Disgruntled Democracies

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.

Similarly, while Brazil’s economy remained relatively resilient after the 2009 recession, growth slowed almost to zero last year. Growth rates last year in Colombia and even Peru, which has performed better than any other Latin American country since 2000, also dropped significantly. And Mexico, the worst-performing of the five economies over the last 15 years, has outdone itself; this year, growth is expected to reach barely 1%, if that.