Latin America Update: Outlook on Democracy

Monday, June 5, 2023

Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; @WillGFreeman

David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of Government, Harvard University

Mexico City Bureau Chief, Washington Post


Regent’s Professor, Georgia State University; Nonresident Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; CFR Member

Panelists discuss the status of democracy in Latin America, including the possibility of increased U.S. support, and the trends contributing to fluctuations in democracy across the region. 

This meeting is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.


MCCOY: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on “Latin America Update: Outlook on Democracy.” I’m Jennifer McCoy, regent’s professor at Georgia State University and nonresident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

So I’d like to introduce three excellent panelists: Mary Beth Sheridan is the Mexico City bureau chief for the Washington Post; Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller professor of Latin American Studies and professor of government at Harvard University; and Will Freeman is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So today’s topic of Latin American democracy is a—is a very important one, a concerning one in some ways, because like much of the world Latin American democracy as a region has been eroding in its democracy scores, its rankings, slightly since its high point in 2001. A few countries have maintained their, you know, fairly stable high scores on democracy, the usual suspects of Uruguay, Costa Rica; even Panama has been stable. A couple of countries have shown a recovery from prior serious backsliding: Ecuador since Correa left; Honduras after the Hernández government. Colombia had declined a bit after the Duque—during the Duque government. But yet, we’ve seen it’s been—the region has been wracked with social protests since 2019, now a growing fear of organized crime and criminal gangs, and really pendulum swings as voters are throwing the bums out and voting in kind of the opposite ideology, as well as some really serious governance and political crises in some countries. And of course, we have two vexing, persistent, clear democratic breakdowns in Nicaragua and Venezuela.

So I’d like to start by asking each of the panelists to kind of give a broad—their overall assessment of the broad trends in the region. And specifically, will each of you tell us the two or three greatest threats to Latin American democracy that you see now, as well as any sources of resilience or progress? And you might also include a comment of how you think Latin American democracy is faring when compared with the rest of the world. So, Will, could we start with you?

FREEMAN: Sure. It would be my pleasure.

Thank you, Jennifer, for starting us off. Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this really important and timely conversation on the state of democracy in the region.

So we often hear that democracy is today in crisis in Latin America, and I think there’s a grain of truth to that. You know, the Economist intelligence unit puts together an index of democracy rankings, sort of an aggregate score, and according to that data no region of the world has experienced as dramatic a decline as Latin America since the year 2008. But at the same time, Latin America still maintains a higher score on that index than any other region of the world apart from North America and Western Europe. So I think it’s worth putting things in perspective. Latin America remains largely if not overwhelmingly democratic, despite the fact that one in three homicides in the world occurs there, that one in three COVID deaths occurred in the region of all those that happened in the world, that it’s still the most unequal region on the planet. So I think, given all that, the resilience of democracy in Latin America over the last few decades is actually, you know, quite remarkable.

Now, all that said, I do think there are some important threats to just stake out. You know, one is that so we used to worry about hyper-powerful presidents in the region. You know, scholars even talked about hyper-presidentialism, the idea that the executive branch throughout the region had this tendency to amass powers for itself, to trample over checks and balances, to subjugate judiciaries. I think we should be a bit less worried about that tendency today and more worried about venal, power-hungry legislatures throughout the region. So you still do see the occasional hyper-powerful president, like Nayib Bukele in El Salvador or López Obrador in Mexico. But in I would argue a larger number of countries, what you see are a number of factions that are generally not ideologically aligned that control the legislature that tend to bully weak presidents, make it very

hard for them to govern, and often kind of converge on the lowest common denominator you can imagine, whether that’s weakening a judiciary so it can’t investigate corruption or simply growing their own budgets. So one threat I think we should watch out for are these sort of legislatures out of control.

But you know, I think another one are really weak rule-of-law institutions—courts, prosecutors, tax agencies that simply can’t do their jobs or do their jobs very unevenly, right, applying the law to some but not to others. Now, to some extent that’s always been a problem for the region, but I’d argue that we’re seeing it become more and more of an acute problem that’s generating governance failures more over time.

And finally, I’ll just say that I’m more worried about the state of democracy in Mexico and Central America than South America writ large, although there are some exceptions that that characterization.

MCCOY: Thanks, Will.

Well, with that let’s go to Mexico, where Mary Beth is coming to us from. What is your view?

SHERIDAN: (Off mic)—about Mexico and Central America, I would say that one of the things that’s been—one of the greatest threats to democracy is that countries that have transitioned out of authoritarian systems or dictatorships, they’ve really struggled to deliver results on things that the people really care about. So, to take Mexico as an example—which ended its one-party system pretty thoroughly in the year 2000, the first time in seventy years there was a non-PRI president elected—you’ve had an economy growing very slowly. You’ve had parties come into power that were really unable to or unwilling to change the way things were done; that is, a lot of corruption still was a feature of the government. You had elites—political and economic elites still very much able to have their sway, very weak justice system. And security got a lot worse.

In part, you know, this changing of—the alteration of power, which was a great thing for democracy, also meant that a lot of the sort of protection rackets that the PRI government had established on all levels of government for organized crime, a lot of them broke down. So there was a really increased fight for power.

So, you know, Mexicans started this era of democracy with tremendous hopes, but by 2017, when López Obrador was really starting his campaign, according to, you know, the polling done by AmericasBarometer, which is a terrific regional survey, less than half of Mexicans supported democracy. They just didn’t see that there was—that this new system had improved their lives. And I think—so when you had a candidate like López Obrador who said, hey, that system hasn’t made your life better, that wasn’t real democracy, we need a historic transformation, it was a very appealing idea. And he was, of course, elected, you know, freely and overwhelmingly in 2018.

I also think, you know, looking to Central America, you see the case of El Salvador, where the democratic era of election brought in presidents who one after the other have been investigated or convicted of corruption, terrible gang violence that really terrorized people in their neighborhoods—that the gangs carried out terrible extortion. So when Bukele presented himself as sort of a can-do guy who could fix that problem, he clearly used very undemocratic means to weaken the gangs. He’s declared a state of exception, suspended a lot of rights. There’s 68,000 people or so that he’s jailed under his anti-gang program, with very few—almost, you know, no, you know, judicial system functioning in that whole roundup. There’s new reports of people being, you know, killed and tortured and so on. Nonetheless, he’s very popular because I think he was seen as solving a problem that the democratic system appeared incapable of solving.

I guess I would say, in terms of any signs of progress in this somewhat dim presentation, there’s a few, perhaps, somewhat smaller things but actually quite significant. I think in Mexico, one thing that’s fascinating is as part of all the changes in electoral law and—there’s just a whole series of legal changes—women’s—advocates, women’s groups managed to take advantage of that process to institute what are probably the most—some of the most effective gender quotas in the world. Mexico has, you know, half the Congress is female, a growing

number of governors. And there’s something called Parity for All. They’re actually trying to also transform the judicial system to make opportunities for women as—you know, make it as sort of fair as possible.

I would also say, on the labor front, one of the, I think, really interesting things going on under AMLO is unions are being allowed more independence. Part of that is being also supported by the USMCA. The U.S. government pushed for that quite hard. But you see things like an end to some of the really abusive practices that were used by businesses, like outsourcing, subcontracting, to both—so they could avoid paying taxes, and—but ultimately, to screw workers. So you see some advances on that front, for sure.

MCCOY: Thank you.

And, Steve, what do you see as the threats and resilience?

LEVITSKY: I’m going to be pretty brief, because I think both Will and Mary Beth pointed to some excellent points, with which I almost entirely agree. First of all, like Will, I think that Latin America—Latin American democracies, with the important exceptions of Venezuela and Nicaragua, have shown pretty remarkable resilience over the last couple decades. The last couple decades have not been easy. The international environment is far, far less favorable to democracy. The regional environment is a lot less favorable to democracy than it was back in the heady 1990s. As Will pointed out, the problems of insecurity, of long-standing inequality, plus COVID, have generated massive discontent in the region.

And the fact that the level of democracy, with blips here and there, has been basically flatlined in Latin America for the last two decades is actually a pretty strong performance. I think my greatest concern, which has already been pointed to, is the really profound and widespread public discontent and public distrust of democratic institutions. Elected governments across the region have been unable—for pretty deep-seated, structural reasons—have been unable to deliver the goods in some pretty basic areas. First and foremost in recent years, the area of public security. And, you know, we know from history, we know from cases all over the world that when people feel insecure they tend to be very quick to abandon liberal rights and to turn to the more authoritarian governments, usually of the right.

And so the risk—given the level of violence, given the level of criminal violence and public insecurity, the risk of voters turning to right-wing populist figures, along the lines of Bukele is pretty high. And I worry a lot about the Bukele model. You see politicians across the region openly attempting—not clear with how successful—but openly attempting to replicate the Bukele model, at least in terms of their appeal. So given the level of public discontent, the perception among 70-80 percent of Latin Americans, in many countries, that elected governments are not serving the interests of the people, that they are working to benefit a small few rather than the majority, leaves countries vulnerable to populism. And populist, over the last couple of decades, have been the primary killers of democracy in the region.

One of the things that gives me hope in terms of sources of resilience is just the entrenchment of competitive elections in Latin America. Latin Americans may hate their politicians, they may distrust their democratic institutions, but almost nobody anywhere in Latin America is wanting to walk away from the right to throw out governments they don’t like. And the fact that we’re seeing turnover in every minimally competitive democracy in the region is—I mean, in terms of governance, governability, they’re worrying signs. But it’s also a very healthy thing for democracy. Latin Americans are disgusted with their governments and are using the right to vote to throw out governments they don’t like. And nobody—nobody in Latin America—is calling for a China model. Nobody wants to give up the right to throw out governments they don’t like. And I think that is going to continue to be a source of resilience in the region.

MCCOY: Great. Thank you.

Well, speaking of populists, that you mentioned, Mary Beth, Lopez Obrador in Mexico is considered by some analysts as just the latest populist autocrat threatening democracy in Mexico. He was constrained somewhat by a recent supreme court ruling that annulled part of his electoral reform that people feared was going to weaken electoral integrity. But he also remains extremely popular, and his party is popular. So as we look forward to elections next year, 2024, how do you see these elections? Will they be tainted by a weakened electoral council and an unlevel playing field? And what may happen if, as currently the polls indicate his party is ahead in surveys, how do you see Mexico’s democracy evolving if there is a subsequent Morena government?

SHERIDAN: Right. So I would say that the INAI has weathered these attempts to weaken it. As you pointed out, the Supreme Court has basically thrown out AMLO’s effort to reform it and shrink its staff, and so on. There’s more rulings to come, but it seems like they pretty overwhelmingly are not going to allow those. And the INAI—it was interesting over the weekend—we had elections yesterday in Mexico state and in Coahuila state in the north. And they went off, you know, quite well. Mexico’s electoral system is pretty robust at this point. I would say—there’s probably is going to be some concerns over the next year. I mean, AMLO would like to cut their budget and so on. But I do think it’ll—it’ll, you know, hold the line.

I think one of the things that so much attention has been paid to the INAI, for obvious reasons. I would argue that one of the really big threats that doesn’t get as much attention in terms of elections is just the growing role of organized crime. The INAI, for all its virtues, has really never been very good at regulating or investing money illegally put into campaigns. Everyone knows that organized crime invests in lots of different races, but there’s really been almost no successful efforts to investigate that or solve it.

And what we’ve seen in the last couple years, like with the midterm and 2021, is that organized crime groups have become so strong, and controlling territory so important to them, that they not only have killed candidates and political party figures, they’ve intimidated candidates, forced them to drop out of the race. And we’ve even had situations where now both at the governor’s race levels and mayoral levels, organized crime groups go out and kidnap, like, large numbers of people either belonging to the structure of the opposite party, or they kidnap local officials in order to force them to get their own residents to vote a certain way.

So, to me, the threat from organized crime—I mean, the INAI was really designed to address the kind of old-fashioned, you know, fraud that happened under the—it wasn’t designed to confront something like this which is really though, especially with Mexico’s weak justice system. I think in terms of the elections, as you point out, Morena has a huge lead, largely stemming from Lopez Obrador’s popularity. I think the only question mark, I would say, about whether they win next year is there’s sort of three candidates within Morena right now who are sort of seen as the sort of likely ones to compete for the nomination. And the two leaders are Claudia Sheinbaum, the mayor of Mexico City, and Marcelo Ebrard, who is the foreign minister. There’s a third candidate a little bit—well, substantially behind, I’d say. The government minister Adán Augusto López.

But Claudia Sheinbaum is seen as AMLO’s favorite. Adán Augusto López is also seen as very close to him. So I think if one of those wins, and if Marcel Ebrard doesn’t see the process as fair, and if he were to bolt to another party, that could really throw everything into—you know, it could be a brand-new scenario. But if that doesn’t happen—I’m not saying that’s likely. But if that doesn’t happen, I think it’s almost impossible to think Morena will lose, quite honestly.

So I think that opens up a bunch of questions for, you know, whither Mexico after AMLO? One is if Morena can manage to capture a supermajority in Congress, which would allow the party to change the constitution pretty easily. I think that’s a real question mark. And this—in the midterm elections we had two years ago, they had had a supermajority, and then they lost it. So, you know, and I honestly think that the opposition, a lot of their focus is going to be Congress in the upcoming election. I don’t think they’re likely to win, to be honest with you.

And then, I think another really huge question is how much will Morena stick together? Because it’s a party that—it’s like the PRI in certain ways, but it’s unlike the PRI. AMLO, you know, did really an extraordinary thing in ten years, created a party that, you know, virtually became the dominant party in—you know, in Congress, in states, obviously the presidency. He, you know, created it out of scratch, practically. But he has really not devoted a lot of time or effort to building a party. It’s kind of—he has won victories, he’s stitched together this coalition of people really of all kinds of ideologies. What unites Morena is AMLO. And it’s not as institutional as the PRI, that really was very, very organized, you know. So when he leaves, this party which already has had a lot of in-fighting, how much will they really begin to stick together, vote together, et cetera? I think that’s a really big question.

And then the final question, I would say, is what will AMLO’s influence be? Because, you know, the traditional PRI arrangement in Mexico is that the president was all-powerful for six years, he named his successor, but then he got out of the picture. And the party really ensured that that president was gone, right? Now, in this case, you know, AMLO says he’ll leave at the end of six years. Most people do expect him to do that. But I think it’s unclear how much influence he’ll wield behind the scenes.

I think that either of the candidates who could replace him are not viewed as having the same political savvy, the same charisma, et cetera. You know, Claudia Sheinbaum is seen as very much his mentee. So how much will AMLO try to really exert influence? And I think one thing to bear in mind is under his government there is a—they created a recall mechanism. So three years into the next presidency there can be a recall vote. So I think he may be able to continue to exert power behind the scenes, but it’s unclear yet how much that’ll happen.

MCCOY: OK. Thanks.

And, Steve, would you like to add something?

LEVITSKY: Just really quickly. I think in terms of democracy, the—I think the news is mostly good. First of all, you know, there are a lot of debates about no reelection, bans on reelection, whether reelection should be legal. In this particular case, Mexico’s very old, established ban on presidential reelection is doing a lot of good. AMLO, as Mary Beth pointed out, Morena is a pretty personalistic movement. AMLO is an extremely talented, and obviously very popular, politician. Nobody else in Morena comes up even to his shoulder. And so the fact that he cannot be reelected I think almost inevitably will weaken the next government, and pretty significantly. That may or may not be good for governability and governance, but in terms of democracy the great threat in recent years has been that the opposition is incredibly weak and the AMLO government is, one, very popular and has had either supermajorities or large majorities in the legislature.

All of that’s going to change the next term. This—whoever is the candidate, is not going to be anywhere near as electorally potent as AMLO. They almost certainly will not win a supermajority in the legislature. They’re not going to—they’re not going to have the same electoral force as AMLO had in 2018. And then, AMLO’s presence behind the scene, I think, is likely to further weaken the government. There will almost certainly be divisions, conflict, tension between whoever the new president is and AMLO. Again, that may not be good for governability or for the fate of the next government, but all of this is almost certainly going to weaken Morena and reduce the asymmetries in power between what is right now a very powerful AMLO-led Morena government and a very weak opposition. So I think all of that bodes pretty well for democracy.

MCCOY: OK. Great. Yeah, that’s a really interesting take.

So let’s move south. And, Will, I want to ask you about two countries I know you’ve been following, especially Ecuador. Two countries in the midst of constitutional crisis, between the presidents and their Congresses, which are Peru and Ecuador. Could you just very briefly kind of tell us what happened in each one, but more especially where you see them going?

FREEMAN: Sure, happy to. It’s a tough job to do it briefly, just because of the complexity of these two situations. But let me draw out a few parallels in terms of what we’re seeing that’s similar in these two cases. So both have been unusually unstable, even by the standards of the region. And I think that’s for a few reasons, because there’s a few factors that are powerfully present in these countries which we also see in others.

So one is the anti-vote, the idea that electorates in Peru and Ecuador, every time election—you know, the election day comes around, they’re voting primarily based on who they want to block from power, not who they want to see govern. The second factor is you have power-hungry legislatures, a little bit like I talked about earlier, in these two countries, right? You have legislatures that have been obstructing presidents from day one, that have tried to grow their own powers, and they’re really now the important institution that’s governing each country. And then finally, you have politicians—very important politicians—in both Peru and Ecuador who made it their number-one goal to avoid going to jail for corruption.

So I’ll just briefly break down each of those factors and how it’s contributing to the current crisis. So one, on the anti-vote. If we take a step back, politics in both Peru and Ecuador for years has been oriented around a central cleavage. That’s support for or opposition to authoritarian populists. In Peru, it’s the Fujimoristas, the followers of right-wing ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who governed, concentrated power, in the 1990s. In Ecuador, it’s supporters of left-populist ex-President Rafael Correa, who was in office from 2007 to ’17. The similarity here is that in both countries you get these big blocs of voters, some who will basically vote for anyone to keep the Fujimoristas or the Correistas out of power, and then also their die-hard supporters.

So in early 2021, both Ecuador and Peru elected new presidents in contests that were very powerfully shaped by this dynamic. In Peru, it was leftist president Pedro Castillo and in Ecuador it was conservative Guillermo Lasso. But what they shared in common is that each of these men had very limited bases of their own genuine support. It was basically the perfect recipe for a weak mandate for weak presidents, who on top of that were obstructed and really besieged by opposition-led legislatures from day one.

So a little bit about those legislatures. In both cases, you saw them take advantage of constitutional mechanisms, specifically impeachment processes, and push those mechanisms to see what their absolute legal limit would be. In both cases, you saw legislatures try and fail to impeach Castillo and Lasso. But ultimately get very close to succeeding. Now, what varied is how the presidents in Ecuador and Peru responded to that. In Peru, President Castillo illegally tried to shut down the legislature and judiciary. That attempt absolutely failed in just a matter of a few hours because he lacked the support of a political base and also of the military. In Ecuador, you had a little different situation. You had Lasso facing impeachment. Ultimately, he used a legal mechanism to close Congress and call snap elections. He was supported by the military, which again is a really key difference.

But, again, where does that leave both countries? So abstracting a little bit, in both countries this was a win for the opposition—the opposition, which controlled the legislature. In Peru, predominantly the Fujimoristas. In Ecuador, predominantly the Correistas. And now what you have are legislatures where essentially—which are essentially dominating the very weak presidents who are left in power. So Lasso, or his time remaining in office, essentially, you know, can’t really govern on his own. He’s really overshadowed by the Correista-led legislature. And, you know, similarly the successor to Castillo, Dina Boluarte in Peru, is governing in the shadow of factions in Congress.

So looking ahead, I think you asked about whether or not there is reason to see light at the end of the tunnel here for either. You know, similar to both what Mary Beth and Steve have remarked upon, I’m not sure that we’re—you know, it’s that easy to consolidate power. Often what you have in Latin America these days are, you know, even if you have a powerful set of factions in the legislature, or a president who tries to put in place a successor, it often turns out that that successor is not so obedient after all and that new schisms or fissures emerge. So I don’t think that either—you know, there’s no kind of omnipotent political force in either Peru or Ecuador that’s going to be able to hold onto power to kind of create a new Venezuela or Nicaragua-type authoritarian situation.

But that doesn’t mean that either country’s out of the woods. I think the much bigger risk is that you have a sort of emptying out of power, the lack of concentration of power, of government institutions that really can’t rise to the task of solving basic governance challenges. And I don’t think that that necessarily leaves either country in a better place.

MCCOY: OK. Thanks. Yeah, they are complex situations.

Steve, if you want to add anything you can in that in your answer to my next question, because I want to squeeze in one question to you before we turn to the audience. And that is, moving around South America, we’ve got particularly two younger leftists elected for the first time. The first time in Colombia ever as president and first time for a long time in Chile. And they came in with big, bold ideas for reform and to address deep inequalities and deep social grievances from the population. Yet, each of those—Boric in Chile and Petro in Colombia—have sort of run aground. And so my question is, is it polarization that is stopping the possibility of these reforms? Were they just thinking too big? Or, you know, what’s going to be possible in Latin America to address these deep things that you all talked about at the very beginning—these deep problems and grievances?

LEVITSKY: And that is the challenge in Latin America. I don’t think—I think there is obviously some polarization in South America and in Latin America. I think it is not always as deep or as enduring as we sometimes think. I mean, the polarization in Latin America today—even the second round in Chile or the second round in Colombia, which felt very polarized, nothing compared to the kind of polarization we saw in the 1930s, or the 1970s. You know, nobody’s threatening anybody’s property. People are not, for the most part, expelling priests or burning churches. And the kind of existential threat that was perceived by political actors in parts of the twentieth century really is not present today in Latin America. There’s—and so I’m not terribly worried about polarization undermining democracy.

But what we are seeing is a really, really deep anti-incumbent sentiment, a weakening of political establishments—both the capacity of political establishments to maintain themselves in power for reelections, and the level of public trust in and patience for establishment political parties is—you know, is cratering. And so we’re seeing increasingly the weakening of established political parties, the rise of outsider parties and politicians, and very young, very often amateurish, politicians who get elected without much experience and without—as Will was saying—without broad political bases of support.

Boric is—you know, compared to Peru, which I follow more closely, compared to Pedro Castillo, he’s an eminent stateman. But he’s a pretty young and inexperienced guy without a solid political party, without a majority in the legislature. And you can’t get a lot done without a majority in the legislature. Democracy is, for all of its benefits, almost inevitably brings incremental policy change at best. You don’t—you don’t carry out revolutions in a representative democracy. So neither Boric nor Pedro is going to be able to. And I think they both know that.

The problem is that the almost inevitable shortcomings of these administrations—and, I have to say, they have sort of—they lost steam more quickly than I thought they would, really within the first year. The disappointment, the frustration that that’s going to kind of pile onto the already existing level of disappointment and frustration, is a serious problem. So, you know, the problem that all Latin American democracies, with the partial exception of, say, Uruguay, face is you’ve got at best incremental change in democracy in a context of extreme inequality, severe state ineffectiveness that begs for radical change. But it’s never forthcoming in democratic politics. And that’s just a tension that Latin American democracies across the board are going to, frankly, have to live with.

If I can just make one comment about Peru/Ecuador. I think the Peruvian situation is a lot worse than the Ecuadorian one. In Ecuador, we have all the—you know, elections being held, elections are scheduled, all the major political forces are planning and competing. They’re playing by democratic rules of the game. They have

expectations of a fair election. And there is a relatively pluralist dispersion of power. You’ve got three or four political forces, all with some strength, that can balance each other. So the prospects for democracy muddling through the electoral process in Ecuador are pretty good.

In Peru, we have a very, very different situation, in which the conservative forces have been—were terrified by the election of Castillo, terrified by the massive—the protests that came after the fall of Castillo. And have really closed ranks in the face of popular sovereignty. So 80 percent of Peruvians want new elections. The president has about a 15 percent approval rating. The Congress has a 6 percent approval rating. And there’s an alliance between the president and the Congress, which has essentially agreed to ignore 80 percent of the population and just not hold elections, and basically not—turn their backs on not only sort of public opinion, but overwhelming majority public opinion. And it is just—it is just bleeding the system of the few ounces of legitimacy that remained. And I think that’s cooking up a very, very dangerous situation in Peru without an immediate exit.

MCCOY: Hmm. OK, well now it’s time for the audience. So I’d like to invite all of the CFR members to join the conversation. And as a reminder, this meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We will take our first question from Arturo Porzecanski.

Q: Must be a mistake. Sorry, I did not have a question.

OPERATOR: No problem. We’ll instead take our next question from Herman Cohen.

Q: Thank you for—I’m Herman Cohen. I’m retired State Department officer. I served mainly in Africa.

I have a question about Venezuela. Is it fair to say that the—Maduro stays in power mainly by using oil money to pay off the army? And he keeps postponing elections knowing he couldn’t win? What should U.S. policy be toward that? Could we boycott the oil in some way? Thank you.

LEVITSKY: You want to take that one, Jennifer?

MCCOY: I can certainly take it, but let me invite the panelists first. Well, I’ll answer. I do study Venezuela, so that’s why Steve suggested I take it. You know, we have had very strict sanctions on Venezuela preventing its sale of oil. And its oil industry is actually completely decimated. And so it sells very little, and what it does—it has been selling, you know, sort of through the black market, because of the sanctions that the U.S. has put on it. Right now, those sanctions and the very desperate situation socially, economically, and humanitarian-wise in Venezuela have led to the largest refugee crisis really in the region’s modern history. Almost a quarter of the population has fled.

And that’s been not caused initially by the sanctions, but it’s been exacerbated by the sanctions. And so now—you ask about what should U.S. foreign policy be toward it. The U.S. has been—under the Biden administration, has shifted from the earlier Trump administration sort of maximum pressure policy to try to force remove—force a removal of Maduro from office. That didn’t work. And now the Biden administration is pretty strongly supporting negotiations between the government and the opposition, mediated by Norway. But you’re right that Maduro, he’s stalling on the negotiations. He does not want to have competitive elections, because he will—he fears, and his associates fear that if they lose power, they will be brought to justice because they have sitting inditements over them from the United States, and an investigation from the International Criminal Court.

And so the challenge is to encourage by offering some flexibilization of the sanctions in response to concession from Maduro to make the elections more competitive than they currently would be. They’re not going to be completely open, but to begin a slow opening and reconstruction of democracy in the region. And I see, Will, you wanted to add something.

FREEMAN: Sure. Yeah, thanks for the question. And completely agree with Jennifer’s analysis. I would just add that Maduro’s position, I think, undoubtably has been strengthened by the election of left-of-center governments across the region over the past couple years. Now, some people will dispute that and say leaders like Lula da Silva in Brazil or Gustavo Petro in Colombia are interested in negotiating more competitive or even free and fair elections in Venezuela. But I think more and more we’re seeing evidence to the contrary.

You have Lula in the recent summit of South American leaders in Brasilia calling authoritarianism in Venezuela a narrative of which Maduro was the victim, not the perpetrator. And Gustavo Petro, for instance, bringing together opposition leaders in a summit, but really not achieving anything concrete that we can see so far. So again, I think, you know, Maduro’s also benefitted from a shift in the political winds across the region. And probably going forward, it’s not very tenable for the U.S., like it or not, to maintain the sort of strict policy of isolation that we saw under the Trump administration and, as Jennifer has mentioned, has already begun to change under the Biden administration.

MCCOY: Thanks. Let’s take another question. Brianna.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Farah Stockman.

Q: All right. Can you hear me?


Q: Thanks for doing this.

I’m very curious about whether—I’ve been struggling with this issue of keeping sanctions on Venezuela, simply because of the crisis we’re seeing at the U.S. border. And there’s been a letter written by members of Congress to the Biden administration asking for sanctions to be lifted. So I am curious whether we’re feeling like the accountability—whether Maduro is hanging onto power because he fears being brought to justice. Is that something that—you know, is that—is the insistence on accountability actually harming the chances of Venezuela moving forward and moving on from the situation that it’s in? This is one of the things I guess I’m struggling with, because it feels like sanctions on the country’s economy are not serving the average people. And, you know, so I guess I would love to hear you say a few more beats about sanctions on Venezuela and whether they’re likely to produce the results we’d like to see.

And I guess the second part of my question is just about the desirability of democracy, as it’s perceived by people in the region. I travel a lot in Africa, and I was struck the last time I was in Kenya by how many Western-educated Kenyans were complaining about the results of democracy. Every candidate that they had for election—you know, there was an election coming up. This was last year. And they were complaining that every candidate was corrupt, and they were just very unhappy with their choices. So I guess I’m struggling with the emphasis that we, as Americans, are putting on the process of democracy, rather than the results. And I’m wondering if you’re hearing the same thing in Latin America. Just a few more beats on the results that people want to see.

MCCOY: Yeah, Steve, you want to take that?

LEVITSKY: Sure. First of all, on the Venezuela question, I think it’s important not to overstate the impact of external factors. Regime change from without is really hard. And it’s relatively uncommon. You know, unless 

we’re prepared to put boots on the ground, the way we did in Panama in 1989—which is something the United States has never done ever in South America—regime change from abroad is really hard. People on both the right and the left tend to overstate just how often this happens.

And so ultimately, whether we like it or not, regime change in Venezuela is going to be a product of—it’s probably going to be an endogenous process. It’s going to be most likely coming from the armed forces. And certainly not only loyal, but sort of shared corruption, is one of the things that’s keeping the military from overthrowing Maduro. But in addition, the Maduro government, with the help of the Cubans, has done an extraordinarily effective job of surveillance and monitoring, to ensure that military officers don’t engage in the kind of coordination necessary to overthrown Maduro. There’s a lot of evidence of discontent with the military. There’s a lot of evidence of effort to try to orchestrate the overthrow of Maduro. But has thus—but coups are hard. And this government has proven very good at fending off coups.

On the question of democracy, I mean, going back to what I was saying earlier, a couple of things. I mean, obviously democracy’s not proved—has not delivered the goods. Democratic governments have not delivered the goods the way that we would like them to, the way that certainly most Latin Americans would like them to. But just two points. One, empirically, there’s no evidence that any other system delivers the goods any better than democracy, whether it’s growth, or corruption, or crime, or inflation. Almost no matter what indicator you use, the difference between democracies and authoritarianism in terms of government performance is generally a wash. Democracies do not systematically do worse, economically or on other issues, than other regime types.

And secondly, although, again, Latin Americans—as discontented as they are with democratic governments, and discontented as they are with the choices they have in some elections—continue, by every measure I’ve seen, to value the opportunity to throw out governments they don’t like. When they despise their government, they want the ability to throw it out and choose another. And there is no other system ever invented under this Earth that allows people the ability to regularly throw out governments they don’t like.

MCCOY: Yes, Mary Beth.

SHERIDAN: Yeah, just would want to add to that. I think one of the things that, as you mentioned, Farah, is a lot of emphasis was put on establishing free and fair elections, which of course is central to a democracy. But I think what we see a lot, certainly in Mexico and Central America, is that it was such an incomplete democratic transition. And in particular, the lack of reform of the judicial system, the justice system, is just terrible. And that, to me, is the biggest problem in Mexico. And solving that—having a justice system—there’s just rampant impunity in Mexico, which contributes to, of course, the violence, the role of organized crime, and so on. And fixing that—you know, people say it’s a hundred-year problem. It’s a big, hard thing to solve.

But, you know, which would involve in Mexico spending a lot more money in a lot of different parts of the political system losing their kind of—their impunity, their advantages, their ability to kind of, like, get what they want from, you know, judges who are pliable or, you know, their ability to escape being investigated for corruption and so on. I mean, there’s not a lot of incentives in the political system itself to create a much better—you know, better trained police, you know, more prosecutors, and so on. Like, there’s such an unequal change, because they’ve actually changed a lot of the judicial processes so more and better evidence is required, which is a good thing. But then there’s not really the trained police and prosecutors to deliver it. So you have this kind of logjam.

And I would just say is that what’s distressing is instead of seeing some sort of slow and steady progress—like, in Mexico right now, there’s really been very little effort to develop a better justice system. It’s almost not on the agenda. And in Central America, you see a real backsliding in places like El Salvador and Guatemala, where there were—you know, particularly in Guatemala, there were real efforts to have anti-corruption prosecutions. And, I mean, it’s got to—it’s almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction, where the government now so

controls the judiciary and prosecutorial systems, and uses it to go after precisely people who were in the, you know, justice system, trying to go after corruption.

MCCOY: Thank you.

Yes, Will.

FREEMAN: Just very briefly I’d add, I think that’s such an important point, Mary Beth, about on the one hand the consolidation of competitive elections, but on the other hand the weakness or even the erosion of what little rule of law there was in many of these countries at democratic transition. And I’d just argue that it’s not only a Mexico and Central America story. I think we’re seeing it increasingly in South America.

Look at a country like Ecuador. I mean, five years ago it was one of the least violent countries in the region. Now it’s one of the most violent. It even has a national homicidal rate last year that tops Mexico’s. And you see the sort of wholesale collapse of judicial institutions in terms of public security and kind of public order in Ecuador, the real cooptation of lower levels of the judiciary, of judicial councils, assassination or cooptation of police. So I think that it’s a story that started in Mexico and Central America, but which if there’s not action soon could be one that start telling about the entire region.

MCCOY: Yeah, it’s a huge, huge problem. I’m just going to add very quickly, for Farah’s question on what to do about the indictments in Venezuela, there’s going to have to be some negotiated form of transitional justice, I think, in order to move forward toward any form of elections, and some kind of guarantees. And that is possible. And looking at the Colombia peace agreement is one potential model. So I just want to throw that in. And, Brianna, do we have another question in line?

OPERATOR: Yes. We’ll take our next question from Annika Betancourt.

Q: Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you all so much for this discussion. I’m Annika Betancourt, from State Department.

I was wondering if you could talk—someone could talk about the role of the OAS in democracy. Beyond just election monitoring, but some of the other things that the OAS or perhaps even other multilateral institutions have been able to contribute to democracy, or not. Just any thoughts whether—if you want to go into the BRICs and some of these other proposed institutions, fine. But would love to hear some comments on the OAS. Thanks so much.

MCCOY: All right. Would someone like to take that one?

LEVITSKY: I’ll be very brief. I would not place a lot of stock in the OAS. Again, in terms of democracy—defending democracy, it is primarily a domestic process. And to the extent that outside actors are important, it’s going to be the great powers in the region. First, the United States, and then larger countries like Brazil and potentially Mexico. But the OAS got a lot of attention in the early-mid-1980s, with the—excuse me—1990s, with the Democratic Charter. I personally am extremely skeptical of its power to shape democratic outcomes in the region.

MCCOY: Will, did you want to add?

FREEMAN: Nothing to add.

MCCOY: OK. I will say that it—one of the reasons that it’s become very weak is because it became divided and polarized, actually, around the Venezuela question, under Chavez and his allies. And so it became very

divided in terms of its ability to address democratic questions. But it has actually at a very low—much lower profile level, it does provide assistance in a number of areas, even beyond election assistance. But in other areas—citizenship registries, and corruption, and a number of other types of things. And so, you know, it’s an important institution. And the other thing it has is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Court on Human Rights, which provides a really important recourse for citizens in the various governments to go to for redress of particular complaints.

So, Brianna, do we have another question in line?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Michael Skol. Michael, please accept the unmute now prompt. We may be having technical questions. I’ll pass it back to you, Dr. McCoy.

MCCOY: OK. Sorry about that, Michael. You know, I do want to come back to something that you all were just raising about the real problem with the judiciary and with crime. And we had earlier mentioned the kind of Bukele model that has gotten so—well, he’s still popular in his own country, extremely. And it reminds me of Duterte in the Philippines, who similarly had a draconian approach to crime and drugs, in that case. And, you know, abusing human rights, and yet maintaining strong popularity. And I know that in Ecuador, even in Chile, and various leaders have been talking about, you know, the positives of the Bukele model.

So I really want to ask you all what you think about this. How can democracy and human rights be protected when the citizens are demanding an answer to this real, you know, fear, this real insecurity that they fear from criminal gangs, from organized crime, that’s tied to the weakness of the police forces and the judiciary. But how can we resolve this problem of a desire for a strongman on the one hand, but a desire to maintain the elections, as Steve you talked about as being, you know, so important to Latin American populations. Your thoughts? You may all have thoughts, so who would like to go first? Will?

LEVITSKY: Sure. I’m happy to start off. So, I mean, on this question, I think it’s important to be clear, first off, that this appeal about—that Bukele has for leaders across the region doesn’t seem to be really tracking onto divisions of left and right. I mean, you have Xiomara Castro, a leftist, neighbor of Bukele, who, you know, clearly aspires to sort of his model, at least the image of it as sort of a strongman, or strongwoman, president, if you will, who’s cracking down on crime. But you also have, you know, conservatives, you know, right of center presidents who are seeing a lot they want to emulate in Bukele.

And I think it’s—you know, also it’s not an accident. I mean, there’s been really a PR campaign by the Bukele government from—you know, from day one in which basically, you know, he has, you know, sent abroad advisors. He’s engaged his foreign ministry in popularizing his model abroad. He’s really trying to sell this as sort of a model that works, in a way to deflect criticisms about his own erosion of democracy at home. But, to your question about what could be done to lessen the appeal of his model, I mean, I think it’s kind of a straightforward answer. But really, the number-one, you know, prescription I would give a country like Ecuador, which is at grave risk of coming up on elections where it might elect a Bukele of its own, is to strengthen the judiciary within democratic parameters, while it still can.

You know, whether or not that means investing more in prosecutors and judges, in finding ways to match evidential standards with evidentiary capacities the judiciary actually has, like Mary Beth was talking about. I mean, I think that really the clock is ticking in a number of countries before a figure like Bukele emerges and capitalizes on that demand for order, unfortunately.

MCCOY: Mary Beth or Steve?

SHERIDAN: I would just add that the—it’s quite understandable that people in El Salvador, who suffered terrible violence and extortion at the hands of the gangs, are happy that they can move around their neighborhood without fear. One understands that completely. I think the thing that’s not clear to me is, like,

where does this end, you know? I mean, do you keep 68,000 people in jail with, in many cases, minimal, with no evidence, forever? He keeps talking about building new jails for the white-collar criminals, and for others.

And I think once you suspend guarantees, it can turn very easily—it can turn to something that’s not simply, you know, dialing down a threat by gangs. But if police are free to kind of act as they will, if people can be put in jail for practically any reason, where does it end? Where are the checks on the presidency, on—particularly the presidency, right, or the judiciary? And I think there’s a lot of question marks.

I mean, I was talking recently to a journalist friend in El Salvador who was telling me that the situation for independent journalists has been very tough, obviously. The government’s been—you know, sued people, and so on. And this person was telling me that last year a lot of them were really getting ready to leave the country, because there were sort of cars parked outside their house, and all these kind of things. And she said, lately it’s gotten a little better because we think, with Bukele preparing a reelection campaign, you know, he doesn’t want to appear so brutal. But assuming he gets reelected, which seems likely, I mean, where are the controls?

And so I think what citizens, understandably, can appreciate as an improvement, a dramatic improvement, in their daily lives, can really spiral into something much—you know, really quite scary. And, you know, as Will was saying, sort the PR image very glitzily done by the government, you know, these kind of videos of the government cracking down and so on. You know, we’ve just had a report from the Cristosal, the main—or, the biggest human rights organization in El Salvador, that they found, like, 150 people had been killed in these, you know, roundups. I mean, in very brutal ways. In the jail, I should say. These are people who’ve died in prison in the last year. Many asphyxiated and so on.

So, you know, I think there are people, even politicians in the U.S., like Marco Rubio, who have kind of bought the idea that, like, man, this guy is just doing stuff, getting things done. But, you know, we’re going to be hearing, I think, and seeing more signs of how this kind of policy just creates potentially an extremely, you know, out of control situation.

MCCOY: Yeah. Steve, you get the last word in the last minute.

LEVITSKY: Oh, well, really quickly, you know, what’s surprising about Bukele, in some sense, is how long it took for a Duterte to emerge in Latin America, given how terrible the public security problem is. I mean, El Salvador had one year more than a hundred homicides per one hundred thousand in a year, which is twenty times the homicide rate in the United States, which is far and away the most violent industrialized democracy on Earth. The levels of violence for those of us living outside of El Salvador are almost unthinkable. So it’s not a shocker that you get a concentration of power in the hands of somebody promising to solve problems at the expense of the niceties of the rule of law and human rights. It’s, I would say inevitable, but just very, very likely.

Bukele reminds me a lot—the Bukele situation in El Salvador reminds me a lot of Peru in the early 1990s, where you also had an unsolvable and unlivable problem of Shining Path violence, together with hyperinflation. And Fujimori generated 90 percent support by doing away with the constraints of the rule of law and democratic checks and balances. Was enormously popular. Was seen as a model by autocratic-leaning figures across the region. No one could replicate him.

And Peruvians, understandably given the hell they were living in in the early 1990s, handed Alberto Fujimori a blank check for almost a decade. And the consequence of that was unfortunately predictable. Tremendous abuse of power and really world-scale corruption. And in El Salvador, Bukele has an 89 percent approval rating. He doesn’t need an investment in marketing and image to sell that to other Latin American politicians. They just look at his approval rating and say: I want to be that. But this—you know, if history is any indicator, this will not end well. This level of concentration of power, made possible by this level of public support, will not end

well. It will end in massive abuse of power, as Mary Beth was alluding. And it will end, I predict, in massive corruption.

MCCOY: Well, I hate to end on such a negative note, but it is really good to alert everybody to these dangers and risks. And I really want to thank our audience today for joining us and our panelists for a really invigorating discussion. And, as a reminder, the audio and transcript will be posted on the Council website. So thank you all.


FREEMAN: Thanks.

SHERIDAN: Thank you.


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