For those who read Spanish, the annual continent-wide poll by Latin America’s largest polling firm was just released, and is available here. The results are pretty similar to the 2008 figures (available from the same site, and critically analyzed here). The poll is usually either ignored in the mainstream or selectively analyzed in liberal publications like The Economist to see how much “support for democracy” exists among the primitive people of Latin America. Many of the most interesting findings, meanwhile, are completely neglected. A few in particular deserve mention here, since the media response to the poll is likely to follow the pattern of past years.
First, most respondents reject key aspects of US policy in Latin America. While the majority believe that markets and private enterprise can play an important role in economic development, they overwhelmingly reject the neoliberalism and market fundamentalism promoted by the US and international financial institutions (pp. 87-94). This pattern is particularly clear in two questions dealing with the privatization of public goods and services: only 33 percent of all respondents thought that “privatizations have been beneficial” in their countries, and only 34 percent reported “satisfaction with privatized public services” (pp. 95-96). There is also a section on the Honduras coup which the Obama administration has tacitly helped legitimize (pp. 5-9). Respondents strongly rejected the coup; only 24 percent approved (within Honduras only 28 percent of respondents approved of the coup, compared to 58 percent who opposed it, with the wealthy and privileged tending to support the coup much more strongly than the poor and less-educated). Latin Americans also strongly condemn the ongoing US embargo against Cuba, with only 10 percent supporting it. Even if some appear critical of US foes like Chávez and Castro, Latin Americans overwhelmingly condemn US aggression against them, just as they condemn illegal aggression by Latin American elites against leaders like Honduras’s Zelaya. These results offer further proof that the rejection of US policies is not simply limited to vocal critics like Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, as the US press frequently implies in an effort to discredit opposition to US objectives. Somewhat ironically, most Latin Americans nonetheless have a favorable opinion of Barack Obama as a person, despite rejecting many of the policies he has thus far promoted as President (pp. 99-107).
Second, citizens’ evaluations of the state of democracy in their own countries tell a story that is very different from what politicians and the press in this country lead us to believe. Washington’s foes, including Bolivia and Venezuela, ranked among the more democratic and egalitarian by their own residents’ evaluations (with Uruguay also ranking at or near the top in many categories), while the few remaining allies of the US like Colombia, Mexico, and Peru ranked quite low in most key categories. When respondents were asked about the extent to which they were “satisfied with the functioning of democracy” in their countries, Bolivia and Venezuela came in seventh and eighth, respectively, with around half of respondents saying they were “very” or “somewhat” satisfied. Colombia (10th) ranked below average and Mexico (17th) and Peru (18th) dead last, well behind even Honduras (p. 37). Bolivia and Venezuela also ranked fourth and fifth on the question of whether the country was governed “for the good of all the people” or “for a few powerful groups”; Colombia, Mexico, and Peru ranked ninth, fifteenth, and sixteenth (p. 39). People in Venezuela and Bolivia appear to have more faith in the ability of their current political systems to solve problems than in most other countries, while US friends typically ranked below average on the same questions (pp. 41, 43, 62). Citizens’ faith in “the efficacy of voting” was well above the regional average in Venezuela (which finished second at 84 percent) and Bolivia (seventh at 71 percent), while Colombia, Mexico, and Peru finished 16th, 17th, and 18th (p. 66).
So even by the narrow definition of democracy which the US promotes—which prioritizes political parties, free elections, press freedom, etc.—the staunchest US allies tend to fall in the bottom half of the rankings. But Bolivia and Venezuela, according to the respondents in those countries, also have a relatively high level of social democracy by regional standards. Though only about one-third of respondents in Bolivia and Venezuela said that the distribution of wealth was “fair” or “very fair” (an indication that these countries still face many obstacles to alleviating inequality), these results topped those of all other countries; Colombia, Mexico, and Peru all finished well below the regional average of 21 percent (p. 42). The results to this question, which are consistent with those of recent years, provide a tentative indication that the countries with economic models most divergent from US, World Bank, and IMF prescriptions have been relatively successful in reducing inequality. The trend of declining inequality in Venezuela and Bolivia is supported by economic indicators in the recently-released Social Panorama of Latin America published by the UN-sponsored Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. While Venezuela, Bolivia, and five other countries have reduced their GINI index of inequality by at least eight percent in the past decade, Colombia, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic are the only three countries in which inequality has increased (see pp. 11-12 in the report). At the same time, of course, the numbers highlight the enormous inequality that still exists in the region, even in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela.
The inverse correlation between US praise and citizen satisfaction is by no means absolute. In some categories one or more of the US allies outranked or tied with Venezuela and/or Bolivia. For example, on the vague question of “how democratic” their countries were, Colombia and Venezuela tied for fifth, while Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia were all near the bottom of the list (pp. 24, 26). Several countries which are not easily categorized as either friends or foes of the United States—mostly notably Uruguay—also ranked consistently high.
Similarly, for many reasons the findings do not offer a straightforward or unproblematic "measurement" of democracy or justice in each country; Venezuela’s high ranking, for example, does not automatically make it a paragon of democracy, and various other factors, both objective and subjective, would need to be taken into account in order to extrapolate “democracy” from “satisfaction.” The very definition of democracy is itself controversial and the subject of fierce contestation throughout modern Latin American history. But the numbers at least refute the notion that there is any positive correlation between US praise and democracy, an assumption that continues to underlie virtually all mainstream commentary in the United States. They offer solid, albeit not conclusive, evidence that those countries where we’re told that despotism is destroying democracy are actually among the more democratic countries in a region where governments have historically been extremely anti-democratic. Washington remains on the wrong side in Latin America, despite the messianic promises and expectations associated with its latest president.