Margarita Vaca Cuevas
Article 21 of the Human Rights Declaration states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” This premise has been the starting point for adopting and implementing democratic principles across the globe, understanding democracy beyond a system of government, as a way of life that guarantees the fulfilment of human rights based on respect and tolerance towards diversity, freedom of expression, and capacity for action for all without discrimination or difference.
The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlight the importance of building more resilient, inclusive, and sustainable democracies in SDG 16 Peace, justice and strong institutions. Its indicators aim at ending all forms of violence and illicit financial flows, ensuring access to justice leaving no one behind, promoting accountability through dissemination of information and freedom of expression, and building institutions capable of responding in a transparent manner to the needs and priorities of a Nation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about significant challenges to democracy in all regions, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, where institutional weakness, corruption, and a lack of guaranteed rights stir up a long-standing “democratic unrest”. The steps taken by governments to avoid the spread of the virus in their territories, such as implementing lockdowns and restructuring citizen services, have opened up a debate between the freedom of people’s civil rights and protecting both individual and collective health. An example of this dilemma is the fact that at least 70% of countries in the region have limited their courts’ activities and access to justice due to the pandemic and lockdowns (IDEA, 2021).
Exceptional situations as instruments of power
The spread of COVID-19 led Governments to change how they make decisions at the global, regional, national, and local levels, in order to combat the effects of the pandemic and speed up bureaucratic processes for rapid response. In this manner, at least 21 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (91%) have declared a state of emergency, state of exception, state of catastrophe due to public calamity, or national health emergency (IDEA, 2021). However, the new game rules defined in these types of exceptional states have opened a door to taking unnecessary emergency measures that threaten people’s rights.
According to the Global State of Democracy (GSoD) Report on Latin America, 12 democratic governments implemented either illegal, disproportionate, undefined, or unnecessary emergency measures. Additionally, the situation led some States in the region to suffer a rupture in their branches of government. For example, more freedom was given to the executive, which during the pandemic made budget decisions by presidential order, as seen in cases such as Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru (Directorio Legislativo, 2020).
In this context, Latin America and the Caribbean received a score of 6.09 over 10 in the Democracy Index 2020, a decline repeated for the fifth year in a row. Uruguay, Chile, and Costa Rica (highest to lowest score) are the only countries which live a full democracy and have a score higher than 8, while Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela (highest to lowest score) experience an authoritarian regime. The rest of the countries range from flawed democracies (13) to hybrid regimes (5).
Although mobility restrictions during the pandemic meant a setback in democracy for the region, undemocratic practices in Bolivia, El Salvador, Haiti, and Mexico have had a high incidence in the low score, as well as the recent authoritarianism in Venezuela and Nicaragua, which has seen its effects reflected not only in border countries, but in all the region.
Restrictions to the freedom to communicate
Regarding the state of freedom, the report Freedom in the World 2021 shows that only 9 countries in the region are free, meaning that in the different categories defined both in terms of political rights (electoral process, political pluralism and participation, and functioning of government) and in civil liberties (freedom of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights) they obtained a positive score. However, 13 countries in the region showed a negative change in the global freedom index, i.e. the political rights and civil liberties of their people were diminished.
Regarding internet freedom, which has played a relevant role during the pandemic as a reporting mechanism, there were no data available to measure the state of this indicator in 17 countries in the region. From the 7 countries with available data, 5 suffered a decline in this indicator, with Ecuador as the country with the highest setback, a 4-point decrease (57/100), as a result of landline and mobile connectivity interruptions during social demonstrations, as well as in social media platforms. Additionally, there were disinformation campaigns on the pandemic (Freedom House, 2021).
Lastly, the right to access information has been limited in light of government repressions against the press and dissemination of data related to the spread of the virus, management of resources for responding to the pandemic, and arguments against decisions made by the government. For example, finding out the official figures on the pandemic in Brazil was a difficult task due to the Government’s attempts to minimize the severity of the crisis (Reporters Without Borders, 2021). Additionally, in Cuba and Venezuela, reporters have been arrested and have had their equipment confiscated. In other countries, such as El Salvador and Honduras, journalists’ mobility to perform their informative tasks was limited (Camilleri, Christie & Lanza, 2020).
According to the World Press Freedom Index 2021, Latin America recorded the worst setback (+2.5%) among the regional indicators. Most countries are in a restricted position to promote press freedom. In 8 countries, press freedom is in a difficult situation, with a score from 35 to 55 points over 100, and 9 countries face a problematic situation (25 to 35 points out of 100).
Without a doubt, the spread of COVID-19 has tested the democratic systems in Latin America and the Caribbean and, in general around the globe, by demanding a balance between ensuring the protection of the population’s health and not leaving their rights unfulfilled. Thus, it is necessary to apply new measures and rules anchored by the respect for freedom and accountability based on strong evidence that sheds light on the progress, failures, and challenges faced by countries.
Additionally, governments must commit to providing timely and true information on the current situation of the pandemic, both at the health and the budget level, and act as overseers of information, avoiding any type of hate speech that may motivate the population to take action against democracy or their own health. All this must be in line with SDG 16.10: Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.
Meanwhile, re-establishing the balance between the branches of government, regulating the functions of all actors involved in decision-making based on debate, and avoiding unilateral decisions under third-party interests are fundamental to restore the legitimacy of the State and of democracy itself. It is worth noting that the authoritarianism installed during the pandemic in some countries will be a considerable challenge for the whole region and will require strategies that transcend the national level.
Strengthening full democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean involves giving everyone a voice and a vote, in line with the targets established in the SDGs, specifically SDG 16, which acts as a multiplier to achieve the rest of the Goals.