It was not a good year, or decade, for democracy. In its recently released Freedom in the World report, Freedom House found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. In 2019, political rights and civil liberties deteriorated in 64 countries around the world,37 countries reported improvements. Worse, this negative pattern didn’t only affect countries that scored poorly. In fact, democratic countries like the United States also experienced a significant drop in their score—in 2009 the United States held a score of 94 (out of 100) and in 2019 received a score of 86.
The report also noted developed countries are shifting away from the ideals of liberal democracy toward populism, with elected officials distancing themselves from political norms and claiming to speak for the “everyday man.” For example, President Donald Trump has worked to undermine democratic norms and standards, attacked the press and those that oppose or criticize his government, and set forth a fiercely anti-immigration policy, all in the name of “making America great again.” Similar patterns can be seen in countries such as India, Israel, and Austria. In the past 14 years, 25 of the established democracies in the world have suffered overall declines, with only 16 countries experiencing improvements or had no change in their scores.
Latin America and the Caribbean follow global trends
Similar to global trends, Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a decline in freedom. During the 14 years of democratic decline, the region’s score fell in all seven subcategories: electoral process, political pluralism and participation, functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights.
There were more countries in the region that experienced a drop in their freedom score than those that saw improvement—the majority of countries maintained their same score. Of those who saw improvements were: Antigua and Barbuda (+1), Argentina (+1) and Ecuador (+2)—which experienced mass protests at the end of last year that led to the reversal of austerity measures.
Mass protests and political crises experienced last year contributed to a decreased of freedom scores. Mass protests in Chile that began in October and continue until today contributed to a decline of four points—even though the government agreed to hold a plebiscite on a new constitution in April, 2020. Protests as a result of the electoral crisis that led to former President Evo Morales’ exit from power in Bolivia, also resulted in the country’s score losing four points.
Political crises last year affected two countries in particular: Haiti (-3) and Peru (-1). In the small island country, an impasse between the country’s president and parliament resulted in Haitian President Jovenel Moïse ruling the country by decree and without a prime minister until March 3 when President Moïse appointed Joseph Jouthe to replace then-acting Jean Michel Lapin. And in Peru, President Martín Vizcarra dissolved the country’s opposition-controlled Congress on September 30 after it worked to obstruct his anti-corruption efforts. Although the opposition tried to suspend Vizcarra, Peru’s Constitutional Court declared Vizcarra’s actions were legal. Elections were scheduled and took place in January, 2020 in which a more divided Congress was elected.
But while scores dropped in these countries, El Salvador, which experienced a one point drop, was the only country in the region that saw its status change from free to partly free. According to the report, El Salvador’s status changed because criminal groups continue to commit acts of violence and intimidation against politicians, and the judicial system has been hampered by obstruction and politicization.
Global demand for change
Mass protests defined 2019 for countries around the world. In Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries, demonstrations demanding equality, justice and freedom once again proved the will of the people cannot and must not be silenced.
Moreover, this demand for justice and democratic values needs to be met by government action, which up to this point has been subpar. With the world’s democratic powers also experiencing a democratic decline, what once was constructive engagement toward the cause has turned into frequent indifference. Now more than ever there is a need for democratic solidarity.