From the beginning of 2020, democratic forces around the world viewed Latin America with optimism. Chile’s Constitutional Assembly was composed of more ordinary citizens than traditional politicians and, a year later, Gabriel Boric was elected president, defeating the far-right candidate José Antonio Kast. In 2022, the victory of Lula was also seen as a symbol of democratic resilience.
But the rejection last September of the new Constitution that would replace the Pinochet-era Charter, and the January 8 attacks at Praça dos Três Poderes, in Brasília, raised the alarm. Chile and Brazil — countries that share recent democratic reconstructions after dictatorships — are becoming deeply divided.
Considerable portions of the population are willing to adhere to the ideas of the far right and return to the past. They do not feel they have a place in politics. They spent decades disengaged until they found a resonance of their frustrations in anti-establishment leaders.
Democracy cannot survive without popular support and adherence to its norms. Democratic institutions and the political class have before them the historic task of listening carefully to their constituents and acting to halt the degradation of public debate.
In 2021, a study by the University of Cambridge pointed out that the largest reduction in youth support for democracy worldwide was in Latin America, when compared to the perceptions of the previous two generations. In 2022, Luminate released a survey which showed that youth aged 16 to 24 in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico were exhibiting growing dissatisfaction with institutions, paving the way for support for authoritarian measures, such as the closing of the Supreme Court.
One of the primary causes of the fragmentation of the public debate is the growing culture of seeking online engagement and attention at all costs. For over a decade, the business model of the Big Tech platforms has aggravated the problem by promoting extreme views and spreading misinformation. In this environment, candidates who use hate as a political tool to channel popular frustrations gain traction with the algorithms. Extremism abounds, while there is a lack of political projects capable of representing utopias that could respond to the urgent needs faced in the contemporary world.
The immediacy of communication on these platforms is increasingly taking prominence in the public conversation over journalism and facts. In Latin America, messaging apps - such as WhatsApp and Telegram – are preferred channels for the promotion of lies, which often go undetected due to their encryption.
The persistence of extreme inequalities in countries like Brazil and Chile create a permanent feeling that the elites govern for themselves, as their electoral promises never become realities. According to Latinobarometer, the populations of these two countries had some of the lowest esteem for the political classes. This has led to the rise of authoritarian ideas with each election.
The “no” to the new Chilean Constitution has served as an invitation for anti-democratic forces to mobilize those dissatisfied with politics, increasing the risk of a scenario where the 2024 elections will act as a counterpoint to the sense of hope felt in the Plaza de la Dignidad on the night of the 2021 elections. In Brazil, while the attempted coup of 8 January was widely denounced, in October half of the population voted for the far right.
In both countries, as in others in the region, the answer to facing the anti-democratic paths begins by opening more channels for political participation and through reforms that makes parties more transparent, open, and connected to the challenges of a diverse society. This should include the effective regulation of social networking platforms and the strengthening of independent journalism. These are urgent steps to strengthen Latin American democracies that cannot wait, as these democracies are built on fragmented soil and subject to collapse, as the 8th of January showed.
This op-ed was first published in Portuguese. Read the original in O Globo