Opinion & analysis
By Felipe Estefan

Summit for Democracy: How Latin America is envisioning a democracy for all

Is democracy in crisis or is it resurging? 

As we approach the Summit for Democracy (29-30 March), the question about the current state of democracy is front and centre. 

Depending on who you talk to, or which of the many recent reports you read, from the Economist Intelligence Unit to Freedom House or V-Dem, the world is either still in the grip of rising authoritarianism, or democracy is staging a comeback.   

For the majority of the world, however, ‘glass half full’ or ‘glass half empty’ headlines juxtaposing democracy and autocracy have little relevance. In reality, how people experience democracy every day around the world is not something that can be understood by over simplistic narratives of democratic erosion or resurgence. 

Rather, there are other questions that deserve a greater share of our attention: Where are people succeeding in making their democracies more responsive and representative of their societies, in all their diversity? How are communities fighting back against attacks on their fundamental rights? How are people managing to counteract the malign forces currently undermining democracy worldwide? 

Latin America offers the world a unique opportunity to explore those questions. On one hand, in Mexico, attacks on the country’s electoral agency and ongoing persecution of critics and independent media are heightening concerns about a slide towards autocracy. In El Salvador, a crackdown on gangs has led to a wholesale erosion of citizens’ rights. Authoritarian forces continue to rise in places such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. 

Across the board, surveys show Latin Americans, particularly younger people, alienated from traditional politics which they see as serving out-of-touch elites rather than ordinary people.

And yet, also in Mexico, a group of civil society organisations are playing an active role in holding the government to account, working with investigative journalists to expose illegal state surveillance of citizens. In the same country, where gender parity in political and decision-making spaces is already a reality, a new generation of feminist activists is working to ensure that the regulations translate into true inclusion for women and girls.  

In Brazil, voters have rejected, at least for now, the authoritarian approaches of Jair Bolsonaro, with young people potentially playing a significant role in defeating Bolsonaro in the polls after a massive campaign led by civil society organisations and artists to encourage youth to register to vote.

In both Brazil and Colombia underrepresented groups such as women, Afrodescendents, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ people are starting to make significant inroads in political representation.

The recent appointment of Anielle Franco, a Black woman, as Minister of Racial Equality in Brazil, five years after the murder of her sister, a councillor in Rio, is a powerful symbol of how change is possible. Similarly, Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries for activists, elected Francia Márquez, an environmental defender, its first Afrodescendent Vice-President.

Extituto, a Colombian organisation dedicated to transforming democracy from the bottom up by strengthening participation from all sectors of society, worked with around 80 candidates of minority groups from across the political spectrum, of whom more than 20 were elected to represent their communities.

These are just a handful of examples – there are many more citizens’ groups, journalists, and activists working tirelessly to defend and reimagine democracy. What these examples have in common is that they show how the seemingly impossible can be made possible. Democracy can prevail. Citizens can fight back against authoritarianism. Communities can defend their rights.

What is needed is a reinvigorated kind of democracy in which everyone, regardless of who they are or where they come from, has the opportunity to shape society. When heads of state come together during the Summit for Democracy this week, we hope they look closely and learn deeply from Latin America.