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Democracy Amidst the Unearthly Tidings of Latin America

One of the fundamental purposes of a state is to guarantee the physical security of its citizens. Political philosophers have long argued that people surrender to the authority of a state, giving up certain freedoms, because in exchange, they can rest easy knowing they are protected—both from their fellow citizens and external threats.

In Latin America, though, states are struggling to uphold their end of the bargain. Narcotics trade, weapons trafficking, and gang wars are among the top contributors to high rates of homicide and common crimes, increasingly prevalent in countries long considered exempt from this regional trend, like Ecuador and Costa Rica. States have not only proven incapable of tackling these threats but have also often been complicit in perpetuating atrocities and widespread impunity, undermining citizens’ trust.

As fear seeps into daily life, it molds how people engage with their democracy and the kinds of policies—and leaders—they support; it curtails individuals’ democratic rights and can propel citizens toward willingly relinquishing these rights in pursuit of security.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, literary giant Gabriel Garcı́a Marquez shed light on how violence is intimately woven into the quotidian fabric of Latin America. He spoke about those exiled from Pinochet’s Chile, those killed by civil wars in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and those born in Argentine prisons before being taken who knows where. These are, he said, “the unearthly tidings of Latin America.”

In the four decades since Garcı́a Marquez delivered this speech, much has changed in our region; civil wars and military dictatorships have abated. Yet rather than bringing a panacea of peace and prosperity, democratization was accompanied by increased violence throughout much of the region. For instance, the number of homicides in El Salvador in the late 1990s surpassed the average annual number of deaths during the preceding civil war. Today, Latin America and the Caribbean remains the most violent region on the planet, with 20 intentional homicides for every 100,000 people in 2020, compared to a global average of 6.

We must be especially concerned with the steep rise in violence in countries usually known to be peaceful. In Costa Rica, homicides have tripled since 1990, reaching 12 per 100,000 in 2022. Similarly, Chile’s violence surged by 32% in 2022, though it remains relatively low at 4.6 per 100,000. Still, 68% of Chileans cite crime as their primary concern. Meanwhile, Ecuador’s homicide rate skyrocketed nearly 500% from 2016 to 2022, soaring from 5.6 to 25.9 per 100,000.

Insecurity, and the fear that follows, can pose an existential risk to democracies.

Widespread violence thwarts tangible elements of democratic activity. In Ecuador, for example, where three politics-related killings occurred in the four weeks leading up to the first round of the snap presidential election alone, casting a vote entails a real act of courage rather than routine civic duty. Even though voting is mandatory in the country, experts worry voter turnout will decline, as paying a $45 USD fine becomes an attractive alternative to potentially risking one’s life.

Yet, beyond impacting voting behavior, violence also erodes more subtle facets of democratic participation, influencing how individuals navigate public spaces and engage with their communities. In Mexico, women report relinquishing their freedom of movement—including spending time with friends or watching the sunset outdoors—out of fear of being kidnaped, raped, or murdered. Indeed, the sense of being “imprisoned in one’s home” is shared by citizens even in relatively safe parts of Latin America, like Montevideo, Uruguay.

In this way, insecurity, and fear alone, restrict citizens’ ability to exercise the rights associated with their democratic citizenship—from voting to engaging in public life.

States’ inability to ensure citizens’ safety can also weaken public faith in democratic governance. The prevalence of violence and perceptions of state complicity fuel citizens’ skepticism about their government’s capacity to protect them. As a result, citizens appear more willing to support leaders who promise enhanced security, whatever the cost.

One hardly has to look further than El Salvador, where President Bukele consistently emerges as one of the most popular leaders in the world, with approval ratings comfortably hovering at 90%. Bukele has deployed a brutal strategy for dealing with the nation’s gangs, imprisoning 2% of the country’s adult population. His methods have had results: the homicide rate has dropped in El Salvador by 56.8% between 2021 and 2022.

Experts, activists, and onlookers worry that the effectiveness of Bukele’s strategies might be short lived, as historical evidence suggests that ‘mano dura’ policies are often followed by a retaliatory uptick in violence stemming from vendettas and the strength gangs can gain in prisons. But beyond the practicalities of these tactics, Bukele and his government have been widely criticized for violating human rights and civil liberties, such as the presumption of innocence and access to an independent judge.

Still, the short-term success demonstrated by Bukele’s approach has made him immensely popular throughout Latin America. From Honduras to Chile, citizens and politicians have called for the emulation of this approach to tackling the rising tide of violence and crime. His popularity can be understood when one considers the insecurity people in the region have been asked to tolerate.

As the fear of violence dictates the rhythm of everyday life, like a grotesque heart pumping lifeblood throughout the region, and democracies appear unable, or unwilling, to fulfill one of the most basic functions of a state, it ought to be unsurprising that citizens search for solutions elsewhere.

“When people are afraid, they are willing to sacrifice rights,” explains Tamara Taraciuk, a human rights researcher at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research organization, in an interview with Infobae. Be it withdrawing from public spaces out of self-preservation or electing a leader explicitly violating democratic and human rights, fearful citizens are willing to turn their back on democratic ideals. While supporting Bukele can be seen as gaining “security in exchange for freedom,” this might appear a worthy tradeoff for citizens whose freedom is already being claimed by fear.

Yet recent election results in Guatemala and Ecuador illustrate that voters’ calculus may be more complex, suggesting that this disposition can hardly be considered a foregone conclusion. Both elections saw candidates vowing to replicate Bukele’s hardline policies, and both elections saw candidates with more nuanced approaches to tackling crime emerge victorious. This suggests that while fear can prompt citizens to consider exchanging some rights for security, they remain open to compelling alternatives. Perhaps this is particularly true when such choices promise to restore trust in the state, as exemplified by Bernardo Arévalo’s victory in Guatemala following a campaign fueled by an anti-corruption agenda.

García Marquez ended his speech speaking of the wonders that emerge from our corner of the world, “that boundless realm of haunted men and historic women, whose unending obstinacy blurs into legend.” Our reality, he explained, is not one “of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty.”

Democratic solutions to the present security crisis rely on the courage of our citizens and on the ability of our leaders to implement sound and decisive approaches that tackle the manifestations and origins of violence, from increasing opportunities for young people vulnerable to the allure of organized crime to strengthening the judiciary and addressing corruption.

Fear is no stranger to us in Latin America. While this period of increased violence in countries unprepared for its arrival is incredibly concerning, we have weathered such unearthly tidings time and time again. If anything, our history shows us that through resilience, we can withstand the pressures of fear; or, in García Marquez’s words, “to oppression, plundering and abandonment, we respond with life.” As for the democrats in the room, it is up to us to ensure that our democracies do, in fact, fulfill one of the most fundamental duties of any state: keeping its people safe.

This article is the second in a series of pieces on the state of democracy in Latin America written for The Tico Times by Tara Hein, funded by Stanford University. All views are Tara’s own.

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