Is Democracy Backsliding in Latin America—or Making a Comeback?
In a packed elections month, several key elections are toss-ups.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: What to watch for in a packed month of elections, an Argentine diplomat leads a global push for nuclear energy, and the legacy of Brazil’s feminist country-music queen.
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From Managua to Santiago
Latin America’s packed month of voting is currently underway. Five countries hold elections this November, three of them presidential. The first, held in Nicaragua on Sunday, was by far the bleakest: President Daniel Ortega, who’s been in power since 2007, won with more than 75 percent of the vote after his administration jailed dozens of electoral rivals and other dissidents.
Ortega’s grip on Nicaragua has been tightening for years but intensified in the wake of 2018 anti-government protests. His actions before this election solidified Nicaragua’s status as a dictatorship, several scholars, human rights organizations, and diplomats have argued.
The few reporters able to operate in Nicaragua face surveillance by paramilitary groups, journalist María Lilly Delgado said on the Americas Quarterly podcast. “We don’t know when or how” Ortega’s rule could end, Delgado added.
Ortega’s autocratic steps, while extreme, are not an anomaly in the region. During the pandemic, leaders from Mexico to Brazil to El Salvador have pushed against checks on presidential power by dismantling freedom of information agencies, vowing to disregard election results, and firing judges on top courts.
Politicians have also tried to impeach or prosecute political opponents, with trials of current and former presidents underway in countries including Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. Extreme polarization and legislative gridlock are also common. In 2020, 70 percent of Latin Americans told pollster Latinobarómetro they were dissatisfied with the way their democracies work.
But even as Nicaragua exemplifies a worrying trend of democratic backsliding, elections elsewhere in the region provide a more complex picture that includes glimpses of democratic resilience.
Perhaps most notably, right next door to Nicaragua and other increasingly autocratic neighbors El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras may be poised for a significant pendulum swing in its Nov. 28 presidential election.
Current President Juan Orlando Hernández has shut down anti-graft operations and been implicated himself in major drug trafficking allegations, though he was never formally charged. Since Hernández was accused of rigging the last election in his favor, this year’s vote will take place under increased public scrutiny.
Ahead of the election, opposition parties have overcome divisions to unite around a single presidential candidate, Xiomara Castro. A poll from late last month predicted she will defeat the candidate from Hernández’s party, Nasry Asfura, by more than 10 percentage points.
In Chile, 35-year-old Gabriel Boric, a leftist former student activist, is a presidential frontrunner. Boric embodies democratic renewal in many ways, including by hailing from a strain of youth activism that has been at the forefront of grassroots organizing in Chile since at least 2011. That strain helped push for the rewrite of country’s constitution that’s currently underway. Polls predict Boric will face the ultra-conservative José Antonio Kast in a tight runoff after the first round of voting on Nov. 21.
Venezuela’s regional elections, also on Nov. 21, could act as a small preliminary step on the road to a democratic transition. Although the country is widely regarded as an autocracy, opposition parties will participate once again in the elections, reflecting an evolved position from their unsuccessful 2019-20 stance of boycotting elections and supporting a “maximum pressure” campaign against President Nicolás Maduro’s administration.
In addition, election monitors from the European Union will be present. While this does not mean Venezuela’s elections will be free and fair, the EU observers’ notes will offer important context for civil society and opposition groups as they push to negotiate the terms of future elections.
Meanwhile, in legislative elections this Sunday, Argentina appears set for the kind of boring power shift that shows democracy is working. President Alberto Fernández’s approval rating dropped from 56 to 39 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to data Gallup shared with Foreign Policy. Predictably, his leftist Frente de Todos coalition is all but certain to lose congressional seats to its longtime rival, the center-right Juntos por el Cambio coalition, according to the results of mandatory primaries in September that gave a preview of the vote.
A far-right, self-proclaimed “anti-system” candidate Javier Milei is also expected to win a seat in Argentina’s congress on Sunday. According to El País, that would be a first for a far-right candidate since 1983. Milei could earn at least 13 percent of votes in the country’s capital district but does not have high support in the countryside.
To be sure, some of this month’s remaining elections could bring surprises. But overall, the outlooks match up with polling data: Latinobarómetro director Marta Lagos told the Economist last month she had expected support for democracy in the region to drop amid the pandemic, but instead it had remained about the same.
While democratic institutions have been tested amid the health and economic crises of the past two years, it’s clear new strains on those institutions are coexisting with continued overall support for them, some 30 years after many Latin American countries emerged from Cold War-era dictatorships and made the transition to democracy.
Saturday, Nov. 13: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro begins a six-day trip to the Persian Gulf, where he will visit the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar.
Sunday, Nov. 14: Argentina holds midterm elections to choose a third of its senators and half of its deputies in the lower house of Congress.
Sunday, Nov. 21: Venezuela holds regional elections.
Sunday, Nov. 21: Chile holds its presidential election.
What We’re Following
Brazil’s 5G compromise. For years, Washington has been pressuring Brasília to block Chinese tech giant Huawei from building parts of Brazil’s 5G wireless network, alleging it could enable Beijing to spy on the country’s communications.
Last week, Brazil’s federal government announced the long-awaited rules of its authorization process to construct the network. Nothing suggested that Huawei will be blocked, but Brasília did say it would pay for a separate, higher-security network for government operations that the country’s communications minister said would likely be built by Finland’s Nokia or Sweden’s Ericsson.
A Pacific coast fishing deal. A new fishing-free ocean reserve announced by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama at the United Nations climate summit (also known as COP26) comes in the wake of repeated complaints from those countries about suspected overfishing by large-scale Chinese fleets in their waters.
Although China was not named in the announcement, political observers in the region have hailed the reserve as an important step toward protecting against fishing abuse.
U.S. migration policy toward Haiti. On Wednesday, the United States reinstated permissions for companies to obtain temporary work visas for Haitians after the programs had been rescinded by the Trump administration.
This widening of legal permissions comes after migration advocacy groups have criticized the United States for deporting thousands of Haitians under the Biden administration, especially amid a security crisis in Haiti so severe that the U.S. State Department issued a warning this week that U.S. citizens in the country should leave while commercial flights are still available.
An unlikely feminist icon. Brazilian megastar singer-songwriter Marília Mendonça died last Friday in a plane crash at the age of 26. She will be remembered for spreading feminist messages in an unexpected setting: through sertanejo country music popular in conservative farming communities.
Sertanejo is the soundtrack to Brazil’s ultra-powerful agriculture industry, known for macho attitudes and being a key base for the right-wing Bolsonaro. But through infectious lyrics on the ups and downs of romance and friendship from a woman’s perspective, Mendonça became the genre’s queen—and even won over plenty of urban listeners. She was so big that both Bolsonaro and his arch-enemy former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva paid condolences after her death.
In an interview with NPR in 2018, Mendonça said that although she “never went to protest in the street,” she lived by a “feminism of attitude.”
“My life is my protest,” she said.
Question of the Week
Which of the following songs is not a Marília Mendonça song?
Though this was not the name of one of Mendonça’s songs, Mendonça was vocal in interviews about her pride in her career. “Being able to manage all of this, to write my music, to organize my work, to present it to my manager, to make him believe in me and, consequently, to have Brazil hear me and believe in me—for me, that’s real feminism,” she told NPR.
In Focus: the Nuclear Czar from Buenos Aires
One of Latin America’s highest-profile diplomats, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi, has been unusually active at this year’s COP26, championing the potential of nuclear power as a green source of energy.
Though nuclear power has long been highly controversial, its profile has risen amid the global scramble for low-carbon sources of energy. Past directors of the U.N. nuclear regulator—perhaps best known for its inspecting countries’ nuclear weapons capabilities—have shied away from overt boosterism for the nuclear power industry, a former IAEA official told FP’s Michael Hirsch earlier this year. Not Grossi, who insists nuclear technology can be used safely and effectively with proper inspections.
Argentina’s own experience is slow-moving proof of this. It was the first Latin American country to activate a nuclear power plant in 1974, and nuclear energy today accounts for around 7 percent of its grid. (Globally, nuclear energy makes up around 10 percent of commercial electricity generation.)
In recent years, China has been a key backer of Argentine nuclear plants. Chinese banks announced in August, for instance, that they will finance 85 percent of an $8 billion reactor scheduled to be built from 2022 to 2028 in Buenos Aires province.
Grossi is an unconventional IAEA chief in other ways: He has urged partner laboratories around the world to use their technologies to set up an early warning system for future pandemics, and in February he flew to Tehran to broker a stopgap agreement aimed at saving the Iran nuclear deal. Hirsch wrote that Grossi is “widely considered one of the most talented and activist IAEA leaders in its 63-year-long history.”
At COP26, Grossi has also promoted the potential of smaller modular nuclear reactors, a technology that is still under development but could hypothetically serve as a lower-cost and faster option for generating nuclear energy than the traditional large-scale nuclear power plants.
Modular nuclear reactors certainly have their skeptics. “We have to get everything done in the next 25 years,” Tom Burke of climate think tank E3G told Time. “The idea that you’re going to scale up a technology you don’t even have yet, and it’s going to be commercially viable [in that time], just seems to me like la la land.”
But momentum around modular reactors grew at COP26, with Washington announcing a $25 million investment in “nuclear futures” that includes research on the technology. The announcement comes on the heels of French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement last month that developing small-scale nuclear reactors was the “number one priority” of his industrial strategy.
As IAEA directors often stay in their positions for a decade or longer, and Grossi was only appointed in 2019, his legacy will likely be intertwined with the role that nuclear will play—however large or small—in green transitions across the world.
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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