Why the Outcomes of the Latin American Electoral Supercycle Might Not Matter

The author, Chantal Agarwal (far left), supporting ABA ROLI's "Legal Assistance and Protection for Stateless Persons" program in the Dominican Republic. 

By Chantal Agarwal

In the next two years, 16 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean will hold presidential elections; roughly three quarters of the region’s population will have the opportunity to elect new leaders. The results of recent elections in the U.S. and Europe have been game-changers, so it’s tempting to focus on who will triumph in these upcoming contests. However, without a sustained focus on good governance and the rule of law in the region, it might not matter who wins in these elections. 

I am a believer in elections. I have dedicated my career to designing and managing democracy-strengthening programs in Latin America because I believe elections are important. I agree with what my colleagues and elections experts highlighted in their testimonies last month, during the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives, where they underscored the importance of these elections in deciding issues such as future economic policy, foreign policy with the United States, and respect for human rights in the region. We must remember that the quality of governance after the polls close is also important.

Beyond elections and partisanship, the region’s rule of law is clearly at stake. For years, through governments and leaders of diverse political stripes, Latin American colleagues have said to me: We have beautiful laws but we do not enforce them.” Indeed, most Latin American countries have ratified the U.N. Convention on Corruption and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. But what use is ratifying laws, if judges, prosecutors, and police who are charged with enforcing those laws do not have the capacity or will to implement them, and if parliamentarians do not fund their implementation? What are these laws worth to people on the ground who do not benefit from them?

Latin Americans are not only fed up with their institutions; they fear the institutions and the officials that are supposed to represent them. For example, Hondurans avoid reporting crimes to their police officers, out of fear of reprisals from the gangs with which the police officers are often associated; Guatemalans, find themselves bribing municipal workers to get services; and according to Mexican sources, such as the Latinobarรณmetro poll, two thirds of Mexicans do not trust their local police. This intense and widespread fear creates perverse incentives, pushing people from across the region away from their homes and families, and choosing displacement in search of safety and survival.

Undoubtedly, the task of supporting the rule of law is immense, as each country in the region works toward better economic opportunities and safer streets. The rule of law is multi-dimensional and requires a sustained effort to empower citizens to access justice and equip institutions to deliver it. In the face of the myriad challenges in the region, it is no doubt easier to focus on the relatively straightforward fix of electoral change.  But experience shows that even if there is a free and fair election and a leader committed to the rule of law is elected, a diversity of justice sector actors need to deliver on the rule of law promise.  It is therefore important that the international development community, ABA members and legal professionals everywhere stand with our partners in Latin America in the wake of the upcoming elections across the region, to support government transparency and accountability, fund efforts to combat corruption and transnational crime, and educate citizens about their rights and empower them to realize them. Rather than an exclusive focus on electoral outcomes, the focus ought to include helping to restore civil society’s faith in the rule of law. 

Participants in ABA ROLI's Latin American programs.  

Chantal Agarwal is a senior program manager for the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Latin America and Caribbean Division. To learn more about our work in Latin American and the Caribbean, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at rol@americanbar.org.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABA ROLI.