Illiberal Democracy in Latin America

In an influential 1997 essay, Fareed Zakaria coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe countries that elect their leaders, yet restrict civil liberties and political freedom. Zakaria was right to describe illiberal democracy as a “growth industry”: in the past 15 years, it has opened lucrative franchises in Latin America.

SANTIAGO – In an influential 1997 essay, Fareed Zakaria coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe those countries that hold elections (of varying fairness) to choose their leaders, yet restrict civil liberties and political freedom. At the time, such practices were common mostly in Asia and Africa, with a sizeable concentration of illiberal democracies among the ex-Soviet states.

Zakaria described illiberal democracy as a “growth industry,” and he was right: in the past 15 years, it has come with full force to Latin America.

This might seem surprising, because most countries south of the Río Bravo (known to North Americans as the Rio Grande) moved from right-wing dictatorship to democracy in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Some of these democracies were initially imperfect, to be sure, but optimists hoped that it was only a matter of time until all elections would be fair and restrictions on civil liberties fully lifted.

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