The 'Mid-Life Crisis' Of Latin American Democracy

As evidenced by this year's elections in Mexico and Brazil, people across the region are increasingly disenchanted with traditional parties and the democratic status quo.

Anti-government protests in Bolivia
Anti-government protests in Bolivia
Daniel Zovatto


BUENOS AIRES — It's now been 40 years since the so-called "third wave" of democratization kicked off in Latin America. And right on cue, many of the region's democracies are experiencing what seem to be veritable mid-life crises. As the results of this year's Latinobarómetro poll indicate, Latin American democracy is going through a seriously rough patch.

On average, support for democracy has fallen across the region, from 53% last year to just 48%, the lowest level since the financial crisis of 2001. Disaffection, in the meantime, is on the rise, as is indifference (people who don't care whether they live under a democratic or authoritarian system) — up 12 points in the past eight years, from 16% to 28%. The poll found that young people (aged 16-26) are particularly indifferent, which could have grave ramifications in the future.

The survey was taken before the current unrest in Venezuela, which is putting democracy to the test on the global stage

The poll found that young people (aged 16-26) are particularly indifferent.

Across the region, more than two-thirds of people (71%) say they are dissatisfied with the way democracy works, up from 51% in 2009, while just 24% express satisfaction with the system, the lowest level in 20 years. Among the nations in Latin America, Argentina ranked fourth in terms of support for democracy, at 58%, behind Venezuela, Costa Rica and Uruguay. With regards to satisfaction, it ranked fifth, at 27%, behind Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and Ecuador.

In most countries (Bolivia, Chile and the Dominican Republic are exceptions), respondents to the Latinobarómetro poll cited economics as their primary concern. Only 20% feel that things are improving economically. Nearly 50% believe economic progress has stalled, and 28% think things are getting worse. In Argentina, a serious recession and complicated social situation resulted in a 14-percentage-point drop in five years (tops in Latin America) in the number of people who termed themselves "middle class."

Second on the list of concerns for Latin Americans is crime, including in relatively safe places like Chile and Uruguay. Corruption, on the other hand, ranks as a top concern in only seven countries — Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic — despite its pervasiveness in the region and the gravity of certain high-profile cases. In Argentina, which has had a string of major corruption cases, only 3% of people cite it as one of the country's main problems.


Dissatisfaction with democracy is growing in many Latin American countries — Photo: Jimmy Villalta Jimmy Villalta/VW Pics/ZUMA

This discontent and sense of frustration has a negative impact on the legitimacy levels of institutions, and especially affects parliaments and parties, whose credibility has fallen to 13%. Voters are turning their backs on the political establishment and pinning their hopes instead on populist candidates, from both the left and right, as evidenced by the recent victories of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Their victories were made possible by low levels of support for democracy (34% in Brazil and 38% in Mexico), indifference to democratic v. authoritarian systems (41% in Brazil and 38% in Mexico), and very low satisfaction levels with the way democracy has been working (16% in Mexico, 9% in Brazil). Also, in both countries, people are angry with mediocre economic conditions and extensive corruption and crime.

And it's not just how people feel about democracy. There has also been a marked decline in the quality of Latin America's democratic systems, as The Economist observed in its 2017 Democratic Index. The British weekly sees Uruguay as Latin America's only mature democracy. It classified other countries as having either flawed democracies (Argentina), hybrid regimes, or authoritarian governments (Venezuela and Cuba).

So what exactly is turning so many people away from democracy? The lack of results. It's not that Latin Americans want more authoritarian rule. These days people are more pragmatic than ideological. What they seek are governments that will listen to them, operate with transparency and provide opportune and efficient responses to people's demands.

The numbers should be read as an early alarm bell.

Is there a risk that democracy could collapse region-wide? In the short term, no. But if the quality of our democracies continues to deteriorate, the populist and authoritarian trend is likely to gain even more momentum. In this scenario, more and more Latin Americans would be prepared to forego certain aspects of democracy in return for more economic welfare and security. And in that sense, the Latinobarómetro numbers should be read as an early alarm bell.

What should be done? A new agenda of actions is needed to recover the trust of citizens in politics, national elites, and institutions, expand spaces for public participation, and assure the effective nature of citizenship. The aim should be to strengthen governance and lay the foundations for a new phase of higher-quality democracies that can weather crises and complex challenges, such as the disruptive changes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We need governments, in other words, that can not only resist and recover — but also innovate.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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