An Unfinished Transition: Latin America's Performance in Freedom in the World

By Dizard, Jake | Harvard International Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

An Unfinished Transition: Latin America's Performance in Freedom in the World


Dizard, Jake, Harvard International Review


Many contemporary observers of Latin America seem to have short memories. International press coverage of the region is dominated by problems such as social discontent, crime and drug trafficking, and political corruption. With the rise of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, analysts warn of the dawn of a new age of populism and confrontation. All of these things are real or potential problems, to varying degrees. Yet it is important to keep in mind the immense progress that has been made over the past 35 years since the Freedom House survey Freedom, in the World began monitoring the region. A look at the numbers reminds us that Latin America has advanced impressively since the previous dark days of military dictatorships and corrupt autocracies. However, although the region's citizens and governments have largely defeated authoritarian governments, they must now confront the challenges posed by the ineffective state.

There are two primary classifications used in the Freedom in the World survey. The first and broadest categorizes every country in the world as "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free." A second, more granular assessment involves assigning each nation two numerical scores. The first is for political rights, which include elections, political pluralism, and government functioning. The second evaluates civil liberties, which include freedom of expression, freedom of association, rule of law, and personal autonomy, including minority and women's rights. Each is scored on a 1 to 7 scale in which 1 is the best possible mark and 7 is the worst.

The 18 core Latin American countries considered here include Brazil and all of the Spanish-speaking countries except for Cuba. Looking back at this group in 1972, the picture was bleak. Low country scores reflected the primacy of military dictatorships and authoritarian civilian regimes blotting the regional landscape. Just 7 states were Free, with 10 Partly Free and 1 (Panama) labeled Not Free. Even with relative refuges of liberty such as Costa Rica (1.1) and Venezuela (2.2), the average score was a mere 4.1 for political rights and 3.3 for civil liberties.

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By 1977 the picture was even worse, with the advent of General Augusto Pinochet's reign in Chile and the hardening of regimes in places such as Uruguay and Argentina leading to further declines. Free countries (Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela) were actually outnumbered by Not Free countries (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay). As indicated in Chart 2, the spike in average scores also reflected the deterioration.

That year marked the nadir of freedom in Latin America. Starting at the very end of the 1970s and continuing into the next decade, political parties and civil society groups in many countries combined forces to demand an immediate end to the pervasive human rights abuses and economic mismanagement that characterized military rule. By 1982, after several democratic transitions had occurred or were underway, seven countries were listed as Free and just one as Not Free. Moreover the average score increase between 1977 and 1982 was considerable. The trend accelerated during the first half of the 1980s so that in 1987, fully 11 countries were classified as Free. For the first time, the region's average score on political rights improved to below 3.

Between 1987 and 1992 progress was mixed. Some countries improved, most dramatically Chile after the fall of Pinochet, but also E1 Salvador after that country's brutal internal conflict finally reached a negotiated conclusion. However, a degree of backsliding occurred in several states that previously had demonstrated progress. Notably, these countries--Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela--are all located in the Andes, which has been Latin America's most volatile subregion (see Chart 3). Peru lapsed all the way from Free to Not Free status following Alberto Fujimori's self-coup of April 1992. In Colombia, increasing violence and instability related to both drug trafficking and the conflict with Marxist FARC and National Liberation Army insurgents resulted in a regression to Partly Free status.

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