Who Likes “Democracy”?

Fred Rosen


The Chile-based, private polling agency Latinobarómetro recently released its annual opinion poll measuring, among other things, Latin American attitudes toward “democracy.” While “democracy” is a politically loaded term, and therefore left in quotation marks throughout this brief essay, the responses of some 20,000 citizens from 18 Latin American countries (all save Cuba) suggest a great deal about the 2013 state of politics in the region—with some particularly interesting results about Venezuela and Mexico.

When asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Democracy is preferable to any other type of government,” 87% of Venezuelans answered positively, up ten points from 2011 and by far the highest positive response in the region. As tense and as polarized as Venezuelan politics have become, the poll indicates that few Venezuelans—on either side—favor a military intervention. Good news—for the time being.

In part, Venezuelans’ positive opinion of “democracy” can be explained by the greater inclusion of previously excluded Venezuelans in political and social citizenship. For many, this greater inclusion is not only associated with democracy, but also in many ways is democracy. Opposition discourse, bombastic as it may be, has also stressed an electoral (thus “democratic”) road to transition away from Chavismo. This can also explain a part of the high level of support for “democracy.”

The region’s lowest positive response to the “democracy is preferable” question was Mexico, where only 37% of respondents gave a thumbs-up to “democracy.” The rest were either indifferent or favorable to the statement, “In certain circumstances authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one.” The support given to “democracy” by Mexicans was lower even than that of respondents from Guatemala (44%) and Honduras (41%), countries in which the line between democratic and authoritarian rule has been remarkably thin.

Averaging out annual responses from 1995 through 2013, Uruguay demonstrates the strongest and most consistent support for “democracy,” averaging 78%, and Venezuela, a close second, with 71%. Here, Mexico is in the middle of the pack, averaging 49% within a strong downward trend indicating how far democratic ideology has fallen over the years of the supposed “democratic opening” that began with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. A full 25% of Mexican respondents have declared themselves indifferent to a democratic or undemocratic regime.

Mexico’s dramatically declining score coincides with the growing violence of an out-of-control drug trade, a downward spiral of economic wellbeing for most Mexicans, and two consecutive presidential elections in which results were marred by credible charges of fraud. After two presidential terms of an elected conservative opposition, the return of the authoritarian PRI to power is an indicator of the desire of many Mexicans for protection and stability over democratic transparency.

Moving from general support for “democracy” to the question, “How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in your country?” responses of “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” had Uruguay (81%) and Ecuador (60%) leading the pack, followed by Nicaragua, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Venezuela, in that order, all of whom came in above the regional average of 40%. Again, Mexico was near the bottom at about 22%, vying for last place with Honduras.

Finally: an interesting finding about ideology and democracy. The poll found no difference in support for “democracy” across the spectrum ranging from left to center to right. Among the 19% of the population that refused to place itself anywhere on the spectrum, however, support for “democracy” fell by 12 points. In this regard, the most ideologized country, with only 6% of the population refusing to place itself on the left-right spectrum, is the country with the highest support for “democracy”—Venezuela. Two cheers for ideology!



Fred Rosen is the editor of NACLA.



Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2013 issue: "Latino New York"



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