Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

How the Pandemic Is Accelerating Democracy’s Decade-Long Decline in the Americas

A deeper look at Freedom House data showing slow erosion in freedoms.
A December 2020 protest in El Salvador against President Nayib Bukele. Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Globally and in the Americas, we are witnessing a rapid deterioration of democracy. Freedom House’s new Freedom in the World 2021 report shows the United States and El Salvador leading the decay among the Americas’ 35 countries, with 13 others following the same downward trend. But why is this happening? The short answer is that a combination of factors has slowly eroded freedoms throughout the region. Looking back at the trends over the last 15 years, every category Freedom House uses to evaluate political rights and civil liberties has shown rollbacks.

The COVID-19 pandemic, inequality and violence have all played significant roles in this decline.

COVID has both facilitated and accentuated authoritarian tendencies in the Americas. Many governments in the region withheld or distorted crucial information, imposed excessive or abusive lockdown rules, or used COVID-19 as a cover to consolidate power and suppress dissent. For example, Colombia’s civil liberties score declined by one point due to instances where armed groups illegally enforced strict pandemic-related lockdowns, murdered people at informal checkpoints, forced some to flee their homes, and trapped human rights defenders and social leaders in locations where they face threats of violence.

The pandemic also exacerbated existing inequalities in a region that persists as one of the most unequal areas of the world. These inequalities span multiple dimensions, from race and gender to unequal access to education, healthcare, and other basic services.

The homicide rate positions the Americas as the most violent region in the world. While the pandemic’s early lockdown and confinement periods knocked these numbers down a bit, increases in violence against journalists and women, coupled with re-opening and normalization processes, reversed those gains. According to Freedom House’s 2021 report, police and military units in El Salvador and Venezuela reportedly engaged in arbitrary detentions and torture, while paramilitary groups policed civilian movement in Venezuela and Colombia. Even in Argentina, where democratic institutions are stronger, reports emerged of police firing rubber bullets at alleged quarantine breakers. Further, the pandemic did nothing to dislodge the Americas as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and journalists.

Other regions, like Eurasia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East and North Africa, fared worse than the Americas over the last 15 years, yet the Americas enjoyed opportunities these regions did not. Between 2000 and 2010, the Americas experienced an unprecedented economic boom thanks to the rise in commodity prices. This produced a decline in poverty, improved socioeconomic indicators, and the rise of a middle class. However, these advances stagnated in the subsequent decade. 

The 2021 Freedom Report downgraded both the United States and El Salvador by three points while Venezuela lost two. Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and St. Lucia all slipped a point. Only six countries in the Americas registered improvements in 2021: Suriname, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Jamaica and Belize. Fourteen others held steady (Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Canada, Costa Rica, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guatemala, Paraguay, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay).

Peru represents the only country in the Americas that fell from Free to Partly Free in 2021, in great part due to its protracted political clashes between the presidency and Congress.

A decade ago, Freedom House categorized two-thirds of the countries in the Americas (23) as Free, 10 countries as Partially Free, and only two countries as Not Free. The downward trend is clear: The 2021 report only counts 21 free countries in the Americas, while 11 are Partially Free and three are Not Free. 

Since 2010, seven countries in the Americas have shown declines greater than five aggregate points in their overall freedom scores: Venezuela (-28), Nicaragua (-24), El Salvador (-12), the United States (-11), the Dominican Republic (-9), Haiti (-8) and Honduras (-8). 

As far as political rights are concerned, Venezuela and Nicaragua have had the greatest declines since 2013. Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico and Colombia all held stable in their low political rights scores. Nicaragua and Venezuela also registered the greatest aggregate declines in civil rights scores, followed by El Salvador and Honduras.

The 2020-2022 cycle is marked with key elections throughout the Americas, with high stakes for democratic freedoms. Frustration over slow economic growth, lack of opportunities, disinformation, continued polarization, and a general sense of apathy are giving way to populist threats in the Americas, including in the United States. While freedoms in the region are beleaguered, they are not defeated, as evidenced by the resilient cases of Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica and the English-speaking countries in the Caribbean. These successes, while not flawless, offer beacons of hope for democratic liberties. They also illustrate how those same freedoms can help to end the vicious circle of inequality and violence in the Americas.

Berthin is the director of the Latin America and Caribbean programs at Freedom House  

Tags: covid-19, democracy
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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