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This scenario depicts a democracy of “appearances,” of tension and power disputes between diverse political and economic forces, and of frustration on the part of citizens. Political and economic power is concentrated. The region is marked by a caudillo political culture, with patronage and authoritarian tendencies. Some countries go through political crises and, in certain cases, authoritarian setbacks, with serious consequences for institutional structures and the exercise of citizen rights. Democracy in the region has endured, but few are satisfied with the ways in which it has done so.


Power Structure

Scenario of the concentration of power.

Democratic Institutions and Political Culture

Different phenomena, such as a reconfiguration of leadership in some cases and a caudillist tradition in others, expand the concentration of power, erode institutional controls and checks and balances, generate permanent power disputes, and influence the exercise of democracy.

Civic Participation

“Captive votes,” reduction in electoral participation, absence of reliable information, and increase in mistrust toward the public prevail.

Economic Development and Social Inclusion

Shortsighted solutions and economic efficiency above social justice and environmental equilibrium prevail. These factors impede a more fair distribution of power and income.

Regional Integration

Tendency to shortsightedness, which leads to a slowing down of regional integration and to the loss of competitiveness with other regions in the world.

In 2015, in some countries in the region, reformist movements emerge that warn that Latin America still stands out not only for having the most unequal income distribution in the world but also for its political inequality. Many studies show that, in spite of the appearance of new political actors in the previous years, the great majority of citizens do not have access to political and economic activities. In many cases, the same faces and people with the same surnames continue to hold power. The informal market represents a high percentage of the Latin American economy, equivalent to millions of people who earn their livings precariously, outside the margins of the guarantees and rights that the democratic system offers. Many complain that the years of prosperity solely benefit the same economic elite as always, with the conclusion that Latin Americans still have not managed to reconcile the continually high levels of social inequality with the values inherent to democracy.

For the reform movements in the region, it is clear that a democratic stagnation is blocking a more equitable distribution of power and income. In some countries, power continues to serve the minority interests of the traditional, powerful national and international political and economic elites. Thus, in the 2018 election cycle, reformers seek to overcome the stalemate, close the structural gaps between state and society, and restore confidence in democratic institutions. On the other side, however, in some countries, certain leaders and political movements remain on the defensive, with the hidden intention of consolidating the concentration of power in the region and neutralizing democracy through those same democratic institutions.

In other countries, power is wielded by popular leaders who, by breaking paradigms, achieve quantitative progress in the recognition of social and cultural rights and, at the same time, in economic growth and social inclusion. This success generates a wave of enthusiasm that leads to an indefinite extension of their mandates and the gradual loss of the checks and balances that characterize the democratic system. For many analysts, it is a process of the diversification of elites represented by leaders with repeated, convincing electoral successes but who face specific allegations regarding the restriction of individual rights. The observers conclude that in these countries, democracy has endured but in the form of a unimodal power—they are democracies in tension. The challenge of reform movements in these cases is to deepen democracy through the strengthening of institutions with greater independence. In these terms, the battle is waged in the new election cycle in the region in 2018.

The promise of the new reformist leaders in these electoral contests is to force the political and economic elites to change the rules of the game to strengthen democratic institutions and agree on a shared vision of the national and regional future. They aspire, in turn, for the traditional parties to recover their lost prestige by joining the wave of change. Nevertheless, good intentions clash with the evidence shared by many Latin Americans that the traditional parties and new social leaders have set off on a path of no return. Before 2018, they stop being the intermediaries between the interests and needs of citizens and the actions and decisions of the government in office. They also cease being political structures that support a specific ideology. In addition, in several cases, it is the democratic framework itself that has imposed restrictions on significant reforms. In many cases, the possibility of undertaking reforms depends on alliances and coalitions that have more or less strength, depending on the country, but in all instances face institutional policies that make it very difficult to achieve profound changes. Some countries have an institutional architecture that allows some room for reform, but others suffer from a paralysis that comes from the core of their political system.

In summary, and for diverse factors, by 2018, serving in politics in the region is no longer a temporary community service and is now a way to make a living in perpetuity. For several years, parties are mainly electoral machines and, in the shadows, groups representing corporate interests operate outside the regulations or modify them at will. It is recognized that the electoral aspect of the democratic system functions relatively well. The dilemma for reformers, however, lies in the fact that independent voters, with their own regional criteria, no longer trust the political system and remain absent from the polls in places where voting is not compulsory and the “captive vote” prevails. After the completion of the election cycle, the balance is discouraging: In some cases, the same exclusionary power structures persist; in others, options that represent a democratic setback are re-elected; and only in specific cases does the electorate opt for the promise of a qualitative leap for democratic politics.

Throughout the 2020s, a differentiated political map continues to be set in the region. In light of the results, many in the international community question whether Latin Americans have a firm commitment to a more democratic model of society, at least in its liberal version, or if they still associate democracy only with elections. They argue that recent polls show low attachment to democratic values. Others, on the contrary, assume that the sovereignty of economic forces run by private individuals is more important than political sovereignty. In any case, in several countries in Latin America, the democratic ideal mainly continues to serve special interests; hidden, external, and emerging powers; and wealthy and influential individuals. This pattern of behavior is due to an obvious complicity between the government and the de facto powers, in many cases tinged with corruption and repeatedly generated by illegal activities such as smuggling and drug trafficking.

In some countries, “the usual” continue to be in charge, and in others, “those who never did” rise to power, but even in the latter cases, their symbolic and real inclusion in society does not fundamentally change the sense of polarization. The predominant characteristics of the region are high levels of corruption and impunity, political and judicial persecution of the opposition, the weakening of the separation of state and religion, and harassment of freedom of expression. These elements of a damaged democracy in a deteriorated economic context reduce the effectiveness of the mechanisms of social inclusion. Therefore, many media and academic reports consider 2020 as the new lost decade for Latin America. Reforms to regulate and limit the exercise of power are still in limbo. Exclusionary institutions have demonstrated their permanence over the centuries. The only ones who continue to benefit from this picture are the political and economic elites.

Between 2020 and 2025, an influential group of independent journalists from the region forms a joint effort, with great global resonance, to overcome the restrictions on freedom of expression and bring to light the many hidden economic powers in the region. They denounce what they call the even greater devaluation of civic behavior by some of those who hold positions of power throughout Latin America. According to research, this is an elite that reaches the pinnacle of power thanks to interventionism, the absence of competition, and close links with politics. This group imposes a short-term greed focused solely on economic profit. A coalition of independent media show how that part of the elite supports and funds the reconcentration of power, thus promoting their own candidates for democratic institutions and subsidies, regulations, rulings, and executive decisions aimed for their own benefit. These activities are linked mainly to extractive industries and not to economic innovation. Consequently, the values ​​of social responsibility never quite materialize in most countries, and the only desirable paradigm of state action is the economic efficiency that continues to deepen social inequality.

The independent press and some reformist opposition movements denounce how in many cases important social decisions come from major economic and political interests that are not accountable to citizens. The traditional power structures attempt to distort the arguments by defending the need for a change that will strengthen democratic institutions. It is for this reason that they give so much importance to control of the media. In the 2020s, cases of restrictions on freedom of expression abound in Latin America. The information received by citizens is considered by many to be uniform and superficial. The Internet serves in some cases to unite but in others to further fragment citizens. Examples of aggression and political intolerance in the public debate jump from political authorities to the virtual media.

Few countries in the region reach 2030 with more diversified and productive economies. They have lower productivity, and less regional integration makes it difficult for them to compete with other regions on an equal footing. The free market system no longer creates opportunities for most people. Several countries continue to rely on the extraction of natural resources, export of commodities, and subsidized domestic consumption. The general rule is that of a development model that depends on external factors. The region as a whole is still not capable of generating enough jobs, especially decent, high-quality ones, or of being competitive in the global market. It fails to attract enough foreign investment, raise real wages, or benefit from the biodiversity of the region as a competitive advantage. In several cases, projects to promote research in science and technology to help drive the development of new drugs or new forms of agricultural productivity are stymied. There are also environmental issues, which disproportionately affect the poor, who suffer the worst consequences of changes in agricultural patterns, climate disasters, hunger, and lack of drinking water. The development of mining, oil projects, and logging continues to plague much of the region’s ecosystem. Several rural communities and indigenous groups engage in special efforts to preserve their environmental resources, but the results are insufficient given the magnitude of the problem.

In this context, in several Latin American countries in the 2022 and 2026 election cycles, the emergence or strengthening of governments with an especially authoritarian and caudillist spirit continues. In the beginning, these governments awaken high hopes in the voters who elect them. They often invoke the popular will to justify their actions, which are usually framed in terms of greater social equality. Their leaders display great charisma and invoke a narrative that allows them to forge greater identification with the masses and expose the shortcomings of the traditional democratic system.

In turn, opponents argue that these governments are indifferent to any sense of dialogue or that they limit consensus to the economic agenda but not the political one. They declare that political polarization and the disqualification of one another on dialogue and negotiation weaken the public debate. They warn that these governments often seek to shape the rules at will and control both the legislature and the administration of justice, to the detriment of the democratic necessity of the separation of powers. Opponents denounce how grandiloquent speeches and the cult of personality predominate in the absence of specific programs and mechanisms for effective rotation of power. In addition, they show that the state administration is filled with people without the knowledge, experience, and openness of mind necessary for public responsibility. In many cases, the state loses its operational capacity and it increasingly delegates governance to private hands. As there are no controls, opponents conclude, there are fewer mechanisms for oversight and prevention of corruption. As there are no guarantees, the fight against organized crime is waged through repression and not through prevention. In any case, in 2030, Latin America remains the most violent region in the world. The levels of violence do not worse or improve: They remain in a space of “normal abnormality.”

In other cases, where institutions are more fragile and the socioeconomic gaps wider, the presence of a caudillo-style leadership isn’t even necessary to prevent a democratic renewal. In political terms, the same results are observed after 2022 in the context of apathy and widespread indignation, which stem from a power vacuum and instability. In some countries with high levels of discontent, the traditional party system is swept out, and successful electoral movements arrive, but the corresponding government administrations break the promises that supported the movement. Thus, the structural powers are maintained and further discredit politics but in different ways from those previously mentioned. In most cases, skepticism deepens, and citizens move away from civic activities and work organized around networks with common purposes. Distrust and frustration predominate, which cause the majority to shun public affairs. Furthermore, in specific cases, religious fundamentalists reach power, seeking to extend the influence of religious precepts to the state, which leads to a deterioration of citizens’ rights.

Analyzing the 2020s, the independent communications media agree with academics in concluding that there is no consistent demand from the citizenry for the systematic planning of a better future. Through the legislative process in certain countries, senators and representatives abort attempts at tax reform to rebalance the burden between the rich and poor and design better redistribution policies, as these are against the interests of the de facto powers. The rate of the reduction of poverty and inequality that occurred in the first decade of the century slows considerably. Social spending focuses not on long-term investment in human capital but on satisfying a captive and dependent electorate and consolidating a model of low-intensity citizenship. Big cities grow and in some cases collapse because of the inability of the governing authority to provide basics like water.

In short, between 2015 and 2030, the region as a whole does not experience significant progress on poverty, inequality, corruption, or violence. Logically, the region in 2030 is very different than it was in 2015, but a democratic model that differs in theory and in practice persists. In several countries, the notion of democracy ceases to be a permanent collective construction and becomes a facade that shields a powerful platform for the defense of often hidden economic and political special interests. In contrast, other countries do exhibit greater progress in expanding and deepening economic, social, and cultural rights. However, the question arises whether the enthusiasm generated by these advances has paradoxically resulted in a weakening of certain constituent elements of democracy, such as the rotation of power and independence of public powers.

As already mentioned, new spaces of resistance also rise between 2020 and 2030 that again bring dynamism to the public debate by opposing the model of a coerced, conditioned, and patronized citizenry. For these groups, the traditional power logic is not the straitjacket that it has always been. In various countries of the region, popular and youth movements call for demonstrations to question power. They even manage to reverse, block, or postpone decisions that affect rights and freedoms. Other groups that reflect the diversity of civil society in claiming identities based on ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation become increasingly important, especially in cases where the barriers between public action and religious beliefs are diluted. These groups develop a certain degree of influence to at least interfere with decision-making and some processes that are against citizens’ interests. Some sectors of civil society conspire to use the full potential of technological tools in defense of common causes or to disseminate accurate information through community radio stations and independent websites. However, these efforts are not sufficient: The momentum for change is not enough to implement democratic transition strategies that lead to a qualitative leap.

By 2030, the most important communications media in the world agree that there is not much to celebrate with regard to the progress of the constituent elements of democracy in Latin America. Of course, there are differences between countries and within each country. However, to the mainstream world media, the dominant note is the absence of an adequate balance in the exercise of power and in the interaction among politicians, businesspeople, and civil society leaders. Observers claim there are no defined and complementary roles, but rather a scheme to preserve the extractive institutions that closes the doors to the political, economic, and social inclusion of the majority of citizens. Surveys of Latin Americans confirm the persistence of low confidence in politics and a chronic democratic deficit in the region, generating high levels of dissatisfaction.

Both the international media and many analysts and Latin American academics argue that, in 2030, democracy in the region is primarily a label that masks the exercise of policies at the orders of the special interests of a narrow elite. This faction—of historical or recent origins—prevails at the expense of the bulk of the citizenry. The limits to the exercise of power are weak, and the distribution of power within society is meager. The majority opinion is that the collective possibilities of change and transformation in social justice, economic productivity, environmental sustainability, and, in general, expansion of rights and guarantees are still paralyzed in a significant proportion of the region. Citizens gradually learn to reject politics outright. A warning sounds that Latin America remains steeped in democratic underdevelopment, regardless of the fact that expectations and the potential for development are much higher. Thus, for many, 2030 closes a decade of missed opportunities and widespread frustration for Latin Americans.


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