Disgruntled Democracies

In the last two years, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru – previously models of economic success and democratic promise – have experienced slowing GDP growth and declining government credibility. Now, popular protests are gaining traction, with serious implications for representative democracy.

MEXICO CITY – In 2011 and 2012, tens of thousands of students demonstrated in Santiago, Chile, demanding greater access to higher education. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians marched in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte, calling for improved public-health services, better schools, and cheaper, more efficient public transport. And Colombians and Peruvians from all walks of life (especially peasants, farm owners, and mineworkers), as well as Mexican school teachers, now occupy the centers of Bogotá, Lima, and Mexico City, disrupting inhabitants’ daily lives and creating serious problems for the authorities.

These countries, once models of economic hope and democratic promise in Latin America, have become examples of democracies without legitimacy or credibility. Although they have made significant social progress in recent years, they have become centers of popular unrest. And their presidents, despite their undeniable competence, are watching their approval ratings plummet.

These paradoxes are both perplexing and revealing. For starters, they reflect an economic-growth problem. Chile’s economy has performed well over the past two years, despite low world copper prices; but its annual growth rate is nowhere near that of the previous 25 years. The economic balm applied to old social and cultural wounds is losing its effectiveness.

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