US Policy and Democracy in Latin America: The Latinobarómetro Poll

Each fall the Chilean non-profit polling organization Latinobarómetro publishes a detailed Spanish-language report on public opinion in Latin America. The 2008 report, released this past November, offers a broad synoptic view of popular opinion in the seventeen major countries of mainland Latin America plus the Dominican Republic, focusing on Latin American citizens’ political opinions and their satisfaction with their governments. Though November’s report went entirely unreported in almost all of the world’s major media outlets—and only small snippets selectively analyzed by writers at the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, and Washington Times—it constitutes perhaps the most thorough source available of the broad contours of public opinion in Latin America, and thus deserves careful consideration [1].  


The poll’s results are particularly relevant for those whose government has been the most active foreign power in Latin America, in economic, political, and military terms, for much of the past two centuries. For US citizens the key question should be the extent to which their government is supporting democracy and human rights through its foreign policy; in other words, does the US government really craft its policy toward specific regimes based on those regimes’ respect for democracy and citizens’ rights, as the rhetoric of policymakers and pundits assures us? Answering this question requires three steps: identifying US friends and enemies in the region; measuring the level of democracy in each of those countries; and determining the extent to which US policy favors the more democratic governments in the region. After identifying the major US friends and antagonists, I examine the recent Latinobarómetro report as well as its 2006 and 2007 predecessors to measure the level of democracy in those countries based on their citizens’ own appraisals. The general trend, though not uniformly apparent in all categories, is one of US support for the more undemocratic regimes in the region, and US antagonism of varying sorts and degrees toward the more democratic ones. The final section of this essay ventures an explanation for this pattern, locating it in the history of US policy toward Latin America.



Latin American Nations and the US: Relative Degrees of Support and Opposition


At first glance, categorizing most current Latin American regimes as either hostile or friendly to the United States seems easy enough for anyone acquainted with recent politics in the region: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela would top the list of the former, followed by Evo Morales’s Bolivia and, to a lesser extent, regimes like Rafael Correa’s Ecuador and Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua; major US friends would include Colombia under Álvaro Uribe, Peru under Alan García, and Mexico under Felipe Calderón, plus the governments of several smaller countries like El Salvador (prior to this past February’s election), Paraguay (prior to the election of Fernando Lugo), and Honduras. Most other regimes would fall into an intermediate category, neither overtly friendly nor hostile to US policy, comprising especially Brazil and the Southern Cone countries of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.


Current diplomatic, economic, and military relationships seem to support such a categorization. For example, Washington’s contempt for the Chávez and Morales governments is readily apparent given frequent Bush administration denunciations and threats directed at the two leaders, US support for violent opposition groups and coup attempts in Venezuela and Bolivia, and its ongoing and well-documented (though still highly-secretive) channeling of funds to opposition groups in the two countries [2]. Conversely, the governments of countries like Colombia and Mexico draw frequent praise from US government leaders and media analysts and also receive large sums of US taxpayers’ money in the form of military and/or economic aid [3]. Colombia ($657 million) and Mexico ($579 million) top all Latin American countries in total US aid allocated for 2009, with friendly regimes in Haiti, El Salvador, Peru, Guatemala, and Honduras also in the top ten. Bolivia ($105 million) and Venezuela, particularly the latter ($5.56 million), are slotted to receive far less. Figures on arms sales generally seem to confirm these trends. From 2006-2007 the amount of US arms and equipment sold to Colombia and Mexico far exceeded that to all other countries (totaling $696 million and $648 million, respectively), with Bolivia and Venezuela being sold just $38 million and $17 million [4].   


Classifying Latin American regimes in this way also raises several problems, however. First, antagonism as expressed in political rhetoric does not necessarily translate to hostility in all other spheres. For example, despite obvious and escalating political tensions between the US and Venezuela,total trade between the two countries actually grew by 135 percent between 2002 and 2006 [5]. Second, using the level of US monetary aid as a measure of US support can be problematic for a number of reasons. Latin American countries and economies vary greatly in both their size and level of need. The tiny countries of Haiti and Nicaragua are the poorest in the hemisphere, and so both their level of need and total population must be factored in when measuring the social and economic aid they receive compared to, say, Brazil or Mexico. But nor would the level of need be objectively verifiable through calculations based on per capita wealth or other considerations. Even using military aid as an indicator of US support can be problematic. A number of countries, particularly Mexico and the Andean nations, are centers of drug production and trafficking; the high level of US military and police aid to these countries derives in part from this fact (Bolivia ranks fourth in military and police aid behind Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) [6]. To further complicate the matter, economic and social aid does not always go to the governments themselves: "Cuba," for example, will receive $20 million in 2009, and opposition groups in Venezuela and Bolivia will also continue to receive US funding.


Lacking a systematic and objective means of calculating levels of US support, the three broad categories of Latin American regimes I have proposed will nevertheless suffice for the purposes of this analysis. The following categorization is somewhat subjective and perhaps a bit sloppy, and most readers will undoubtedly disagree with one or more of my country placements. Nonetheless, it seems roughly accurate based on a combined consideration of US aid levels and government rhetoric as of early fall 2008, when the Latinobarómetro poll was conducted [7]. For the purposes of this analysis the countries in the categories on either end will be most important, particularly the five largest countries of Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela which seem to offer the best bases for comparison. Within each category I have made no attempt to rank the respective countries further, leaving them in alphabetical order.


Table 1. Latin American Regimes vis-à-vis the United States, as of September 2008



More friendly regimes


Somewhat friendly regimes


More hostile regimes





Costa Rica


Dominican Republic


El Salvador
































* Two of my placements, Ecuador and Nicaragua, might spark the most criticism. I have placed them in the middle column instead of the right column because, despite frequent anti-imperialist rhetoric, the administrations of Rafael Correa and Daniel Ortega have thus far been more hesitant to break with the US and its allies on matters of economic policy and have also faced, to my knowledge, considerably less in the way of US efforts to undermine or destabilize them than have Bolivia and Venezuela.





Quantifying the amount of democracy in a country in any precise way is of course impossible, particularly because the meaning of the concept itself is so subjective. Though Western politicians and sources like the Economist typically define democracy in a very limited way, as a political system featuring free elections and guaranteeing the basic freedoms in the US Constitution, many people around the world would insist that a true democracy ensures additional freedoms: the freedom to eat well, to have access to quality housing, health care, and education for oneself and one’s family, and to have access to productive and meaningful employment [8]. Many would surely also point to ordinary citizens’ lack of effective access to political representation in any system in which wealthy corporations and financial interests exert preponderant influence.


Below I attempt to accommodate three broad definitions of democracy: the liberal Western definition emphasizing individual political and civil freedoms; the definition often associated (wrongly) with the defunct Communist bloc, which prioritizes socioeconomic well-being; and a third definition of democracy which stresses substantive citizen participation in governance. I have classified the various indicators of democracy measured in the 2008 Latinobarómetro report into three groups: 1) those measuring political and civil rights, 2) those measuring social and economic well-being, and 3) general citizen evaluations of their democracies. Though a more thorough evaluation of the human rights situation in each country would be an appropriate supplement to this evaluation of "democracy"—taking into account levels of violence, security, incarceration, etc.—it lies beyond the scope of this analysis.


Political and Civil Rights


At least four questions in the 2008 poll asked respondents to reflect on the political and civil liberties available in their respective countries. These four questions together constitute a very rough aggregate appraisal of the level of political and civil democracy in Latin American countries today, at least in the judgment of the respondents. The first three are direct measures of the levels of political and civil freedom, while the fourth suggests the responsiveness of each country’s electoral system to the popular will. Each of the following four statements is the direct quote or paraphrase of a statement presented to respondents, who then agreed or disagreed (with some intermediate choices):


  1. "Democracy [in my country] guarantees the freedom to participate in politics."
  2. "Democracy guarantees freedom of expression, always and in all parts [of the country]."
  3. "[Democracy guarantees] equality before the law."
  4. "The most effective way to change things is by voting to elect those who defend my position." [9]

The results—given as percentages of those who agreed, with higher figures signifying greater respondent agreement—are shown in Table 2, with the two "more hostile" regimes in bold lettering and the three major "more friendly" regimes in italics (see Table 1 lists).


Table 2. Indicators of Political and Civil Democracy


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