After 2015, economic slowdown arrives, accompanied by a continuous cycle of complaints of corruption in several countries in the region. Some of the governments elected or reelected in and around 2014 become involved in corruption scandals and abuse of power, trying voters’ patience. New evidence of the misappropriation of funds for state projects is revealed. The looting of public funds and resources destined for public works and social investment come to light, as do conflicts of interest. New cases of the abuse of executive power over judges and members of congress—something that makes the system of checks and balances unstable—become public. Other cases of legal transgressions by powerful businesses remain unprosecuted, owing to their connections with political power. In some parts, the containment walls that separate the state from religious interference weaken. It becomes apparent that some political leaders are attacking the freedom of expression. Others formulate new strategies that are democratic only in appearance in order to remain in power for longer. And others, at the regional and local levels, demonstrate their permanent collusion with organized crime, to the point of repeating the pattern of disappearances and assassinations of people inconvenient for the government. In other cases, leaders with greater commitment to transparency become discredited because they haven’t been able to bring into reality the political and social aspirations proposed in their campaigns. Meanwhile, disturbing setbacks in the poverty and inequality indexes are taking place, proving the fragility of the advances previously reached. The middle class, in particular, experiences a decline in their standard of living.
Various studies and surveys show that the discrediting of democratic institutions and the deterioration of political trust among citizens is perhaps the syndrome with greatest force throughout Latin America. It signals that political parties are being weakened and coopted by the de facto powers and that their unpopularity continues to grow. Citizens find it more and more difficult to identify many of the political parties in the region with a specific political platform, something that serves as an ideological intermediation between the proposed candidates and the percentage of society that chooses them. The fall in voter turnout is a repeated trait that undermines the legitimacy of national and local governments.
The result is a region characterized by a marked depletion of the prevailing political cycle and by discontent with corruption, the abuse of power, impunity, and polarization. Members of the emerging middle class, in particular, experience this sense of unrest. They develop both more sophisticated aspirations and greater frustrations, given that many of their political demands have not been satisfied. Added to these factors is a context of scarcity that differs in large respect from the bounty of prior years. For these reasons, with the approach of a new election cycle around 2018, different types of citizen indignation emerge, with a common denominator: For a large percentage of Latin American citizens, it is no longer tolerable that democratic institutions in the region fail to provide transparency and effective responses to pressing challenges, especially those related to inequality and public safety. This ongoing indignation politicizes citizens, and their previous indifference gradually leads to greater participation in the political debate and greater commitment to political matters. In their rejection of corruption and the ineffectiveness of the state, many citizens move from being passive to being active. Just as in the centuries and decades before, a consciousness arose against slavery and discrimination based on race, gender, or ethnicity, now a new consciousness begins to germinate in favor of solid, transparent democratic institutions designed to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Time and again, the middle class and civic movements have proven to be the key drivers of change in the history of the region. From these emerge demands for minimum levels of transparency and efficiency from politics and public administration in order to reach diverse social ends. In some countries, the demand for an evolution of the democracies in the region comes from young people and women, who in this way break through the barriers that exist in traditionally patriarchal societies. It also emerges from indigenous communities, those of African descent, and LGBTQ populations. These groups seek to defeat discrimination through massive campaigns of ideas and advance proposals in support of material and moral progress as the purpose of public action in a context that guarantees citizens’ rights. There is, then, a growing, more demanding, and mainly urban electorate that is schooled in civic virtues and in the possibilities of technology.
In this new political cycle, the factors above lead to the emergence of a process whose predominant note is the formulation of proposals that channel citizen demands. There’s an effort to forge a shared vision of the future amid diversity through a new institutional paradigm that provides more effective mechanisms of participation. Some political options emerge with greater force than others, embodied in people far from the traditional power games who reinvigorate the functioning of the traditional parties or establish new parties and political movements. The objectives are clear: Demand that the traditional political and economic elites change the rules of the game to strengthen democratic institutions, encourage the rebuilding of a broader civil ethic, and improve the capacity to govern. With this impulse, some traditional parties join the change effort to recuperate their prestige and place value again on the exercise of politics, thus recovering, little by little, their capacity to mobilize and inspire voters through certain shared beliefs. This brings a breath of fresh air for institutional renewal and a gradual breakdown of the vicious circle of political polarization and institutional stagnation. Through leading by example and more and better auditing instruments, in some cases, cultural tolerance of corruption decreasesThus, institutions promote change and reform through a deliberate roadmap apart from electoral circumstances. They seek to move specific reforms forward, especially those aimed at resolving the main structural challenges of poverty, inequality, lack of public safety, and, in many cases, impunity. Analysts point out that all of this represents an abrupt change with respect to the general tendency in the region to enact artificial, immediate, and improvised solutions that condemn it to backwardness. Change, they conclude, demands large doses of determination and optimism. They lament that the evolution materializes only in some cases and that in others there are no visible signs of effective change for the strengthening of democracy.
In addition to reinforcing the balance among powers, many of the proposed reforms aim at changing the functioning of political parties, so that they now operate in a cultural framework that sees them more as legitimate mouthpieces of the interests of society than as electoral machines. Also, they seek to strengthen effective government action, improving its ability to execute. The declared priority is to have more functional states and better public policies in service of the common good and not of special interests. The reforms start from the premise that the state must effectively represent citizens and duly channel the specific demands of different sectors of the population. Various countries implement innovations in matters of deliberation and citizen participation to correct as much as possible the gaps in and shortcomings of traditional representative democracy but without changing its conceptual bases. The idea is to strike an appropriate balance between representation and a kind of participation that isn’t antagonistic to the state but rather operates within the prevailing institutional framework.
Consequently, many innovations for encouraging greater citizen participation in policy decisions, such as reforms to the political party and electoral systems, are promoted. These include measures for recognizing migrants as citizens with full rights and for facilitating their electoral participation from abroad. These innovations come from the state and not from society. Thus, after 2018, some Latin American countries slowly shift toward a new, more inclusive institutional framework in tune with the global reality. The rules of the game begin to change in favor of inclusion, an active citizenry, and productivity. In fact, many refer to the 2020s as that of a new wave of reform for a profound renewal of democracy in Latin America. The results, nevertheless, vary from one place to another: In some countries, the reformist spirit translates into institutional renewal; in others, only partial transformations materialize; and in still others, good intentions sink under pressure from traditional power groups. The cases that stand out as positive reflect the maturing of a more pragmatic model of democracy. In this model, there’s a continuation and strengthening of various experiments of interaction between the state and civil society to design and successfully execute various types of structural reforms and public policies at the local and national levels.
Innovations also materialize in educational, under the shared knowledge that it is the most egalitarian lever that exists. Improvements in the region have been important but insufficient compared with the rest of the world. For this reason, in some countries, political parties, businesspeople, civil society, and unions join together to improve the quality of the education that is within the reach of everyone, not just the most privileged, and to offer better tools for excelling in the era of information, technology, and knowledge. Upon the arrival of a new electoral cycle around 2022, it is obvious in various countries that a political will exists for free, high-quality, secular, public education, with an emphasis on civic education, political empowerment, and economic entrepreneurship as a long-term state priority. A priority is placed on the knowledge, abilities, and skills necessary to invest in human capital and support an entrepreneurial culture as a vital axis for generating employment, innovation, economic growth, reduction in poverty, and long-term productivity.
Although the fruits of these efforts are only visible after a generation or so, and the results of various educational tests still show initial progress throughout the 2020s, by 2025, the region has at least eliminated illiteracy and achieved notable progress both in technical and vocational training and in scientific and humanistic education. In an encouraging number of countries, education is now the guiding principle around which all of the policies associated with development, inclusion, innovation, and democratization of society are structured. There are also exceptions, with some countries experiencing all types of setbacks instead of progress. Because similar countries have achieved notable progress, these exceptions stand out even more in the regional context.
Moreover, structural reforms seek to build safer societies. After 2018, a major agreement among countries with common problems in the region allows them to exert visible pressure on the international community to promote successive changes throughout the 2020s to the prevailing legislation on drug trafficking. In specific cases, alternative approaches to the consumption of drugs in the region allow greater control of micro-trafficking and, as a result, the reduction of one of the sources of crime. In any case, a solid general agreement is produced among political leaders in the region based on the idea that the best way to confront organized crime is through the rule of law and not through “iron-fist” politics that would lead to a reversal of the democratic guarantees that have been built through so much work in Latin America. For 2026, the center of the battle against crime in the region centers on the principles of prevention; social inclusion; reform of the armed forces, police, and judiciary; equal access to swift and efficient justice; and legitimate state force within legal, constitutional parameters. Some countries with experience in this battle serve as guides, collaborators, and permanent advisers, strengthening the horizontal channels of regional cooperation in this area.
The dimensions of the gradual democratic progress in the region that a good part of the countries experience after 2018 are not limited to politics. For many political leaders, the economy is the current backbone of democratic action. The drop in prices of export commodities, which so many emerging economies in Latin American profited from at the beginning of the century, leads many political and civil forces to support reforms of a different depth. They recognize that the only way to aspire to a sustainable prosperity that guarantees a dignified life according to democratic values is through higher growth, higher productivity, more innovation, and greater fairness. In several Latin American countries, the number of people in all spheres of society in favor of the diversification of the economic model continues to grow. These individuals also tout the idea that progress can no longer depend on other countries, especially in a new multipolar reality. In the public deliberation in Latin America, globalization is progressively positioned more as an opportunity that as a threat.
Similarly, markets and investors are more attracted to the advantages that the region’s diversity and stability offer. Some countries, in fact, experience a kind of reconciliation with the presence and role of entrepreneurs, which requires putting aside certain ideological positions against the private sector. There’s a growing recognition that the role of entrepreneurs is essential and that, without them, it would be impossible to pass over the threshold that divides the developed and underdeveloped worlds. There’s also a greater acknowledgement of the valuable role that migrants to countries outside of the region or between countries play, in that their remittances are vital for development and their knowledge and skills are indispensable for the diversification of the economy.
The cycle of reforms in the region leads to the strengthening of institutions that demand greater corporate responsibility. In most cases, they reinforce equal opportunities and at the same time stimulate innovative economic activity and investment in new technologies. Above all, and in part thanks to new antitrust laws, these institutions seek to avoid the concentration of income and power in the hands of a few, which has been traditional in the region. They also strive to ensure that economic growth benefits the great mass of citizens and not only the privileged few. The new trends demand the substitution of loyalty to monopolies, subsidies, and favoritism, and the desire for short-term profits or any type of income, with development that values corporate responsibility and in which social and environmental outcomes have a similar weight to economic ones. Several businesses, which for decades have been characterized by their commitment to progress in the region, have already set an example in some countries by showing how a sustainable operation guarantees a better reception of its products and services in international markets. In contrast, other large businesses continue to be tied to the old model of environmental degradation, of the violation of workers’ rights and undue influence in state institutions, and of cronyism with some of their representatives. They remain indifferent to the reformist wave that is sweeping the region. These companies are eventually punished by domestic and international consumers.
In some countries, in turn, the public sector assumes its full responsibility with stable policies to improve the conditions of legal security, infrastructure, and logistics; attract greater foreign investment, reduce bureaucracy; increase investment in research, science, and technology; and increase the number and quality of all sorts of public benefits. These factors advance the democratization of society by driving with greater vigor small- and medium-sized businesses, in a new wave of globalization with entrepreneurship and the formalization of productive activity at its base. In this way, a joint plan for a mixed, supportive, and sustainable economy in the region continues to gain strength after 2018. In it, businesses and governments assume complementary roles and shared goals for economic efficiency and social justice.
Through the renewed institutions, in the 2020s, Latin America achieves a new economic position in a global context of mediocre growth in the best of cases and a return of destabilizing crisis in the worst. Within the region, the conditions are favorable for taking ambitious steps toward an integration that in 2030 leads a growing number of companies to compete on equal footing globally. They produce high-value products whose components are manufactured in various Latin American countries in value chains that run throughout the continent. By 2030, professional barriers shrink for Latin American youth, whose university degrees are recognized not only in their countries of origin but in most of the countries in the region. At the same time, their job horizons are expanded through the simplification of the processes for getting work permits. The same occurs outside of the region: In 2030, Latin America achieves more effective entry into the global context, especially in China and Asia, thanks to advances in commercial alliances that allow certification of technical standards, coordination of tax regulations, facilitation of foreign investment, and flexibility in the movement of people, capital, goods, and services. The region learns to have a stronger presence on the international scene, which results in greater geopolitical relevance. It now shines with the opportunities offered by its demographic characteristics. Relative to other geographical areas in the world, Latin America is a continent of millions of young people of working age, is home to a prosperous middle class, features improved human rights indicators, and has a positive influence on increasing levels of mutual international cooperation.
In addition, it is a region that is vital to ensuring the world’s food security and environmental sustainability. The increasing economic influence in the global markets comes largely from institutional reforms and investment in research, technology, and agricultural development to help increase agricultural productivity and sustainability, which is, in 2030, an essential core of models of sustainable development. The idea finally begins to take shape of a region that serves as the world’s food pantry, thanks to the timely exploitation of its numerous natural resources. What nature provides for free to the region is now a crucial element of its growth and development. In some cases, institutional reforms focus on combining collective prosperity with environmental sustainability, with the consciousness that humanity’s future is in the hands of the countries with the greatest biodiversity. The world demands, with increasing voracity, the environmental goods and services that the privileged ecosystems in the region offer, such as fresh water, wood, fiber, and medicine. These factors thus create, in several countries in the region, high-quality jobs through sustainable bio-business or investment in eco-tourism projects, among others.
All of the above holds a direct link to one of the aspects that most captures the world’s attention in the 21st century: Inequality. This interest is reflected in general terms by greater funding of social policies that combat inequality and poverty and promote qualified employment. In addition to a commitment to public education as an important path of social mobility, there is a clear consensus in several Latin American countries around carrying out reforms that broaden the tax base, reduce direct taxes that everyone pays equally, increase taxes on the highest revenues, and ultimately develop a more progressive model consistent with the increased awareness of social rights that has taken root in the continent’s population. Such consensus helps specific governments continue redistributive policies and strengthen the state structure so they can meet pending challenges. Other governance models, however, continue with traditional tax structures or fail to implement reforms under the pressure exerted by certain sectors.
Another obvious institutional priority is the fight against discrimination. Among the most common demands for change is the need to guarantee effective democratic citizenship, which requires strengthening the separation of public policies, educational curricula, and public administration from religion. In some parts, an influential secular movement arises that unites some believers and atheists alike for the unconditional defense of religious freedom, but only within the strict limits of the private, individual sphere. There’s also a greater emphasis on pluralistic efforts to progressively overcome gender inequality and promote the active participation of women. Thus, the feminist agenda to demand higher salaries for women and eliminate patriarchal symbols anchored in the past, among others, attracts new supporters, confirming that the demand for gender equality is one of the best ways to reclaim democratic citizenship for all social groups. In 2030, a majority of the governments, businesses, and social entities in the region include and are led by more women than before. Women, who now enjoy better working and social conditions, persist in the struggle to position their ambitions as a fundamental pillar of the reformist wave that was inaugurated in the previous decade.
This democratic reassessment in the region leads the majority of countries to share a collective roadmap and a common democratic, urban goal. Nevertheless, as previously indicated, in 2030, the balance sheet is bittersweet, because the results are disparate in each country. In some cases, a qualitative leap in development, progress, and fairness occurs in a brief 15-year period. Some backwardness remains, but the advances achieved are unprecedented in any other period of history. Exceptions exist in that some of the reforms materialize, but others remain unfinished because extended negotiations undermine the urgency of the execution. In some cases, good intentions succumb to a precarious budgetary reality that fails to ensure basic human rights and the full exercise of democratic citizenship.
It also happens in some countries that the elite resist the proposed changes with all of their strength. In a few cases around 2022 and 2026, leaders come to power with a clear inclination to repress social protest and the freedom of the press and to curb the reformist mood running throughout the region. Alternatively, religious fundamentalists impose their own beliefs on the progressive tendencies that inspired this cycle of reform.
Some of the more prominent political leaders in this decade recognize that absolute successes do not exist on the steep upward road of democratic progress and civic education, and on the difficult path of tolerating coexistence. The day-to-day reality in the region is that of the growing predominance of a vision that substitutes the culture of polarization with the deepening of democracy, the regeneration of the political system and the inclusive and sustainable growth of the economy, beyond narrow interests and the tendency toward short-term thinking. A new generation of leaders slowly emerges that moves away from egotistical, dictatorial, messianic, patriarchal, and authoritarian leadership. Instead, they profoundly value democracy, individual liberties, political pluralism, freedom of expression, the rotation of power, and public deliberation. The greatest certainty and most relevant lessons expressed in the new regional integration summits is that the future of Latin America is promising, as long as it continues to be built by new generations in which the collective will and common well being take precedence.