The World Celebrates Democracy, but Where Do We Stand?

September 20, 2019 By Zach Cohen

Earlier this week, the world celebrated the International Day of Democracy. But nearly thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the state of democracy in the world remains a mixed picture of both progress and decline. One in six democracies has failed over the past decade, and Freedom House’s 2019 Freedom in the World report indicates that the world is experiencing its 13th consecutive year of overall decline in political rights and civil liberties

These alarming developments for democracy underpin some of the most pressing challenges around the world today, including the crisis in Central America, where new leadership offers fresh potential in addressing corruption and violence that drive migration.

A Mixed Year for Democracy Around the World

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Mark Green recently observed that “we are at a crossroads moment” for democracy around the world.

Although autocratic rulers in Sudan and Algeria were ousted after pro-democracy protests in April, the transition has proven challenging and violent. In Ethiopia, a recent coup attempt exposed fragility in a country that has made dramatic steps toward greater openness.  At the same time, more than two billion people in 53 countries will have voted in elections in 2019, including India with its population of over one billion people and Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.

Against this mixed backdrop, strategic investments in diplomacy and development by the United States continue to support efforts to help countries move toward greater openness and accountability for their citizens – from USAID’s support for elections in 80 countries to the National Endowment for Democracy’s grants to civil society organizations and dissidents.

A Crisis of Corruption in Central America

A major driver of migration in Central America is corruption, alongside violence and poverty—leading people to flee their homes for a better life.  As Freedom House notes, corruption “undermines democracy and rule of law” in El Salvador, “severely impact[s] the functioning of government” in Guatemala, and “remains rampant” in Honduras.

New leadership in El Salvador and Guatemala has the potential to create opportunities for change, as countries in the region begin to take on greater responsibility and work to restore trust in their governments.  El Salvador’s new President Nayib Bukele has placed anti-corruption efforts at the center of his agenda, arguing that people flee the country “because our governments have been so corrupt, have been stealing other people’s money.” Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei has also promised to combat “the cursed and disgusting corruption” that has “robbed” Guatemalans of security and economy opportunity.

Bukele has said he will combat outmigration in part by strengthening the country’s institutions, and has already taken steps to fight corruption, including his recent launch of an independent commission on corruption. A similar corruption commission in Guatemala recently ended after its mandate was not renewed by the outgoing president – and while Giammattei does not plan to reinstate the commission, he has suggested he will nonetheless take responsibility for his country’s issues, in part through the creation of an “economic wall” of opportunities that will help curb migration.

A Proven Track Record When We Invest

Bukele has said that he seeks a “solid partnership with the United States…to bring security and prosperity to both of our nations,” but such a partnership may be difficult to maintain, as the majority of U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle from the past two years has been suspended.

Many investments in the Northern Triangle have already made an impact, including in the battle against corruption. USAID established a Freedom of Information Institute in El Salvador to improve transparency and accountability, which led to the prosecution of 20 high level government officials, and investigations of three former presidents.

U.S. investments have also helped both El Salvador and Guatemala increase their capacity to raise their own tax revenues and invest in their own people. By modernizing El Salvador’s national tax administration, USAID helped the country raise its annual tax revenue by $350 million between 2005 to 2013. And in Guatemala, both USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation have supported government reform to improve tax collection.  This has enabled a boost in spending on social investments like education and social-protection programs that improve living standards.

Looking Ahead

As these new leaders take charge of the region, they will face challenges beyond corruption as they look to address the migration crisis, including the negotiation of the proposed ‘safe third country’ deal between Guatemala and the United States. Giammatei has criticized the deal, noting Guatemala does not yet have the economic stability to guarantee safety to asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras.

Ultimately, for the Northern Triangle countries and many others, U.S. investments in democratic institutions are critical to preventing people from feeling unsafe in their own communities, by laying a foundation of stability and tackling challenges from corruption to violence.  As Bukele noted in a Washington Post op-ed, “People don’t flee their homes because they want to – they flee because they feel as though they have to.”