InsightsUnveiling Latin America's Political Quagmire

Unveiling Latin America’s Political Quagmire

Root causes and remedial paths.

In contemporary Latin America, a profound political challenge looms large. The erosion of citizen trust in political institutions, persisting over decades, has reached critical levels, exacerbated by many factors that deepen the crisis. These factors not only threaten the stability of individual nations but also have the potential to shape the future trajectory of the entire region. So, what are these pressing issues? 

The Rule of Law under attack 

Firstly, in various countries, the Rule of Law is constantly attacked through violations and progressive abuses of institutional frameworks and laws, weakening or seriously compromising its effectiveness. This is particularly extreme in Haiti, where the state structure has nearly entirely collapsed, plunging the country into widespread chaos and even allowing the term “failed state” to be used.  

Similarly grave situations are found in countries like Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, where dictatorial regimes have co-opted all branches of government. Although there is some semblance of institutionalism, it operates according to the instructions of the respective dictator. Equally concerning is what is happening in countries like Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, and others, where governments are advancing measures to concentrate power, sometimes against the current constitution, along with intense and often unfounded persecution of political opponents.  

According to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2020, which measures the adherence to the rule of law in 128 countries, many Latin American nations rank poorly in factors such as constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, and order and security. Given the variety of situations and degrees of Rule of Law affected in countries across the continent, it isn’t easy to propose a single standard solution for all cases.

However, some critical aspects to address deficiencies in the political system include strengthening civil society, seeking cross-party political agreements, and, in some cases, international support for these processes. 

Corruption: A persistent scourge 

A second critical aspect in the region is the advance of corruption. This is a scourge entrenched at various levels of state administration in countries, generating continental networks and continually seeking new ways to engage in fraudulent activities. In some countries like Chile, nonprofit organisations have recently been used as mechanisms for the misappropriation of state funds. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2021, which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople, most Latin American countries score below the global average, with several in the bottom half of the ranking.  

Corruption has reached such levels in the region that, as seen in Peru, a presidential candidate who was strongly criticised during his campaign comes to power only to engage in precisely what he vehemently rejected during his campaign. Combatting this endemic problem in our societies requires independent oversight bodies separate from incumbent governments to oversee and penalise acts of corruption and advance transparency processes in public information and administration. 

Irregular immigration: Humanitarian crisis 

Another consequence of the political crisis in the region is irregular immigration. This is a growing process where particularly young people from countries facing severe political or economic crises leave their places of origin by any means to seek better opportunities in neighbouring countries. According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”), Latin America has experienced a significant increase in displaced populations, with the number of forcibly displaced people from the region reaching 8.2 million by mid-2021.

Unfortunately, the magnitude of these migratory and irregular processes is creating an actual humanitarian crisis in receiving countries, which find themselves unable to respond adequately to the needs of these new inhabitants in their territory. These processes have also led to the displacement of criminal gangs and individuals from one country to another, engaging in human trafficking and committing crimes that are foreign to the criminal culture of the host country.  

Finding solutions to this regional problem is difficult, as it fundamentally requires improving the conditions in the migrants’ countries of origin. However, pursuing transitional solutions involves coordinated efforts by countries experiencing massive irregular influxes, seeking effective measures to halt these processes and sharing some burdens. 

Social unrest and violence 

Additionally, recent years have seen instances of social unrest accompanied by severe acts of violence against property, looting and destruction of public assets. These incidents are not spontaneous but directed and inspired by ideologies seeking to undermine the current democratic institutionalism.  

Faced with these cases, the authorities of the affected country must swiftly use all remedies afforded by the Rule of Law, as experience shows that delayed reactions result in more severe consequences. This should not be confused with citizens’ legitimate discontent with their authorities for failing to fulfil campaign promises, which persists from one government to another.  

In such cases, people can peacefully protest and voice their concerns within a democratic framework. Furthermore, in recent years, we have witnessed an empowerment of citizens who have little tolerance for their legitimate demands to remain stagnant. Thus, the so-called “honeymoon periods” that rulers once had with their electorate are becoming increasingly shorter, and we see how governments elected with high popularity experienced dramatic falls in very short periods. 

The drug trafficking dilemma 

Lastly, a persistent evil that extends throughout the region is drug trafficking, which, unfortunately, is related to almost all the aspects above and exceedingly corrupts both states and the societies within them. In less developed countries like those in Latin America, with an apparent lack of opportunities for the less privileged, the drug business is seen by some as the only means of achieving a certain standard of living, even at the cost of one’s life. Criminal gangs managing this lucrative business continual to reinvent ways to infiltrate society, as recently witnessed with the explosion in violence in Ecuador. 

As we can see, Latin America faces a series of longstanding problems that are generating political crises, ranging from the erosion of the Rule of Law to pervasive corruption, irregular immigration, social unrest, and drug trafficking. While in some cases, the severity of the conflicts requires drastic and profound measures, in most cases, it involves the orientation of public policies and coordinated efforts among countries to confront and better address these common challenges. 

About the Author

Nicolas Figari Vial
Nicolas Figari Vial
Nicolas holds a law degree from Universidad de Los Andes, Chile, and a Master of Laws in International Law from the University of Nottingham, UK. With experience in commercial law, parliamentary legal advisory roles, he now serves as Executive Director of the Union of Latin American Parties (UPLA).
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