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Opinion and Analysis: Politics

Few Surprises in Latin American Poll: US Foes Still among the More Democratic Regimes in Latin America, According to their People

The Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro has just released its annual poll of Latin American public opinion. The 112-page report constitutes one of the most thorough annual measurements of public opinion in the eighteen countries surveyed. Despite significant flaws, including Latinobarómetro’s own neoliberal and Orientalist bias, the report provides important information about Latin Americans’ views on political, economic, and social issues.

The results also provide an opportunity to evaluate the conventional wisdom that US policy promotes democracy in the region. Since a number of questions ask respondents to rate the level of political and social democracy in their countries, the poll is an implicit test of the standard claim that countries like Venezuela are authoritarian dungeons while US-friendly governments like Colombia’s or Mexico’s are beacons of democracy. Opinion polls are certainly not the only way of measuring a government’s respect for democracy, but they are a crucial and usually-neglected means of doing so.

This year’s results are generally consistent with those of 2008, 2009, and 2010: the governments most commonly vilified by US commentators, particularly Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, rank among the more democratic regimes by their own citizens’ estimation, while close US allies like Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras rank among the less democratic countries in the region [1].

Measures of Political Democracy

A number of questions asked respondents to rate the state of democracy in their countries. One of the most clear-cut questions measured satisfaction “with the functioning of democracy.” Consistent with past years, Uruguay topped the list with 72-percent satisfaction. Three out of the next four countries have governments that commentators often depict as anti-democratic: Argentina was second with 58-percent satisfaction, Ecuador fourth with 49 percent, and Venezuela fifth with 45 percent. By contrast, most close US allies finished well below the regional average of 39 percent: Honduras was fourteenth with 29 percent, Colombia sixteenth with 26 percent, and Mexico tied for seventeenth with 23 percent. The main exception to the rule was Bolivia, which finished at fifteenth with 28-percent satisfaction [2].

This basic pattern is evident throughout the report, albeit with some variations. When asked “how democratic” their country is on a 1-to-10 scale, Uruguayans were most satisfied, with an overall rating of 7.7. Venezuela finished third with a rating of 7.3, while fellow left-leaning governments Argentina, Ecuador, and Nicaragua also finished at or above the regional average. Colombia tied Nicaragua with a 6.4 rating. Mexico and Honduras finished near the bottom of the list, although Bolivia’s rating was the same as Honduras’s [3]. In another question, Uruguayans and Ecuadorians expressed the most confidence in their governments. Venezuela tied for fourth with a 51-percent confidence rating, even though respondents’ personal views of Hugo Chávez were not always glowing. Argentines (48 percent) and Bolivians (37 percent) had more confidence in their governments than Colombians, Mexicans, and Hondurans, where confidence levels ranged between 29 and 36 percent [4].

The most-publicized question each year is usually the one that measures “support for democracy” among Latin Americans—that is, whether the primitive Latin Americans favor democratic governance or whether they gravitate toward despotic strongmen and authoritarian regimes. Although the question and resulting analysis is rife with Orientalist assumptions, the question itself does offer some measure of respondents’ satisfaction with their governments: if people believe their government is responsive to the popular will, they will be more likely to “support democracy” [5]. Again the result is consistent with the overall pattern: Venezuela finished first with 77 percent “support for democracy,” Argentina third with 64 percent, and Bolivia sixth with 64 percent. Colombia (55 percent), Honduras (43 percent), and Mexico (40 percent) were all well below the regional average of 58 percent [6].

Another important question asked if the respondent’s country “is governed by a few powerful groups in their own interest” or “for the good of all the people.” The responses are consistent with those above: Uruguay was first, with 54 percent of Uruguayans saying that the country is run “for the good of all the people,” followed by Nicaragua with 42 percent, Venezuela with 39 percent, Ecuador with 34 percent, and Argentina and Bolivia tied for fifth with 30 percent. Colombia (25 percent), Mexico (15 percent), and Honduras (15 percent) were all below the regional average, reflecting a level of cynicism comparable to that of the US public, 81 percent of whom say that their country “is pretty much run by a few big interests” [7].

But on some questions the US allies did exceptionally well, finishing at or near the top. When asked what was lacking in their democracies, Colombia ranked first in the number of those who said that their country “needs to increase the transparency of the state.” Colombia’s 54 percent on this question was well above all other Latin American countries. By contrast, only 20 percent of Venezuelans listed this concern (along with 36 percent of Mexicans, 29 percent of Bolivians, and 28 percent of Hondurans). In a separate question measuring state transparency, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Ecuador all finished well above the regional average while Mexico, Colombia, and Honduras finished below it [8].

Colombia also topped the list in the number (40 percent) who said that “citizen participation is lacking”; Venezuela was last with only 25 percent giving this answer. The question about “what democracy is lacking” also gave respondents the option of saying that democracy in their countries “is good how it is.” Colombia again finished last with just 4 percent giving this answer, followed by Mexico with 5 percent and US allies Peru and Chile at 7 percent. Uruguay finished first (25 percent) and Venezuela fifth (20 percent) [9].

One of the questions also sought to measure change over time, asking respondents whether democracy “has improved.” The result was similar, with Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador, and Venezuela all in the top six, and Mexico and Honduras well below the regional average; in a modest exception to the general pattern, Colombia finished eighth and Bolivia tied for eleventh [10].

Social Democracy and Neoliberalism

 Several questions also touched upon the level of social and economic democracy. When their citizens were asked if the distribution of wealth was “fair,” Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia all exceeded the regional average, while Mexico, Colombia, and Honduras ranked below the average. With the exception of Honduras, the same pattern was repeated when a separate question asked respondents if democracy in their countries guarantees “a fair distribution of wealth” [11]. Although responses to these two questions reflect in part the long-term structural characteristics of each country, they also say something about popular perceptions of government policy in each country.

The poll results also indicate widespread opposition to neoliberal economic policies of privatization and reduced social programs. A large majority of respondents in every country believe that the distribution of wealth should be more equitable, which is an unequivocal rejection of neoliberalism’s tendency to exacerbate inequality. And although most Latin Americans say that markets and private enterprise should play some role in their economies, they strongly reject the privatization of public services and industries that was imposed across the region in the 1980s and 1990s. Only 36 percent of all Latin Americans think that “privatizations have been beneficial” for their countries, and just 31 percent report satisfaction with privatized services (almost precisely the same figures as last year) [12]. Past Latinobarómetro polls have found overwhelming support for keeping basic services and industries “mainly in the hands of the State,” and have found that about half of Latin Americans think that government should provide free education and health care [13]. The 2011 version omitted these questions.

Implications

 These findings present a general picture of Latin America that is starkly different from the standard images in US press coverage and political commentary. The image of close US allies like Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras as shining examples of democracy finds little support in the poll results. Conversely, US foes—particularly the arch-foe, Venezuela—are rated reasonably well by their own people. The view of the Chávez government as dictatorial and repressive that is ubiquitous in US corporate media is simply not shared by most Venezuelans. Venezuela is certainly not an ideal democracy, and the Chávez government has acted undemocratically at times, but the poll results do support the notion that Venezuela is among the more democratic governments in the region [14]. The same is true of most other left-leaning regimes, but the trend is especially apparent in the case of Venezuela.

Mainstream commentators have an interesting way of dealing with such findings. The Latinobarómetro analysts quietly acknowledge that Venezuelans themselves “respond positively to the actions of the Chávez government, while the world rates it negatively” (the world is presumably intended here in its technical sense, as the world of elite opinion) [15]. Last year’s report commented on this same disjunction:

It’s paradoxical that Venezuela features the most support [for democracy], given that it’s also the country about which there is the most criticism regarding the state of its democracy. Venezuelans, however, don’t have the same opinion as the analysts of democracy. (My emphasis)

The 2010 report thus argued that there is an “incongruence between objective reality and perceived reality” [16]. In other words, Venezuelans themselves are too stupid and brainwashed to realize that their country is a totalitarian dungeon, and that countries like Colombia and Mexico are the vanguard of democracy and human rights. Our only hope is that the “analysts of democracy” can show Venezuelans this objective truth before Chávez installs the gas chambers. As I argued last year, the Latinobarómetro poll and the mainstream commentary that accompanies it (led by The Economist) reveal almost as much about the intellectual subservience and dishonesty of the commentators as they do about Latin Americans’ attitudes [17].

Another crucial implication concerns US policy. When public opinion is the measure of democracy, there is absolutely no positive correlation between US support for a regime and the level of democracy in that country; if anything, the correlation is negative: the US government tends to support regimes that are less democratic. Although polls alone are insufficient to prove this relationship, when considered alongside regimes’ broader human rights records they provide strong evidence that the US government prefers repression and exclusionary forms of democracy (what William Robinson calls “polyarchy”) to more participatory forms and social redistribution [18]. The idea that US policy supports repression and opposes meaningful democracy is certainly consistent with past history, for which academic studies have confirmed this pattern [19].

The 2011 Latinobarómetro poll offers interesting insights, though ones that are likely to remain unacknowledged by those in the corridors of power. A brief look at the poll results reveals why.

Notes:

 [1] For analysis of last year’s poll and the neoliberal and Orientalist biases of the mainstream commentary on it, see my “Latinobarómetro 2010: Latin American Public Opinion,” ZNet, December 7, 2010. For the 2009 and 2008 results see my “The 2009 Latinobarometro Poll,” ZNet blog, December 15, 2009, and “US Policy and Democracy in Latin America: The Latinobarometro Poll,” ZNet, May 26, 2009. The vilification of regimes hostile to US policy by politicians and the press is so widespread as to require little further documentation here, but skeptical readers can consult my articles on Latin America at http://kyoung1984.wordpress.com. One typical example came in a September 12 report by the Associated Press that virtually equated Hugo Chávez with Muammar Gaddafi (“Venezuela’s Chavez [sic] Sees Cautionary Tale in Libya”).

[2] Corporación Latinobarómetro, Informe 2011 (October 28, 2011), 98. Because Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and has historically had a very weak state, more appropriate comparisons would be between Bolivia and other small, poor countries like those of Central America rather than Colombia or Mexico; when compared to similar countries, Bolivia does remarkably well by most measures. And Bolivia came in second-to-last in the question assessing state weakness, with only 54 percent of Bolivians saying that their state “has the means to resolve the problems in our society” compared to 86 percent in Venezuela and 80 percent in Colombia (ibid., 90). In light of this and other handicaps, Bolivia’s results are more impressive.

[3] Ibid., 44.

 [4] Ibid., 23, 51, 106-07.

 [5] As Noam Chomsky commented in 1993 on the limited “support for democracy” in the former Soviet Union, “Support for democratic forces is limited, not because of opposition to democracy, but because of what it becomes under Western rules.” Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 80.

 [6] Informe 2011, 20.

 [7] Ibid., 35. On the US public see Stephen Kull, “Big Government Is Not the Issue,” WorldPublicOpinion.org, August 19, 2010, and my blog “The Democrats Choice, and Ours,” ZNet, October 10, 2010.

 [8] Informe 2011, 41, 93.

 [9] Ibid., 41. I list Peru as a close US ally because the polling began in July just after Ollanta Humala’s election, meaning that respondents’ frame of reference probably corresponded more to the presidential term of the right-wing Alan García, which ended in late July.

 [10] Ibid., 40.

 [11] Ibid., 34, 60.

 [12] Ibid., 34, 84-86.

 [13] See the references in note 1 above.

 [14] Worth emphasizing is the fact that some of Venezuela’s rankings are only high relative to other Latin American countries, and reveal just how much progress the country still needs to make. For example, if the 39 percent of Venezuelans who say their country is run “for the good of all the people” places Venezuela third in Latin America, it still leaves much to be desired.

 15] Informe 2011, 8. A similarly disingenuous statement in this year’s report (p. 45) claims that “[n]ot only the Western world but also Latin Americans criticize [the lack of] democracy in Venezuela.” The evidence for this claim is that “18 percent of Latin Americans say that Venezuela is not democratic”—hardly a resounding condemnation. In any event, Venezuelans’ own appraisals of their government are much more important than foreigners’, and probably less likely to be influenced by propaganda.

 [16] For quotes and analysis see my “Latinobarómetro 2010.”

 [17] For example, the only mention of Venezuela in The Economist’s report on the poll was in reference to Venezuelans’ worries about the crime rate in their country. See “The Discontents of Progress” (October 29, 2011).

 [18] Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). The atrocious human rights record of governments in Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere, and staunch US praise and support for those regimes, certainly provides additional evidence for the argument that US support correlates with repression.

 [19] On the mid-1970s, see Lars Schoultz, “U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Aid Distributions,” Comparative Politics 13, no. 2 (1981): 149-70; see also Edward S. Herman, The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda (Boston: South End Press, 1982), 126-32.