South America: A Polarized Continent

After a decade of relative stability, South America experiences political turmoil and social unrest.

Not long ago, South America was a promising continent. Economic growth and unparalleled political stability offered good reasons for optimism. Gone were the coups, and the region welcomed transitions of power through elections. Now, however, this era of hopefulness feels like a distant memory.

South America’s largest country, Brazil, has gone from boom to bust thanks to years of poor economic decisions. Brazil is battling its worst recession ever. And, in the meantime, congress impeached a president and the electoral justice could oust another.

Meanwhile, Paraguay and Venezuela are experiencing even worse political crises. Currently, Venezuela is imploding. Facing an economic crisis far worse than Brazil’s, the country witnessed a supreme court’s decision to claim sovereignty over parliament.

In Paraguay, violent protests erupted in the capital city, Asunción. On March 31, demonstrators stormed congress and set the building on fire after the senate held a vote behind closed doors to allow President Horacio Cartes to run for re-election. One activist was shot dead as the police reclaimed control of the building.

And in Ecuador, a highly disputed presidential election recently created turmoil. Lenín Moreno, who enjoys the current administration’s support, won a tight race with 51% of votes. His opposition accused his campaign of fraud and demanded a recount.
South America’s Crisis of Representation

Researcher Jorge I. Domínguez, from Johns Hopkins University, once described South America as “the land of the unfree and the home of the coup.” Virtually all countries in the region have experienced a coup d’état and lived under dictatorial rule.

There’s a sense that the levels of official corruption are intolerably high, as evidenced by Brazil’s Operation Car Wash. Every major party has been implicated in the Petrobras scandal, as are most candidates from the 2014 presidential election. And not even our meat, one of Brazil’s most important exports, has been untarnished by plutocratic corruption.

During the 1990s, the impeachments of President Fernando Collor in Brazil and President Carlos Andres Perez in Venezuela enforced the notion of widespread corruption. So did the drug money-laundering accusations against former Colombian President Ernesto Samper.

It is only natural, then, that the region would have a cynical relationship with democracy. The fact these fallen leaders presented themselves as “reformists” has only fueled skepticism about new leaders seeking change.

Since 1995, the nonprofit organization Corporación Latinobarómetro has conducted surveys in Latin America concerning democracy and representation. At first glance, the 2016 report reveals a deep crisis in the region’s democratic regimes.

The organization highlights the problem in the report’s title: “The Decline of Democracy.” Apparently, just one-third of Brazilians prefer democracy to other forms of power. The truth, however, is more nuanced than that.

“For several years, the research we have conducted at USP [University of São Paulo] shows that more than 70 percent of Brazilians want democratic governments. What the Latinobarómetro survey shows is a deep disenchantment with how the institutions work — especially Congress,” says José Alváro Moisés, a professor at USP.

Can you blame them?

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