Latin America’s “left turn” in the early twenty-first century has received much attention. Yet despite the vast quantity of commentary (most of it hostile) on the matter by politicians, media pundits, and foreign policy intellectuals in the United States, almost never are the views of Latin Americans themselves considered. The most recent 18-country poll from Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro, designed to measure how democratic the region is, offers an important window into those views .
The dominant narrative about Latin America’s left turn goes like this: left-wing autocrats like the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro have hijacked democracy and picked fights with the United States (the Bolivian, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan, Cuban, and sometimes Argentine governments are also included in this group). On the other side are sensible, democratic governments that respect human rights and look favorably on the U.S. government; this group includes countries like Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and Chile (sometimes pundits also identify a “good left” that includes Brazil, Uruguay, and El Salvador, in opposition to the “bad left” in places like Venezuela).
This narrative has no basis in public opinion data from the region, as the Latinobarómetro poll results show. The evil autocrats in Venezuela, Bolivia, and elsewhere are actually considered quite democratic by their own citizens’ estimation, while the regimes in the second group do considerably worse and in many cases are at or near the very bottom of the pile. These results are generally consistent with the results of previous years (there was no poll in 2012, but see these prior analyses of the 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008 polls), and also tend to confirm scholarly studies showing that the U.S. government supports relatively undemocratic and repressive regimes .
It should be noted that the Latinobarómetro poll is less than ideal, for at least three reasons. Like most polls in Latin America, people with stable urban residences are bound to be overrepresented. Second, the wording of the poll questions is often vague, and logical questions that might reveal more about people’s perceptions and values are not asked. And finally, the biases of the firm itself are clear from the commentary that accompanies the poll results, which makes clear that the authors do not consider places like Venezuela to be very democratic (see below). Such biases are unsurprising given the poll’s sponsors, which include the U.S. government and Inter-American Development Bank. But all of these flaws only make the poll results more significant: since the poll itself is structured to underestimate support for left-leaning regimes and overestimate support for right-wing regimes, the fact that the results consistently flout that bias is all the more remarkable.
Citizen Appraisals of their Democracies
The foremost purpose of the poll each year is to measure respondents’ “support for democracy.” This question is clearly problematic in some ways. Low expressed “support” is often interpreted by pollsters and pundits to mean that Latin Americans or other Third World peoples are backward, ignorant, or naturally attracted to authoritarian rule, echoing an Orientalist discourse with deep historical roots in Western colonialism. As Noam Chomsky commented in the early 1990s with regard to the low “support for democracy” in the former USSR, “Support for democratic forces is limited, not because of opposition to democracy, but because of what it becomes under Western rules”—a de facto dictatorship of economic elites . But the question does provide some indication of respondents’ satisfaction with the state of their democracies, as the Latinobarómetro pollsters acknowledge in their commentary. It is thus, in large part, a referendum on the governments in power.
The question wording was as follows:
With which of the following phrases do you most agree?: 1) Democracy is preferable to any other form of government; 2) In some circumstances, an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one; 3) It doesn’t matter—a democratic regime means the same thing for people like me as an undemocratic one.
The percentages agreeing that “democracy is preferable” were as follows:
Source: Based on Corporación Latinobarómetro, Informe 2013 (Santiago, Chile, November 1, 2013),p. 24. (“DR” is the Dominican Republic)
A similar question measured respondents’ satisfaction with their democracies:
In general, would you say that you’re very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, not very satisfied, or not satisfied at all with the functioning of democracy in (your country)?
The percentages who were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied are presented here:
Source: Based on Informe 2013, p. 36.
In this second graph none of the results (with the exception of Uruguay) are overwhelmingly positive. Such findings are a reminder that all Latin American countries still face serious problems, and that even the most leftward governments have a long way to go to guarantee equity, environmental sustainability, and genuine democracy . But these two poll questions do suggest that the more left-leaning governments are, on average, substantially more democratic and responsive to their citizens than the regional averages, and that the difference is especially marked when they are compared to the region’s major right-wing regimes and staunchest U.S. allies.
As they’ve done in past years, the pollsters again express great surprise at Venezuela’s strong performance in the poll. “Chavismo shows itself to be very alive” among the Venezuelan population even after Chávez’s death in March 2013, a “phenomenon” that is “difficult to understand.” They comment on the dramatic discrepancy between Venezuelans’ positive evaluation of their democracy and the evaluation of outside “experts,” noting the sharp disjunction between “what its citizens say and what the international community says” (international community, of course, is used in its standard technical sense—meaning the community of neoliberal intellectuals who serve the needs of corporate capital and empire). Ecuador, also near the top on this question, is another country where “we find incongruence between the people’s opinion and the opinion of the experts” . By contrast, shining beacons of democracy like Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras all came out well below the regional average, no doubt an indication of their citizens’ inability to appreciate the blessings of true democracy.
Poverty, Inequality, and Perceptions of Justice
Though not the focus of the poll, the results on questions relating to social justice and economic well-being are also worth noting.
Source: Based on Informe 2013, p. 53.
Source: Based on Informe 2013, p. 77.
With regard to this last question, it is quite likely that the percentages reflect in part respondents’ perceptions that the government is at least seeking to reduce inequality. The biggest positive changes in these percentages since the question was last asked (in 2011) were in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Uruguay .
How do Latin Americans’ perceptions about poverty and inequality compare with scientific measurements of these problems? Poverty and inequality measures can be quite controversial, and are often highly politicized. The Santos administration in Colombia, for instance, recently changed its way of measuring poverty in a way that resulted in a magical plunge in Colombian poverty (to just 9 percent). Other analyses have found that the statistics used by the World Bank and other neoliberal institutions tend to minimize the accomplishments of left-wing governments in Latin America compared to centrist and center-left governments. Here I present recent data from the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, or CEPAL in Spanish), which is widely recognized as a reliable source of statistics on the region. For various reasons the ECLAC data still represent a conservative estimate of poverty reductions in more left-leaning countries (especially Venezuela) . So, as with the Latinobarómetro poll results, we should keep in mind that the data are at least slightly biased against the more leftward governments (Venezuela and Bolivia in the graphs below, versus right-wing U.S. allies Colombia and Mexico).
In these two graphs the green bars are the most important, representing each country’s percentage reduction in poverty (first graph) and reduction in inequality (second graph) over roughly the past decade. The Gini coefficients in the second graph are a standard measure of inequality, with higher numbers signifying greater inequality.
Source: Based on Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL), Panorama social de América Latina 2012 (Santiago de Chile: Naciones Unidas, 2012), pp. 86-87. Poverty rate figures rounded to nearest whole number. (Years used for 2009-2011 calculation: Venezuela = 2011; Bolivia = 2009; Colombia = 2011; Mexico = 2010)
*Statistics provided by Colombian government
Source: Based on CEPAL, Panorama social 2012, pp. 111-12. The Colombian Gini measure for 2011 is not directly comparable with the 2002 figure because the income calculation system changed in the intervening years (see ibid., 111). (Years used for 2009-2011 calculation: Bolivia = 2009; Venezuela = 2011; Mexico = 2010; Colombia = 2011)
In sum, Venezuela has reduced poverty by a substantially larger margin than Colombia and by far more than Mexico. Both Venezuela and Bolivia have reduced inequality by much more than Mexico (and Colombia, it appears, though the comparison in this case is harder because the method of income calculation recently changed). Other studies have confirmed this basic picture, and have often found an even larger reduction in Venezuelan poverty and an even larger difference between the two camps (as well as a significant difference in inequality reduction between “hard left” regimes like Venezuela’s and more “moderate” left-leaning regimes like Brazil’s). Additional case studies offer supporting evidence. Honduras, for example, has seen substantial increases in poverty and inequality since the 2009 military overthrow of left-leaning elected President Manuel Zelaya.
These facts, like the Latinobarómetro annual poll results, are seldom discussed in the U.S. press. The only English-language source that regularly reports on the Latinobarómetro poll is The Economist, which invariably twists the results to suggest mass support for neoliberalism, right-wing parties, and U.S. foreign policy. Smarter news outlets ignore the polls entirely. When one considers how the statistics subvert the standard dogma on Latin America, the reasons for that neglect become clear.
 Corporación Latinobarómetro, Informe 2013 (Santiago, Chile, November 1, 2013), available from www.latinobarometro.org. In most countries the polling was conducted primarily in June 2013.
Unfortunately, even most alternative left and progressive media (Democracy Now!, The Nation, The Progressive, Counterpunch, Alternet, Truthout, Upside Down World, etc.) ignore the poll every year. Venezuelanalysis.com and NACLA Report on the Americas, which will feature a column on the 2013 poll in its next issue, are exceptions.
 See especially 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.
 Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 80.
 Democracy is not a simple matter of “majority rule,” either; it also requires protecting the legitimate rights of minorities. Some commentators hostile to leftist governments have made just this point; the problem is that the “minority” with which they are concerned is the economic elite, and the “rights” they zealously defend (e.g., the right to own sweatshops, make astronomical profits, or own five houses) are not in fact legitimate ones. There are legitimate questions to be raised about other minorities, however, such as Afro descendants and indigenous peoples. In places like Venezuela and Bolivia these groups’ stated interests have generally, but by no means always, aligned with those of recent left governments and majority opinion.
 Venezuela’s December 2013 municipal elections confirmed this picture; see Tamara Pearson, “Municipal Election Results: Venezuela Winning the War Waged against It,” Venezuelanalysis.com, December 9, 2013. Quotes from Informe 2013, pp. 7-10.
 Informe 2013, p. 77. The poll references both “income” and “wealth”—quite different things—but does not seem to have distinguished between them here.
 One reason is that poverty measurements do not fully account for the positive impact of services (health, education, etc.), which tend to be more substantial in places like Venezuela. Another is that, in the case of Venezuela, ECLAC uses a different price index than that used by the Venezuelan government, which results in a higher poverty level; see Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL), Panorama social de América Latina 2012 (Santiago de Chile: Naciones Unidas, 2012), 59n3. On Colombian poverty rates see my post “‘Kumbaya’ and Bullets: The Few Winners and Many Losers with the US-Colombia Free-Trade Agreement,” Z blog, November 1, 2011, note 20.