospects of democratic institutions in the region, the role of challenges such as corruption, polarization, and online disinformation, and the findings of Luminate’s new public opinion research on shifting perceptions on democracy during the pandemic. The webinar featured moderation from Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, and analysis from Arturo Valenzuela, emeritus professor of Government and International Relations at Georgetown University, Ilona Szabó, co-founder and president of the Igarapé Institute, Felipe Estefan, Latin America director and head of the DC office at Luminate, and Laura Zommer, executive director and editor-in-chief at Chequeado.
Valenzuela began the conversation by outlining the historical context of democracy in the region and noting that it has had the longest period of constitutional governance in the world. The problem today is “a crisis of the rule of law that needs to be addressed” through the strengthening of representative government and political parties. According to Valenzuela, the dangers of unbridled populism from the right or left is that they frame leaders as saviors of the people through the implementation of direct democracy tools such as plebiscites or other direct appeals. Valenzuela suggested the need to strengthen legislatures and their relationships with the executive. He attributed the decline in citizen approval of democracy to the unmet expectations in the region, especially related to reducing inequality. Finally, he argued that a prosperous democracy in the Americas requires more transparency, increased multilateralism across the Americas, and the strengthening of political parties as “essential transmission belts of the will of the people.”
Speaking specifically on the situation in Brazil, Szabó highlighted both that Brazil is a young democracy and that the Bolsonaro administration has undermined its democratic institutions. The current situation positions the country at a crossroads; there are many conditions that must be met to prevent a period of illiberal democracy. In Brazil, branches of government need to react when there are breaches to their autonomy. Additionally, ministries that have had their attention diverted away from their original mandates by ideological political appointees, as is the case with the education ministry, should refocus on their core missions. Szabó highlighted the shocking speed at which civic space closed in Brazil even in the absence of a coup. There was a clear breakdown of the relationship between civic spaces and areas of government under the current administration. Szabó concluded by calling for “hack[ing] polarization…[talking] to those that we disagree with and trying to…bring people back to the table.”
Latin American democracy was already vulnerable before the pandemic due to crises of trust, legitimacy and representation, corruption, and the overall mixed results of the political system for citizens. The perceived mismanagement of the pandemic has served to exacerbate these pre-existing concerns. Based on this context, Estefan highlighted four key findings of Luminate’s public opinion research. The first is the overall decline in favorability toward democracy, especially among youths between the ages of 16 to 24. Estefan hypothesized that this outcome is a product of that age group not having experienced authoritarian regimes and instead, living through democracies that have achieved mixed results. Secondly, responses from Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia gave poor marks to their leaders for the handling of the pandemic and signaled that they would hypothetically not reelect incumbents for a second term (only applicable to Argentina and Mexico). Brazil’s president experienced a rise in popularity, which Estefan attributed to the implementation of a cash-transfer program. Thirdly, citizens in all surveyed states responded with low trust in sources of information, including traditional news media and scientists. This is a troubling trend given the current need for well-informed citizens in the midst of a public health emergency. Finally, Estefan pointed to the overall rise in support for the right to protest against sitting governments. Reflecting on these results Estefan emphasized the need for “a broad reimagining of democracy, and to reimagine democracy we need to actually engage youth in a conversation in which they think not on how they would replace democracy but how they can actually build the kind of democracy they deserve.”
Zommer concluded the conversation by discussing the challenge of online disinformation and how, although not a new phenomenon in the region, the pandemic has caused an “infodemic” that in turn increased the amount of low-quality content circulating on the web. In the face of this challenge, Zommer called upon greater collaboration between sectors, including the technology industries, electoral observers and people working in the political field. This would widen the reach of fact-checked and debunked information or alerts that warn consumers of the possibility of disinformation. Furthermore, this collaboration is necessary since “disinformation is not just a journalistic problem.” Regarding the role of large social media platforms, Zommer acknowledged that their new moderation role has been widely regarded as a positive change. However, she called for greater transparency on their part to understand the criteria that is being applied in moderation efforts in Latin America. This transparency would facilitate trust and help fact-checkers ensure their content is reaching those consuming the most disinformation. Finally, Zommer made the distinction that this phenomenon is not simply a technology issue, but that leaders are also responsible for taking advantage of these vulnerabilities and contributing to the disinformation ecosystem.
The webinar concluded with questions from the audience regarding the benefits and drawbacks of social media and technology as tools for interconnection, disinformation and illegal government surveillance. Panelists also discussed how to engage youth in conversations on democracy, and the Biden administration’s plans to hold a major democracy summit in its first year.