Illiberal Democracy 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.

That was not to be. On the contrary, the quality of democracy has deteriorated sharply in several countries in the region. Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez, was the chief exponent of this trend. According to the democracy watchdog Freedom House, in the 2012 election, “the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles, was able to hold rallies and engage in traditional forms of campaigning.” But “Chávez benefited from massive use of state resources that enabled him to dominate media time by a margin of 25-to-1, distribute household goods to constituents, and convince many voters that the state could punish them for casting a ballot for the opposition.”