Since 1973, Freedom House has tracked the state of global democracy, monitoring countries’ political rights and civil liberties, closely following electoral processes, freedom of expression and individual rights, among other factors related to freedom and democracy. And while much of world has transitioned to more democratic political systems, for the first time in decades, democracy is facing a serious crisis, with even the usual champions—the most alarming one being the United States—declining in terms of standards of ethics and transparency. The result has been fewer and fewer leaders in the global struggle for human freedoms. In Latin America, the story is not much better.
Freedom House’s flagship report “Freedom in the World 2018” categorizes a country’s freedom status as free, partly free and not free and rates a country on a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free) in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Aggregate scores are then calculated on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free).
Out of 195 countries studied, 88 were classified as free, 58 stand as partly free and 49 not free. As a whole, the countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains, marking 2017 as the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. In the Western Hemisphere no changes were registered against 2017 with 23 countries rated as free, 10 as partly free and two—Cuba and Venezuela—as not free.
What is important to highlight, though, are the trends that the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency reveal, with the United States retreating from its “traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.” Although the United States remains a free country, democratic decline accelerated this past year, a worrying trend attributed mainly to Russia’s interference in the 2016 electoral process, Donald Trump’s views on foreign policy (especially against Muslims and Latinos), and his continued support of autocratic countries such as Russia and China. The United States dropped three positions, from 89 to 86, in the general freedom score.
While there are noteworthy individual gains—such as in the case of Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina with governments turning away from repressive rule and opening up to reforms—declines outpaced gains in the region as a whole in 2017, particularly the extreme situation of “non free” Venezuela. With a growing humanitarian crisis and President Nicolas Maduro’s determination to stay in power, Venezuela fares as second worst among Latin American countries, just behind Cuba, with a freedom score of 26 points.
In Mexico, a “partly free” country according to Freedom House and where human rights activists and journalists are under continued threat (with nine killed in 2017), the July 2018 general elections will serve as the ultimate test for democracy and transparency. But the real test lies in the successful implementation of much-needed rule of law and anti-corruption reforms. Reforms that have faced a number of obstacles—among them political resistance. Further south, Brazil, a country rated as “free,” will have to overcome the corruption scandals and backlash sweeping the country from the Odebrecht political scandal.
As Latin America enters an intense electoral cycle this year and next, human freedoms will face their biggest test. The strength of democratic institutions and the transparency of each electoral process will be an important foundation for the strength and future of political rights and civil liberties in the next decade.