BY CHRONICLE STAFF
Nicaragua and Venezuela are seeing a trend towards less political freedom, while Haiti is improving and the rest of Latin America largely remains the same, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based bipartisan watchdog of civil liberties and political rights worldwide.
"Latin America today is largely governed by parties that have demonstrated a commitment to the electoral process, freedom of expression, and a broad range of civil liberties," the organization said last week. "However, Freedom in the World judged that freedom in Venezuela remained under duress, and Nicaragua also suffered a decline. On the positive side, Haiti showed signs of modest progress."
Venezuela continues to get a 4 in civil rights and political rights, making it "partly free," according to Freedom House. That remains the third-worst result in Latin America.
HAITI MAKES PROGRESS
Haiti continues to score worse - getting 4 in political rights and 5 in civil liberties. That means Haiti continues to rank as the second-worst country in Latin America (after Cuba) when it comes to political freedom. But, in contrast to Venezuela, Haiti is making some progress, Freedom House argues. "Haiti showed signs of modest progress due to enhanced political stability and an improved security environment in urban areas," the organization says.
Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay remain the only countries in Latin America that get a perfect score - 1 - on civil liberties and political rights. Panama follows the three, thanks to having a slightly worse core in civil liberties (2).
Brazil - Latin America's largest economy - gets a 2 on both civil liberties and political rights, while Mexico ranks slightly worse, thanks to only getting a score of 3 on civil liberties.
Freedom House argues that although Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dominated the headlines last year, the "more significant story" was the durability of the region’s democratic institutions in the face of multiple problems.
"Among the major challenges is Chavez’s drive to export his authoritarian brand of socialism to the rest of Latin America," the organization says. "Thus far he has largely failed in this endeavor. Although politicians who claim to admire Chavez won presidential races in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua in 2005 and 2006, none will be able to count on a similar oil-based revenue windfall to implement unsustainable economic policies, and at least in Bolivia and Nicaragua, more formidable opposition forces exist to challenge executive power."
Overall, Latin America is largely governed by parties of the center-left or center-right that have demonstrated a commitment to the electoral process, freedom of expression, and a broad range of civil liberties, Freedom House says.
However, Venezuela's political freedom is still under duress despite Chavez' loss of a December 3 referendum that would have eliminated presidential term limits, added yet more authority to the executive branch, and enshrined various measures of economic populism in law, according to the organization. "While the referendum results indicated the resilience of civil society, Freedom in the World judged that freedom in Venezuela remained under duress, pointing to pressures on freedom of assembly, the independent press, and academic freedom," Freedom House points out.
Nicaragua suffered a decline due to excessive concentration of authority in the executive branch and the adoption of a law that criminalized abortion under all circumstances, it adds.
CORRUPTION AND CRIME
But Chavez isn't the only threat to democracy in Latin America, it says. "In addition to the kind of leftist populism embodied in the Chavismo phenomenon, Latin America faces serious obstacles to stability including entrenched corruption, an upsurge in criminal activity, and a dysfunctional judicial system," Freedom House says. "Even as the region boasts the freest political environment in its history, many countries suffer from the worst rates of violent crime in the world, a problem that contributes to the ambivalence toward democracy professed in public opinion surveys. Latin America also continues to face high levels of poverty, economic insecurity, and inequality. The fact that democracy is almost universally upheld in a region that was only recently dominated by juntas and strongmen is an impressive achievement, but the consolidation of these gains is unlikely without greater physical and economic security, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law."
The Freedom House rankings show a close relation between level of corruption and degree of political freedom. The three freest countries in Latin America - Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay - are also the three that boast the highest degree of transparency, according to Transparency International. Meanwhile, Venezuela and Haiti - which rank at the bottom (with Cuba) when it comes to political freedom, are also the worst two nations when it comes to corruption, according to a Latin Business Chronicle analysis of the data from Freedom House and Transparency International.
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