The Pulse of Democracy in the Americas: Results of the 2023 AmericasBarometer

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Panelist at the 2023 AmericasBarometer Event Inter-American Dialogue

In collaboration with USAID, LAPOP Lab and Vanderbilt University, the Inter-American Dialogue co-hosted the highly anticipated launch of the 2023 AmericasBarometer report. In her opening remarks, President and CEO Rebecca Bill Chavez highlighted the importance of the AmericasBarometer in her research, providing valuable insights into the democratic landscape's challenges and opportunities within the hemisphere.

During her introductory remarks, Marcela Escobari, assistant administrator of the Latin American and Caribbean Bureau at USAID, acknowledged over two decades of collaboration with LAPOP and Vanderbilt University. She emphasized the survey's role in measuring perceptions of democracy and trust in institutions. Commending LAPOP's innovative methods, Escobari highlighted the value of the AmericasBarometer in addressing the challenges of demonstrating the effectiveness of democratic principles and market-based economies. She praised that the data was publicly available, emphasizing its global use by researchers. Using examples from USAID's initiatives in Peru and Honduras, she illustrated how the AmericasBarometer informs policies. Additionally, she acknowledged LAPOP's contribution to national strategies, citing Ecuador's anti-corruption efforts. She expressed anticipation for continued use of the AmericasBarometer in informing work across the hemisphere, concluding with congratulations for another successful year and regional survey.

Liz Zechmeister, director at LAPOP Lab and Cornelius Vanderbilt professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, began the presentation of the 2023 AmericasBarometer findings by acknowledging the collaborative efforts within the team at LAPOP and Vanderbilt University, highlighting the role of pedagogy in their work. Proudly marking the tenth round of the AmericasBarometer, she expressed gratitude for the support from USAID as well as various partners in different countries and emphasized the report’s significance as the pulse of democracy in the Americas, offering insights into citizens' perspectives across the region. Zechmeister outlined the key features of the AmericasBarometer, detailing its nationally representative surveys, standardized sample design, and the creation of a time series spanning 20 years. She noted that the 2023 AmericasBarometer covered data from 26 countries, providing ample material for analysis. Moving on to the key findings, she revealed that the region had settled into a new equilibrium concerning attitudes towards democracy. She highlighted shifts in public support and satisfaction with democracy over time. Additionally, she addressed public attitudes towards core democratic values, specifically focusing on the rule of law. The data revealed that approximately two out of five individuals found it acceptable for politicians to act outside the law to fulfill promises. Notably, certain countries, including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Honduras, displayed a higher tolerance for such extra-legal measures, with over 50 percent of the public expressing acceptance. These specific findings provided a detailed snapshot of the region's political landscape, offering valuable insights into evolving sentiments and attitudes towards democracy and rule of law.

Adding to the presentation of the 2023 AmericasBarometer, Noam Lupu, associate director at LAPOP and associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, explained that the report explores different paths to garnering public support for democracy. One crucial challenge identified is the establishment of institutional trust, which is linked to fulfilling democratic promises. According to Lupu, a significant promise of democracy is to provide favorable economic conditions for the population. However, the data presented reveals an unprecedented level of pessimism regarding economic growth and conditions in the region. Notably, food insecurity has also increased dramatically. Crime is identified as another escalating issue across the region, with crime victimization increasing from 2021 to 2023. Approximately a quarter of Latin Americans reported being victims of crime in the 12 months prior to the survey, contributing to a decline in trust in institutions and a motivation for emigration. Support for democracy, as Lupu highlighted, is influenced by trust in democratic institutions. Unfortunately, trust in these institutions remains low across the region. Even in countries where institutional erosion has occurred, such as El Salvador and Mexico, public trust in elections persists to some extent. Lupu explained that the report discusses two paths forward in building institutional trust and support for democracy. One approach is through good governance, meeting citizens' expectations and delivering on democratic promises. The alternative path, however, involves populism, where a charismatic leader centralizes power and personally delivers on governmental promises, bypassing traditional institutions. Examining the populist path, he highlighted the concerns about freedom of speech among government critics. Furthermore, Lupu discussed the report's lessons on youth and their commitment to democracy. Contrary to the common narrative suggesting declining support for democracy among young people, the 2023 AmericasBarometer reveals that today's youth are more committed to democracy than the youth was 20 years ago. 

Moving into the panel discussion, Deborah Ullmer, regional director of Latin America and the Caribbean Programs at the National Democratic Institute, elaborated on the challenges that democracy faces in the region, including the rise of authoritarianism, a preference for populist leaders, attempts to manipulate election results, misuse of power, increased use of military and states of emergency, and prevalence of false information. Ullmer discussed specific cases, such as El Salvador, where there is a conflict between a sizable pro-democracy population and public backing for abusive policies against crime. She also emphasized the slow-burning crisis of confidence in democracy with elected officials eroding trust by legitimizing restrictions on rights, civic space, and electoral competition. Ullmer discussed the situation in Guatemala, where a landslide victory for an anti-corruption champion renewed hope but the elected government faced challenges from accusations of a coup carried out by institutions. The discussion extended to Peru, facing a crisis of representation and ongoing instability with high public disapproval of both the executive and the legislature. Then to Haiti, where, two years after the assassination of President Moïse, the nation has grappled with political stalemate, a lack of legitimacy, and the expansion of criminal gangs. Ullmer concluded by emphasizing that a democracy failing to meet expectations risks losing its legitimacy.

Renata Segura, deputy director of the Latin America and the Caribbean Program at International Crisis Group, centered her discussion on the perception of democracy under a context of conflict and insecurity. Drawing attention to specific instances, such as El Salvador, Segura stressed the importance of reevaluating preconceived notions about Salvadorans supporting Bukele, advocating for recognition of tangible improvements in the lives of the population. Segura provocatively questioned whether the term democracy was being used merely as a proxy for Bukele or an expression of the system delivering basic security. In discussing El Salvador's situation, she noted the significant improvements in insecurity over the last two years, despite erosion in institutions. She highlighted surprising support for courts and freedom of speech, raising questions about how basic security rights shaped people's understanding of democracy. Turning briefly to Colombia and Mexico, Segura expressed puzzlement over the sharp decline in trust in democracy. She hypothesized a link to the 2016 election, suggesting a hangover effect from high hopes for the peace agreement in Colombia. On the other hand, in Mexico, despite high levels of violence, especially gender-based violence, she noted the surprising resilience of trust in democracy and the military, hinting at a normalization sentiment among Mexicans.

Manuel Orozco, director of the Migration, Remittances and Development at the Dialogue, addressed four key issues related to migration. First, he emphasized the importance of data in understanding migration patterns and intentions. Orozco highlighted the significance of distinguishing between opinions and facts, particularly in relation to the intention to migrate. He referred to the data confirming that between August 2008 and October 2023, 9 million people presented themselves at the US border, indicating a substantial and persistent intention to migrate. Second, Orozco discussed the relationship between migration and governance. He pointed out that countries experiencing high levels of migration, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Honduras, shared political difficulties. Orozco suggested a fundamental political dimension to migration issues, noting a positive correlation between concerns about concentration of power and the likelihood of migration. Third, he addressed the novelty of the research, which differentiated between the likelihood and very likelihood of migration based on different variables, citing examples such as the case of Nicaragua, where one in 10 people left the country, aligning with the survey data. Finally, Orozco discussed the policy implications of the migration issue. He argued that democracy and migration are foreign policy problems that require more attention. Despite the US State Department prioritizing democracy in foreign policy, Orozco expressed concern about the lack of effective tools to address the root causes of migration. 

During the Q&A period, participants discussed the multidimensional nature of democracy, focusing on three core dimensions: accountability and responsiveness of elected leaders, adherence to the rule of law, and the presence of checks and balances. They also explored how high public support for democracy may be driven by satisfaction with politicians delivering on promises, even if other dimensions like rule of law and checks and balances are weaker. The conversation concluded with reflections on the impact of political culture, biases in survey questions, and the cyclical nature of global events influencing satisfaction with democracy.

Watch the event recording here:

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