Journalists’ Perspectives on Democratic Backsliding in Latin America

February 13, 2023

On Friday, February 10, a panel of journalists and scholars gathered on Zoom for a presentation on the topic of “Democratic Backsliding in America.” The talk was co-sponsored by CLAIS, the University of Chicago’s Center on Democracy, and the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism and was live-streamed to audience members from across the Americas.

The panel began with welcoming remarks from Interim CLAIS Chair Maria Jose Hierro, who introduced Yale’s Isabel Mares as the panel’s moderator. Mares in turn introduced the three featured speakers, including Brian Winter (Americas Quarterly, Poynter Fellow), Rodrigo Barrenechea (Harvard University and Universidad Católica del Uruguay), and Susan Stokes (University of Chicago). Each of the three speakers gave presentations of roughly 10 minutes in which they offered their perspectives on the state of democracy in Latin America.

Brian Winter went first, emphasizing the need to discuss democratic backsliding within the larger context of political history in Latin America. As Winter pointed out, waves of democratization across the region in the 20th century meant that by the 1990s the only “pure dictatorship” remaining was Cuba. Although the region is still largely democratic, he said, “there is no doubt that we’re seeing backsliding right now.” Winter highlighted recent examples such as police repression in Peru and the expansion of military power in Mexico as evidence of antidemocratic trends, attributing them at least in part to social media, loss of historical memory, and economic malaise.

Following Winter’s overview of democratization and democratic backsliding in Latin America, Rodrigo Barrenechea continued the discussion by providing a closer look at recent political developments in Peru. Barrenechea explained that the past seven years in Peru have been “a season of endless political turmoil and democratic decay,” including rapid presidential turnovers, election denialism, and an attempted coup in 2022. The destabilization of power in Peru that began with the impeachment of President Kuczynski in 2018 has contributed to what Barrenechea describes as “democratic hollowing.”

Regardless of whether they referred to these trends as democratic “hollowing,” “backsliding,” or “decay,” all three speakers emphasized the need to understand their causes. Susan Stokes focused specifically on the “economic underpinnings” of democratic backsliding, especially during the covid-19 pandemic, and drew comparisons between Latin America and developments in other regions. Most evident among these economic causes of backsliding is inequality, which Stokes said is persistently high in Latin America. Adding onto Barrenechea’s analysis of Peru, Stokes explained that considering inequality can help us see that the country “is suffering from both a social crisis and a political institutional crisis.”

After these individual remarks, Mares led a moderated discussion between the speakers about trends in democratic backsliding and democratic hollowing across the region, referencing recent examples from Brazil and Peru. Finally, the speakers answered additional questions submitted by audience members.

If you are interested in tuning in to future CLAIS events, be sure to check out the CLAIS website and Twitter page!

By Charlie Mayock-Bradley, CLAIS Student Assistant