Marta Lagos, pollster: ‘Latin America has begun to see authoritarianism as one of the options for democracy’

In an interview with EL PAÍS, the founder of Latinobarómetro — the largest public opinion survey in Latin America — analyzes the ‘democratic recession’ that she describes in her latest report

José Pablo Criales
Marta Lagos
Marta Lagos, the founder of Latinobarómetro.Carlos Rosillo

Latin America has entered a democratic recession. The latest report from Latinobarómetro — the largest public opinion survey on the continent — says so: only 48% of the region’s population supports democracy, a minority that is increasingly shrinking, down from the 63% registered in 2010. The type of regime that governs Latin Americans seems to matter less and less, resulting in fertile ground for populism and authoritarianism.

“Latin American voters are very pragmatic. They are rational, but they are angry,” says Marta Lagos, the director of Latinobarómetro since it was founded in 1995. The Chilean-born pollster — who, for nearly 30 years, has spoken with half-a-million Latin Americans through her surveys — visited Buenos Aires earlier this year to participate in a forum titled Recovering the Democratic Initiative. Organized by the NGO Asuntos del Sur (Matters of the South), the Development Bank of Latin America and Prisa Media (the group that publishes EL PAÍS), the forum held panel discussions with representatives from the entire region.

Q. What has happened to democracy in Latin America?

A. The Latin American voter hopes that democracy will bring them political and social guarantees. [However], it turns out that democracy hasn’t been able to offer either. 70% of Latin Americans don’t say what they think, for fear of suffering reprisals or being isolated. Nor do they see that inequality has ended. Democracy has failed in this — that’s why we live under the threat of autocracy and populism.

Q. Can a common diagnosis be made for all Latin American countries?

A. What we have in common is inequality. An inequality that governments of both the right and left haven’t been able to dismantle in 40 years. This is the element that could define Latin America. Especially after 2010, when growth began to drop systematically. That absence of growth has built up despair.

Lagos at a forum titled 'Recovering the Democratic Initiative.'
Lagos at a forum titled 'Recovering the Democratic Initiative.'Noelia Seoane (ASUNTOS DEL SUR)

Q. There have been protests across almost the entire continent over the past decade. Where does this despair come from?

A. The hopelessness, deep down, is that there is no government that can fight against the problems. Today’s voters in Latin America don’t care what the president’s name is, who he is, or where he comes from, so long as he solves the problem at hand. An alien could show up, and they would choose him. Why? Maybe because he promises to do things in a different way. It seems to me that the game is up — [institutions have been] destroyed by their lack of performance. The political parties stopped being instruments to channel the demands of the people… the moment they ceased to do this, people passed over them and followed whoever gave the appearance — even though it wasn’t the case — that they’re [beyond the party structure]. It happened with Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, who spent 16 years in Congress, but gave the appearance of being outside the system. That’s why Javier Milei is getting votes in Argentina, that’s why Nayib Bukele has the approval he has [in El Salvador].

Q. Your latest survey shows that 90% of Salvadorans support Bukele.

A. People throughout the continent recognize Bukele [as the president] who got violence off the street. That, [because of him], today, you can travel through San Salvador [in peace]. In the history of our polls, he’s the president who has the highest approval rating.

Q. What does this mean for other countries?

A. That things can get very bad before they get worse. I believe that all these attempts will end up failing. Bukele himself isn’t sustainable: one cannot keep so many innocent people in jail. Ultimately, you’re going to run into some resistance from people. I think it can happen… but it also seems to me that the Latin American people are tired of games. Either [the politicians] deliver real results, or they will throw out the president. It’s something that we’ve seen happen since 2018, with there only having been electoral alternations [in democratic Latin American countries]. And the alternations are increasingly threatened by populist expressions outside the parties.

Q. According to the latest Latinobarómetro survey, more than half of the Latin American population is indifferent to whether or not their government is democratic. Has the region’s vision of authoritarianism changed?

A. I think that there’s confusion about the concept of democracy. In Latin America, authoritarianism has begun to be seen as one of the options for democracy. In today’s Chile, for example, some say that the [1973] coup came “to save” democracy from Salvador Allende. Total madness. The concepts are reversed.

Q. What’s the response to expressions like that?

A. I think that democrats have been weak. We have culturally failed to spread what democracy is. We believed, for example, that the generations that grew up in a democracy were more democratic than those that had grown up in a dictatorship. And it turns out that this isn’t the case. People who grew up in a democracy aren’t more democratic, on the contrary. Why? Because it turns out that democracy didn’t prioritize teaching what democracy is.

Q. Is this phenomenon a kind of rebellion?

A. It’s a matter of ignorance. And, of course, it’s a matter of memory: the new generations who didn’t live through the dictatorships have no idea what they were about and nobody tells them what [a dictatorship] consists of. Here [in Argentina], there were detainees and disappeared [during the 1976-83 regime], the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo… but these are [outdated] symbols that don’t tell young people what happened. Here, you come out of school and you have no idea who the dictator of your country was. It’s a problem of civic education, of not transmitting democratic values.

Q. Populists and authoritarians now speak about defending “freedom.” How did they manage to combine that word with authoritarianism?

A. Populists talk about freedom as an individual choice, while democracy treats freedom as a community choice. Democracy is the community where you have trust in the other; the “freedom” of populists is to distrust others. This is the exact same word for two opposing concepts. And not only do populists promote [this notion] of freedom — democracy remains silent and doesn’t promote anything. Democrats are silent. And there’s nothing that allows you to [appropriate a concept] better than silence.

Q. In the study, you note that the community that supported democracy has been destroyed. How did this happen?

A. Today, [voters] aren’t ideological. [Voters] are no longer loyal — they’re individuals. The community of democracy was destroyed when the parties were destroyed. The political parties brought people together, created a community. That community fractured, became atomized… since it no longer exists without leaders to follow, it went the route of fashion: without patterns to follow, each [person] dresses differently.

Q. How does this affect politics?

A. There’s a degradation of politics, which has become personalized and has become a fight between people, rather than between parties. This facilitates the rise of populism. Milei (Argentina’s leading presidential candidate), for example, has no team, no party, no program. But Argentina is one of the Latin American countries with the richest social structure, along with Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica. The data from the Latinobarómetro show that Argentina is on the edge of the richest quadrant on earth, which is rational. So, the population affected by a populist campaign is much smaller than in the rest of the Latin American countries.

Q. But wasn’t this the line of thinking before the primaries, when Milei got almost 30% of the vote?

A. A third isn’t a majority. [In the recent primaries], there was about a third [for each political coalition]. It makes sense to me that Milei has 29% — he could reach the runoff election. But I also think that this may be his ceiling. If the studies are worth anything, Milei shouldn’t become president… but this doesn’t mean that we should be shocked if he gets 45% [in a second round], because there’s clearly anger, there’s an economic crisis. People are voting against the establishment. But [Argentina] is different from the case of Brazil. People voted for Bolsonaro because they loved him, like in the United States, where there are people who love Trump.

Q. The other two-thirds of voters in Argentina have a historical dispute… in principle, it seems impossible that they would unite against Milei.

A. The leadership of the parties won’t come to agreement, but the voters could. Nowadays, the parties aren’t the boss of anyone. I believe that the Argentinean democratic spirit — when it sees that Milei is gaining in the polls — will not allow [a Milei victory] to happen. Many voters are strategic, they’re against populism.

Q. What have people discovered about their governments during the pandemic?

A. Latin American voters are very pragmatic. They’re rational, but they’re angry: if the next government — whichever it is — isn’t capable of solving problems, they’re going to kick them out. In that sense, I don’t think the current populism has staying power. For example, Bukele is seeking re-election in El Salvador, [in violation of] the Constitution. He may win. But I want to see what happens when the Salvadoran people are calm — when they no longer see crime on the streets — and they start asking for schools, education, healthcare and employment. That’s going to happen. When it happens, we’ll have to see what his answer will be.

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