By Helena Schwertheim

Between the 24th and the 26th of August 2015, a forum on the future of democracy in Latin America took place in the capital of Colombia, Bogota. Organised by the Club of Madrid as part of the Club’s Next Generation Democracy (NGD) project, attendees included ex-presidents from the region such as Vicente Fox (Mexico), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Cesar Gaviria (Colombia) and Luis Alberto Lacalle (Uruguay). From the academic world, experts were present from the Wilson Centre, columnists from The Economist, members of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as practitioners from the Inter-American Development Bank, Organisation of American States and other institutions.

Although discussions provided analysis of the current democracy crisis on the continent, the aim of this forum was to move past simple diagnostics to provide practical recommendations and proposals on how to improve democratic processes. After all, the motto of the Club of Madrid is “democracy that delivers”.

The first day focused on the dysfunctional aspects of democracy within the region, with the most attention-grabbing being public’s disillusionment with the current state of affairs. Most of the ex-presidents present had experienced democracy as a conquest in the 1980s and 1990s – and victory as a hard-won prize. Now they saw the masses criticizing the quality of that reward. Attendees agreed that citizens demanding more democracy was a call for the evolution of democracy. Indeed, as put by the former Prime Minister of Belgium, Yves Leterme: “we have 19th century institutions to tackle problems of 21st century societies”.

Furthermore, regional leaders did not taken full advantage of the ‘Golden Era’ of high commodity prices and resulting economic growth in the late 1990-2000s to implement badly needed reforms to improve inefficient redistribution mechanisms. The Chinese economy’s slowdown, the fall in commodity prices and the impending rising interest rates in the United States, contributed to the weaker economic growth marking Latin America’s transition to a new economic cycle. This, coupled with citizen disillusionment and mistrust of politicians, exerted further pressure on the current system. 

Now more than ever, the obstacles challenging democracies in Latin America are tightly connected with external factors and economic dynamics. These must be taken into account when addressing more fundamental dilemmas such as the disillusionment with democracy and governance that many societies voice today. Not only are societies now more than ever voicing their discontent with corruption, but as Pedro Farias of the Inter-American Development Bank highlighted, recent protests in Brazil saw demonstrators toting signs denouncing the impact of external influences in this globalised and inter-connected era.

Moroever, the ex-president of Bolivia, Carlos Mesa, pointed out that while many protesters know what they do not want, they are usually unable to formulate what exactly they want instead. This leads to question whether the disillusion with government is one of representation, or a structural one going deeper – a questionning of the norms of representative democracy.

Many countries are overdue for, and thus should carry out, urgent reforms that were not implemented in the more prosperous years. Key to this is diversification of the productive and export matrix, improving competitiveness of the region, and investment in infrastructure, education and innovation. This is needed to keep Latin America strategically relevant and competitive in the current global context. Reforms must also keep the social gains from the last decade protected – the last decade saw 70 million Latin Americans lifted from poverty. However, according to ECLAC, this reduction in poverty and inequality has stagnated since 2012, while simultaneously raising societies’ expectations.

Due to the previously mentioned economic slowdown, back-slipping on major social gains made in the last decade is possible. Worryingly, deteriorating social conditions will make democratic governance more difficult in the face of social political parties. The government and the private sector, as well as trade unions and civil society must readily react and prepare for managing this crisis and its effects. To continue social gains in an era of weaker economic growth, more effective public policies are needed, and thus, the legitimacy and credibility of institutions must be recovered. Key to this is reconnection with the citizenry. While the members of the Club of Madrid and experts have produced a concise list of proposals and recommendations following their diagnosis, now it is up to current practitioners and future leaders to heed this advice.

Featured Photo Credit: Radio Interativa, CC Flickr. License can be found here.