Table of Contents

The six case studies in this collection highlight both the remarkable diversity and the central significance of divisive politics in Latin America. They illuminate how sociopolitical divisions have, in most cases, been intensifying over the past several years—a dynamic accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. The authors point not only to a host of serious risks in the near future but also to some steps that domestic and international actors can take to help alleviate those dangers. In this concluding essay, we extract some common patterns and national particularities, drawing comparatively from the six case studies, organized along the same four-part structure as the country cases.

The Complex Landscape of Divisions

A critical pair of variables among the main divisions affecting Latin American politics are stability and duration. Some of the divisions are long-standing and relatively constant, at least in their basic structure, even if they wax and wane in intensity. As Carla Alberti shows in her essay on Bolivia, a single overarching division has been a defining feature of Bolivian politics for decades—a core socioeconomic and sociocultural divide between the non-Indigenous urban elite and the Indigenous and Mestizo population. Colombian politics, as Angelika Rettberg describes, has been grappling for a decade with a deeply felt division about the acceptable terms of peace between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). But as Colombia’s principal cleavage is less rooted in basic socioeconomic and sociocultural attributes than Bolivia’s, it appears that differences related to the peace process have some chance of healing. In contrast, in Bolivia, the challenge is more to manage a profound rift that seems a semipermanent feature of Bolivian life.

In contrast, divisions that are strongly present today in some countries are products of recently shifting political tides. Oliver Stuenkel notes the complex process by which the fissure between followers and opponents of the center-left Workers’ Party in Brazil radically intensified in the last decade as major corruption scandals broke out. These morphed into a wider cleavage between pro-establishment and anti-establishment actors when seemingly bottomless corruption scandals crippled the reputation of most political elites. During the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, who successfully took up the anti-establishment mantle to get elected in 2018, this division has evolved still further into one between Bolsonaro’s serious impulses toward authoritarianism and opposing political actors who are trying to stand up for democratic survival.

In Chile, the yawning divide between the establishment and many Chileans who feel excluded from it erupted unexpectedly in late 2019. Juan Pablo Luna explains that this divide was many years in the making, resulting from long-accumulated dissatisfaction with an economic model that, in the eyes of many Chileans, accentuated exclusion and marginalization. In contrast, Paula Muñoz shows how, in Peru, a recent but acute division between anti-reformist forces in Congress and a reform-oriented president, Martín Vizcarra, resulted in the latter’s 2020 impeachment by the same Congress.

A second crucial dimension of the main sociopolitical divides in Latin America today is the contrast between countries where the main division is represented in the formal political sector versus those where it lies outside the formal political sector. In Bolivia and Colombia, the main political division is directly represented in formal political life, forming the principal axis of electoral choice that citizens have. In Bolivia, this is the ongoing contest between the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS, or the Movement for Socialism), which represents Indigenous and Mestizo peoples, and opposing parties primarily representing the traditional elite. In Colombia, it is between center-right political forces that have taken a critical view of the 2016 peace accord with FARC and centrist and center-left forces that have taken a more positive view. In Brazil, too, the current division gripping the country is directly embodied in the formal political life of the country—at this point, embodied in whether one supports or opposes Bolsonaro.

But in the other cases, the relationship between principal division and the formal political sector is less direct. Mexico is an important example in this regard, as Guillermo Trejo makes clear in his essay. A powerful long-standing division exists between center-right and centrist political actors, on the one hand, and left-wing actors, currently under the leadership of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on the other. Yet the more profound division facing the country exists at a different, less visible level, between authoritarian enclaves within the security sector and related parts of the state establishment versus democratically oriented political and civic actors. In Peru, weak and personalistic political parties work against any stable mapping of sociopolitical divisions onto the electoral choices presented to citizens—the country suffers from a chronic, often debilitating weakness of basic political representational structures. Instead, as Muñoz notes, serious socioeconomic and sociocultural divides, both between haves and have-nots and between sociocultural conservatives and progressives, lurk below the surface of formal political life, rising to the surface at different times, injecting divisive dynamics, and submerging again as conditions change.

In Chile, a consensus-oriented political sector, long dominated by relatively moderate center-left and center-right parties, was deeply startled and challenged in 2019 when an underlying fissure between haves and have-nots—initially triggered by a modest hike in subway fares—erupted in massive protests. Luna argues that whether the formal political sector is able to genuinely incorporate the concerns and needs of citizens who feel excluded by mainstream politics—in effect, whether formal political life is able to actually embody the country’s real political dynamics—will be central to the future democratic stability and health of the country.

Pandemic Effects

When the pandemic first began to spread, political observers and experts in many parts of the world wondered if a sweeping public health crisis might bring divided countries together, allowing political and social actors to put aside their differences and fight the deadly disease together. Yet as Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press have argued, on the whole, the pandemic has in fact accelerated confrontational political dynamics, embodied by surging protests, deepening polarization, more populism, and a growing distrust in existing institutions. The case studies in this collection affirm that this pattern of confrontation largely holds true in Latin America. In Bolivia, conflict emerged quickly between the main two political sides over the government’s pandemic response measures, culminating in violent protests that shut down much of the country. The interim government’s decision to delay the election twice due to pandemic risks heightened polarization further. Peru was hit especially hard by the pandemic, at some points during 2020 suffering a higher mortality rate than any other country in the world, and the government’s response to the crisis became one more issue for the already fractious political elites to fight over.

The Chilean government initially hoped that an effective response to the pandemic might deflect attention from rising social protests and bolster its wavering support. But instead of strengthening the government’s popularity, clashes over both the efficacy and the fairness of the government’s response became one more area of contention. In Brazil, a president who has made polarization his core governing strategy weaponized the pandemic, employing a defiant, populist stance of denial and ridicule about the virus to further mobilize his base and demonize his opponents.

The pandemic has been not just another major policy issue to fight over, but the driver of deeper divisions. By hitting poor and marginalized citizens everywhere much harder than privileged sectors, the pandemic aggravated and threw into still sharper relief the basic divide between haves and have-nots that undergirds the sociopolitical life of most Latin American countries. In Peru, this differential effect was a particular shock, shattering the common national myth that Peru’s sustained run of economic growth had somehow closed the long-standing gap between rich and poor. The pandemic has spurred a harsh reckoning in Brazil as well, forcing the country to confront just how much the economic downturn of the last five years has hurt many Brazilians. Scrambling to not get caught in the downdraft of this reckoning, Bolsonaro shifted gears in the midst of the pandemic to suddenly favor direct cash transfers to the poor that he had long opposed.

Colombia has been a notable exception to these pandemic effects. In contrast to confrontational politics elsewhere, Rettberg shows that Colombia’s remarkable national consensus and acceptance of a scientifically grounded public health approach helped the country avoid pandemic-fueled polarization. This consensus also helped the country both avoid the worst of the public heath devastation that many other countries faced and also contributed to a larger pattern of growing consensus around the long-term future of the peace accord.

Serious Risks

With the punishing effects of the pandemic coming on top of the various political crises that were already occurring before 2020, the sense of risk that many Latin Americans feel vis-a-vis democracy in their countries is understandably high. The case studies in this collection underline and illuminate these risks. The central concern is that divisions may keep intensifying to the point of producing uncontrollable conflicts, which may trigger a breakdown of democratic processes and institutions. Having narrowly escaped such a breakdown over the disputed 2019 election that ended Evo Morales’s long tenure as president of Bolivia—and living now with considerable social damage and economic precarity resulting from the coronavirus—Bolivia faces a daunting political road ahead. Alberti emphasizes that Bolivia’s challenge is to continue to keep the profound societal divide contained within the framework of democratic institutions—despite their relatively shallow roots. Peru has also just survived a democratic cardiac arrest, manifesting in the dubious ouster of a popular president and the resignation just six days later of his successor. Muñoz warns that a country that has seen more than twenty years of repeated presidential catastrophes and disruptions must be ready for further divisions and dangers as it faces national elections in April 2021.

Brazil’s decades-long project of democratic consolidation appears to have taken a turn down a very uncertain road marked by distinct risks of authoritarianism, or at the very least, entrenched illiberalism. In Mexico, the warning lights of autocratization are also flashing, as Trejo shows, by the potential of a slow strangulation of the country’s already limited democratic space by unaccountable enclaves within the state security apparatus.

Several of the authors express concern about the potential for the emergence of new illiberal populist figures who will capitalize on widespread citizen disaffection and alienation from the formal political sector. The fear is of repeating past regional patterns of anti-establishment populist “saviors” offering demagogic solutions that attract mass support and ultimately lead to incoherent governance and democratic degradation. Muñoz highlights this risk for Peru, given the chronic problem of weak political representation in the country, and Luna does for Chile as well, despite the long hold of relatively moderate and consensual political parties.

Although Rettberg sees a possible positive path ahead for Colombia, marked by diminishing polarization and a new effort to tackle long-standing socioeconomic inequities, she nevertheless identifies a serious potential risk: the possibility of a relapse into widening violent conflict. This threat would be especially acute if criminal organizations and extremist political groups succeed in reconfiguring old grievances and conflicts in ways that find traction among citizens in rural areas.

Ways to Help

Bridging, or even just better managing, fundamental sociopolitical divisions is never an easy or quick task. But the authors do highlight a range of approaches that domestic and international actors committed to helping protect democracy and rights should consider.

Political actors will have a vital role to play. Stuenkel holds that in Brazil, the formation of a broad pro-democratic alliance in the run-up to the next presidential election could be of fundamental importance in resisting the growing illiberal pressures. Alberti notes that in Bolivia, the ruling MAS has a responsibility to avoid divisive rhetoric and political tactics if the country is to avoid slipping back into the extreme fractiousness that marked the 2019 elections. She also signals the need for new channels of dialogue between the government and opposition in the years immediately ahead.

Citizens and civic groups will have a major role as well. Trejo argues that broad-based citizen action aimed at ending impunity for violators of basic rights, establishing mechanisms for transitional justice, and strengthening the rule of law generally is the most important—possibly even the only—way to truly safeguard Mexican democracy. Similarly, Muñoz highlights the urgent need in Peru for greater civic and citizen oversight of politicians. Channeling the energy and engagement of youth, a rising political force in Peru, will be a crucial part of that. She also insists that major media outlets should step up to provide more open spaces for broad-based citizen deliberation over core political issues.

International actors should also look for key entry points. In Chile, Luna recommends that external actors could help break the intellectual logjam over acceptable economic models and help inject new thinking into debates over how to open up Chilean capitalism to address the needs of disaffected citizens. Stuenkel points to the need for international actors to hold Brazil to its commitments in diverse multilateral forums regarding democratic values and good governance. As defiant as Brazil’s nationalist illiberal forces are, they will still pay a political cost for abrogating Brazil’s strong attachments to transnational institutions and processes. He also argues that North American and European governments committed to democracy will need to develop a more concerted and effective strategy of standing up to illiberal populists, whether in Latin America or more widely.

In short, as the broader global study of political polarization in democracies by Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue emphasizes, making progress to reduce divisions in troubled democracies is a challenge that requires concerted, sustained efforts by a wide range of domestic and often international actors. There are no guarantees of success. The trend toward heightened polarization and fractious sociopolitical life is profound across almost every region. This is abundantly true in Latin America, with its historical patterns of inequality, weak structures of political representation, and shaky state capacity. Yet the growing demands of Latin American citizens for justice and rights—and the efforts of at least some political actors to respond positively—show that democratic safeguarding and even renovation is not just a necessity, but a possibility.