On January 28, 2014, the Latin American Program hosted a roundtable discussion with Latinobarómetro Founder and Executive Director Marta Lagos on the results of the 2013 Latinobarómetro surveys, the trends which these surveys have shown over time, and what the results mean in a global context. Lagos addressed the challenges of using public opinion surveys, which she notes do not and cannot necessarily predict specific events, such as coups and revolutions.  However, she noted that surveys of this type can document changing patterns of behavior with important implications. 

Lagos highlighted several particularly important findings, especially regarding support for democracy and economic satisfaction. Latinobarómetro has found that overall support for democracy in Latin America has remained relatively constant over the last 17 years, suggesting a stable status quo. However, only eight percent of Latin Americans say their country is a full democracy; nine percent say their country is not a democracy.  For Lagos, one cause for concern is growing disinterest in politics: “transition has driven people away from interest in politics” in every country in the region, which she argued is a negative result of democratization. In general, Latin Americans are increasingly willing to protest, something they no longer believe will disrupt their lives.  However, fewer are now willing to participate through traditional channels, with one-third of the population of Latin America saying that democracy can work without political parties.  Lagos suggested that this more individualistic style of non-traditional participation is driven by declining interest in politics and is related to the recent, unconventionally-organized protests in Latin America, such as those in Brazil in 2013. Lagos said: “I think this is a proxy for what we are going to be seeing in the future.”

Since 2008, a growing number of respondents have reported satisfaction with their lives, and Latin America is now the most satisfied region in the world. Lagos has found that when people are evaluating their satisfaction they evaluate based on how satisfied they are with their life that day; that is, rather than evaluating their prospects for the future, individuals feel satisfied based on how their situation has improved relative to their own pasts. Among Latin Americans, Lagos said, there is a “very strong perception of progress,” and many feel they are better off today than they were yesterday.  This perception of progress largely determines reported satisfaction. However, she observed that this is not true in all countries or among all people within any country. Lagos described a vertical divide in the results, between those who characterize themselves as middle class and those who, by their own standards, describe themselves as not having enough money to buy food.  She observed that this distinction exists within each country, and that there is also a distinction between countries with more and less prosperity.  In 2013, the Latinobarómetro surveys revealed an “explosion of expectation” for the future, coupled with a majority who lack confidence in their governments’ ability to resolve their countries’ most serious issues within five years.  Lagos suggested that these rising expectations mean that people will not be willing to wait for progress, but will instead demand action from their governments, including through non-traditional methods of protest.

Lagos also discussed the discrepancy between the number of Latin Americans who describe themselves as middle class and the number who qualify for that status based on World Bank definitions. There are significant differences across countries, for example, with many more Bolivians describing themselves as middle class than are defined as such by the World Bank, while the opposite holds true in Chile. According to Lagos, these differences reveal “a measurement problem,” with researchers “using the same words to address different concepts.”  Meanwhile, she suggests that individuals who identify as middle-class despite lacking goods the World Bank defines as an essential part of that status do so because “people are placing themselves relative to their past, relative to where they are now, and relative to their country…those people are behaving as middle class;…they don’t have the economic goods of the middle class but they have the political goods.” 

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  • Marta Lagos

    Founder and Executive Director of Latinobarómetro