US Foes are Among the More Democratic Regimes in Latin America, According to their People

On December 3 the Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro released its annual public opinion poll of eighteen Latin American countries. The poll provides valuable clues about citizens’ views, and should be taken seriously in any assessment of Latin American political and social realities.


On December 3 the Chilean polling firm Latinobarómetro released its annual public opinion poll of eighteen Latin American countries. The poll provides valuable clues about citizens’ views, and should be taken seriously in any assessment of Latin American political and social realities.

Here I provide a summary and analysis of some of the poll’s major findings, focusing on the results which seem most relevant to US policy (those who read Spanish can view the results in full on the website). As in past years, the poll offers a chance to test the degree to which US policy in fact promotes democracy, as politicians and pundits claim it does: are US allies like Colombia, Mexico, and Peru really the “thriving democracies” that the US government and press claim they are, in contrast to the creeping “dictatorships” in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia [1]? The Latinobarómetro poll, like other polls, is by no means a problem-free reflection of the level of democracy, justice, or well-being in the various countries—citizens’ perceptions can sometimes be wrong or misleading, of course. And like most polls, those citizens with established residences in centrally-located areas tend to be overrepresented, leading to underrepresentation of the urban and rural poor; this methodological bias surely hurts left-leaning regimes more than others [2]. But despite these limits, the poll results remain essential to any accurate assessment of Latin American realities.

The 2010 results are broadly consistent with those of 2008 and 2009: the countries frequently vilified as exemplars of authoritarianism do relatively well by their own citizens’ account, while those most closely aligned with the United States tend to fare more poorly by regional standards [3]. This pattern is most apparent upon examination of Venezuela and Bolivia, on the one hand, and Colombia, Mexico, and Peru, on the other.
Political and Social Democracy: Basic Trends
As in past years, one of the central questions measured respondents’ level of satisfaction with the state of democracy in their country. “Democracy” was left ambiguous, with respondents free to interpret the term as they see fit. Uruguay finished first out of eighteen countries with an amazing 78 percent of respondents saying they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their democracy, nearly double the regional average of 44 percent. Among US antagonists, Venezuela tied for fifth with 49-percent satisfaction, about the same as last year. Bolivia, meanwhile, declined significantly from 50-percent satisfaction in 2009 to 32 percent this year, dropping to sixteenth in the region. Among close US allies, Colombia tied for ninth at 39-percent satisfaction, and Peru and Mexico came in last with just 28- and 27-percent satisfaction, respectively. A similar question, discussed in the final section below, measured “support for democracy” and yielded similar results, except that Venezuela jumped to first place and Bolivia to fourth [4].
One crucially important question asked respondents about the extent to which “government decisions are designed to serve a small few.” This question, perhaps more than any other, measured respondents’ perceptions of how well the formally-democratic systems in their countries function in practice—that is, where those systems rank in the spectrum from genuinely participatory to more exclusionary styles of political democracy. The dubious “winner” in this question was Argentina, where 75 percent agreed that government decisions benefited a chosen few, followed by Paraguay (73%), Colombia/Brazil/Costa Rica (66%), Mexico (65%), and Peru (63%). The countries with the fewest numbers of cynical people were Uruguay (42%), Nicaragua (49%), and Bolivia and Venezuela at 52 percent. The opposite query yielded similar results: the members of the latter group were all among those where the most people felt their country “is governed for the good of all the people” (Uruguay was first, with an impressive 59 percent); the former group all finished in the bottom half [5]. A “thriving democracy” need not allow its citizens any actual input into government policy, it seems.
A set of questions also measured respondents’ confidence in political and legal institutions. Contrary to caricatures of Venezuela as a creeping dictatorship where a strongman is systematically eroding democratic institutions, Venezuela finished in the upper third when citizens were asked to rate their confidence in the judicial system (tied-4th), in Congress and politicians (2nd), and in “government” in general (6th). Venezuela outranked Colombia, Mexico, and Peru on all these questions, and in most cases the latter three countries were well below the regional average. Bolivia’s position was more ambiguous, higher than Mexico and Peru on most measures but outranked by Colombia on others [6].
However, a follow-up question measuring presidential approval ratings yielded a different result, with Colombia and Mexico in the top half and Venezuela and Bolivia in the bottom half (though Peru came in dead last) [7]. The disparity between this result and the others is interesting, since it seems to indicate respondents’ personalapproval of figures like Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, despite their general feeling that the political and judicial systems are undemocratic. The relatively high approval ratings of Santos and Calderón may reflect the leaders’ personal political styles (in contrast with Hugo Chávez’s often-bombastic rhetorical style) as well as the inherent bias in the poll’s methodology leading to overrepresentation of the urban middle classes and elite.
The poll also contains some limited indicators of the levels of social justice. When respondents were asked to evaluate the distribution of wealth in their societies, Venezuela topped the list with 38 percent saying that the distribution was “fair” or “very fair.” Venezuelans’ response probably reflects in part the impressive social strides that Venezuela has made over the past decade, cutting poverty by 39 percent and extreme poverty by over 50 percent. The next “fairest” countries after Venezuela were Ecuador (33%), Panama (32%), and Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Bolivia (all 26%). US allies Mexico, Colombia, and Peru all ranked considerably lower, with 15, 15, and 14 percent, respectively [8]. Of course, all of these results are pretty dismal, and not all of them reflect actual levels of inequality across the region. But they’re at least interesting for what they suggest about the relative difference between US friends and enemies.
These results are broadly consistent with those of prior Latinobarómetro polls, for example the 2008 and 2009versions. One noteworthy change from last year includes Bolivia’s drop from 50 to 32 percent “satisfaction.” But the overall pattern and consequent implications for US policy remain more or less consistent: the closest US allies in Latin America (especially Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) fare considerably worse than US enemies (especially Venezuela, but also Bolivia) on most major indicators of both political and social democracy. This pattern by no means suggests that Venezuela and Bolivia are utopias of participatory democracy, but it does suggest them to be significantly more democratic than US friends. Correcting for the poll’s overrepresentation of the urban elite and middle classes would undoubtedly yield results even more favorable for countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, where recent policies have favored the poor to a greater extent than elsewhere.

On a side-note, US allies rank exceptionally high on certain measures not included in the Latinobarómetro report. A 2010 report by the World Bank and International Finance Corporation rated Mexico, Peru, and Colombia as the three most business-friendly countries in the region. To those familiar with the history of US policy toward Latin America, it should hardly come as a surprise that US government attitudes toward a given country seem to correlate with the “ease of doing business” in that country. Maximization of corporate profits tends to require the suppression of basic human rights, social security systems, and participatory democracy, a dynamic that helps explain the low rankings of countries like Mexico, Peru, and Colombia in the Latinobarómetro poll as well as the enduring pattern of US support for such regimes [9].

Attitudes toward US Policy
Though US foreign policy was not the poll’s focus, a few questions provide clues about Latin Americans’ opinions of US policy. The general trend, again consistent with that of recent years, is admiration for the United States on a very general level, but disagreement with many actual US policies.
The individual figure of Barack Obama is still viewed very favorably, and about two-thirds of respondents say that US influence in Latin America is a good thing. But going beyond the level of the superficial, attitudes toward specific US policies are more negative. Most stark is the fact that 64 percent of respondents explicitly condemn the US embargo against Cuba. Even respondents who criticize Cuba as being relatively undemocratic tend to oppose the embargo [10].
A more subtle critique of US policies is respondents’ rejection of neoliberalism. The poll unfortunately does not deal extensively with questions of economic policy, but a few questions suggest that Latin Americans reject key aspects of the neoliberal economic agenda of privatization, liberalization, deregulation, and reduced social spending. Only 36 percent agree that “privatizations of state enterprise have been beneficial for the country,” and only 30 percent say they are satisfied with privatized basic services. About half (48 percent) of respondents say that the state should provide universal education and health care [11]. In the past, another question found that respondents overwhelmingly agreed that basic services and certain major industries should be “mainly in the hands of the State,” but the 2010 online version did not include such a question [12]. There is strong agreement that private enterprise should play a limited role in the economy—71 percent say it “is indispensable for the country’s development”—but this statement is hardly the ringing endorsement of market fundamentalism that many analysts argue. It is to the analysts themselves that I now turn.
Orientalism and Neoliberal Bias in Commentary on the Poll
Orientalism, as brilliantly critiqued by Edward Said, refers to the ways in which Western intellectuals depict foreign peoples as inferior. Orientalist representations have historically attributed to non-Westerners a range of attributes like irrationality, emotionality, mental inferiority, laziness, and a cultural predisposition to violence and authoritarianism. Orientalism in intellectual and political discourse plays a key role in legitimating the conquest and exploitation of its targets, helping to explain why it remains prominent in Western elite commentary [13]. In the case of the Latinobarómetro poll, both the report itself (which includes commentary alongside the questions/answers) and the corporate press outlets that comment on the poll exhibit a marked Orientalist perspective. At the same time, they selectively interpret the poll results to emphasize Latin Americans’ alleged agreement with the basic framework of corporate-driven, neoliberal globalization.

Latinobarómetro’s own commentators and those from outlets like the Economist usually focus on one question in particular: the “support for democracy” among Latin Americans. This year’s report notes that the regional figure has risen in recent years, with 61 percent now agreeing that “democracy is preferable to any other form of government” [14]. One implication of the question’s wording, of course, is that Latin peoples have historically favored authoritarian rule, and so the rising “support for democracy” shows that they are finally outgrowing their primitive yearning for authoritarianism. The expert analysts give little serious consideration as to why, apart from an innate craving for despotic rule, many Latin Americans might be dissatisfied with the current “democracies” in their countries.

Some of the other poll questions provide useful clues, but are ignored in the expert commentary. For instance, as noted above, one question reveals the widespread perception that most governments (especially those most friendly with the US) are effectively controlled by “a few,” much as people in this country overwhelmingly think the US government is “pretty much run by a few big interests” [15]. As Noam Chomsky observed with reference to the limited “support for democracy” in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s, “Support for democratic forces is limited, not because of opposition to democracy, but because of what it becomes under Western rules” [16]. Democracy, and what it means to support democracy, are never really explained in the Latinobarómetro report, but clearly the expert analysts are using Western-style liberal democracy as their yardstick [17]. The fact that Western-style democracy in practice is often synonymous with corporate dictatorship and staggering inequality may help explain the lack of “support for democracy” among the public, but this possibility does not occur to the experts.

Despite the limited framework and Orientalist tone of the question, the measures of “support for democracy” are still interesting, in another way. Since the poll’s designers and commentators work from the assumption that all eighteen Latin American regimes whose populations were surveyed are “democracies” in at least a nominal sense, the question becomes in part an implicit measure of citizens’ satisfaction with the state of democracy in their countries (and should thus be considered alongside the explicit “satisfaction” question mentioned above). The results pose an uncomfortable problem for the experts, who note with surprise that Venezuela ranked first on the list with 84 percent of Venezuelans agreeing that “democracy” is always preferable to “authoritarianism.” Venezuela was followed by Uruguay at 75 percent, Costa Rica at 72 percent, and Bolivia at 68 percent; US allies Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Honduras averaged 53 percent. With the exception of Bolivia, this pattern roughly corresponds to the “satisfaction” rankings in the first poll question mentioned at the outset, in which Venezuela tied for fifth and the US allies all ranked much lower.
The editorial comment that Latinobarómetro provides alongside the “support for democracy” question explains the Venezuela enigma:

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)

Particularly fascinating, the report continues, is “the incongruence between objective reality and perceived reality.” Venezuela is obviously the least democratic nation by objective standards, a statement that requires little justification. Yet curiously, the “criticism regarding the state of its democracy” comes not from its own people, but from the authoritative “analysts of democracy.” Venezuelans themselves are somehow too ignorant or brainwashed to see the truth. They foolishly believe their country to be democratic, oblivious to the true reality of dictatorial rule and deprived of the expert knowledge of the analysts of democracy, who know countries like Colombia, Mexico, and Peru to be the real champions of democracy and human rights.
Latinobarómetro’s own analysts of democracy offer some possible explanations for this conundrum. First, “What democracy means for Venezuelans differs from what it means for other countries in the region.” The analysts offer no further explanation here, though. And in fact, another question reveals that Venezuelans more than any other population “consider parties and the Congress as indispensable” to a democracy—meaning that Venezuelans are in fact not drawn to despotism out of any cultural or biological predisposition, and in fact hold their government to pretty high standards. Venezuelans are also the most “interested in politics” according to another question, so their relative satisfaction cannot simply be a product of blissful apathy to the horrid authoritarian reality that surrounds them. “It might be that…Venezuelans have little hope and no expectations of rapid progress, [meaning that] a little bit [of progress] can be seen as a big advance.” Venezuelans’ low expectations may explain why, for example, only 63 percent of Chileans “support democracy” while 84 percent of Venezuelans do [18]. Yet the very questions in the poll seem to challenge these explanations.

A second pattern in the Latinobarómetro commentary and in coverage from outlets like the Economist is the selective interpretation of the poll results to suggest that Latin Americans basically support neoliberalism. The analysts of democracy emphasize that “most Latin Americans place themselves in the political centre,” which is true but misleading [19]. The analysts, like journalists in the corporate press, implicitly equate “centrism” with “support for neoliberalism,” so that anyone who questions neoliberal tenets is both extremist and irrational [20]. Similarly, respondents’ agreement that private enterprise should play some role in economic development is interpreted as support for the reckless market fundamentalism of recent decades.

Recent Latinobarómetro poll results demonstrate particularly widespread disillusion with the privatization of public services and enterprises (see above). But the analysts of democracy downplay this evidence, instead emphasizing recent small increases in the percentages of people who support privatization. Privatizations “have had a tough time in recovering their legitimacy” since 1998, when they peaked at the level of 46-percent legitimacy before public support for them plummeted (46 percent constitutes overwhelming public approval). But the analysts gleefully report that support for privatization has since recovered from its low point of 22-percent support, all the way to 36 percent in 2010. Poll responses that belied this upward trend receive less attention from the analysts: while the figure of 36-percent support for privatization signifies a small improvement over last year, another question found a four-point drop in support for privatization, with those reporting that they were personally satisfied with privatized basic services falling from 34 percent in 2009 to 30 percent this year. But the analysts of democracy look past such inconveniences, remaining optimistic that the legitimacy of privatization will continue to rise to even more spectacular heights in the future as Latin Americans become more rational [21]. Proof of this growing rationality is Latin Americans’ increasing “[a]cceptance of a market economy and the role of private enterprise,” which “are part of the process of consolidation of democracies in the region” [22].

In many ways, then, the commentary accompanying the Latinobarómetro poll reveals as much about the subservience of today’s liberal intellectual class as about Latin American attitudes. But those attitudes nevertheless deserve to be taken seriously, particularly for what they suggest about US “support for democracy” in Latin America. 


[1] Obama himself has called Peru a “thriving democracy,” and has also been full of praise for the Mexican and Colombian regimes. See Lisa Skeen, “U.S. Praise for Peru’s Economy Misses the Mark,” NACLA News, September 13, 2010 (quote). On recent press coverage of US friends/enemies, see my “Testing the Propaganda Model: US Press Coverage of Venezuela and Colombia, 1998-2008,” ZNet, December 19, 2008.
[2] The report contains few details about the methodology used in each country, saying only that the interviews were conducted face-to-face in September and October of this year; see Corporación Latinobarómetro, Informe 2010 (Santiago de Chile, December 2010), 3, 127. I am assuming that the methodological difficulties and limits present in most polls in underdeveloped countries also characterized the polling process in this case.

[3] For the 2008 and 2009 results see my “US Policy and Democracy in Latin America: The Latinobarometro Poll,” ZNet, May 26, 2009, and “The 2009 Latinobarometro Poll” (blog), ZNet, December 15, 2009.
[4] Informe 2010, 25-26, 31, 39, 47.
[5] Informe 2010, 32-33.
[6] Informe 2010, 73.
[7] Informe 2010, 75.
[8] Informe 2010, 6, 20. For economic data on Venezuela see Mark Weisbrot, Rebecca Ray, and Luis Sandoval,“The Chavez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators” (Washington: Center for Economic Policy Research, February 2009), 3, 10; Mark Weisbrot and Rebecca Ray, “Update on the Venezuelan Economy,”(Washington: CEPR, September 2010).
[9] Doing Business 2011: Making a Difference for Entrepreneurs(Washington, 2010), 4 (quote); see also Federico Fuentes, “Colombia: Doing Business, Killing Workers,” Green Left Weekly, November 13, 2010. On the historical correlation between US support for regimes and those regimes’ suppression of democracy and human rights, see Lars Schoultz, “U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A ComparativeAnalysis of Foreign Aid Distributions,” Comparative Politics 13, no. 2 (1981); Edward S. Herman, The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda (Boston: South End Press, 1982), 126-32.
[10] Informe 2010, 112-19.
[11] Informe 2010, 83, 104-10.
[12] See my “US Policy and Democracy in Latin America” and “The 2009 Latinobarometro Poll.”
[13] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979); Kevin Young, “Orientalism in Full Force: Edward Said, Liberals, and Iraq,” ZNet (blog), April 9, 2008.
[14] Informe 2010, 26.
[15] Disillusion and cynicism among US respondents are even greater than in Latin America, with 81 percent agreeing with this statement. See my blog “The Democrats Choice, and Ours,” ZNet, October 10, 2010.
[16] Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Boston: South End, 1993), 80.
[17] There is some brief consideration of how democracy is to be measured (Informe 2010, 23-24), but this section continues to take the terms themselves (democracy and support for democracy) as more or less self-evident.  

[18] Informe 2010, 25-26, 31, 60.
[19] “Democracy’s Ten-Year Rut: The Latinobarometro Poll,” Economist (October 27, 2005).
[20] I critique this tendency in “Discrediting Alternatives to Neoliberalism,” NACLA Report on the Americas 43, no. 5 (September/October 2010). This bias is perhaps more understandable given the poll’s sponsors, which included the US Department of State and a range of institutions that remain largely dominated by the US government, such as the UN, OAS, and Inter-American Development Bank (Informe 2010, 3).
[20] Informe 2010, 106. Cf. “Democracy’s Ten-Year Rut,” which had a similarly rosy take on the 2005 poll, saying that “[s]entiment towards privatisation is improving,” then eclipsing the 30-percent approval mark.
[21] Informe 2010, 103.