Freedom House report says global democracy under siege, including in the United States

Some 80,000 Venezuelans cross into Colombia every day, many looking for food and medicine. The international bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia is one of the most important points of entry. Venezuela was cited by Freedom House as a country where fundamental freedoms took a hit in 2018.
Some 80,000 Venezuelans cross into Colombia every day, many looking for food and medicine. The international bridge in Cúcuta, Colombia is one of the most important points of entry. Venezuela was cited by Freedom House as a country where fundamental freedoms took a hit in 2018.

While Freedom House singled out Venezuela and Nicaragua as brewing trouble spots in the Americas in its annual assessment of fundamental freedoms, it also took aim at the erosion of democracy in the United States.

Freedom House, the Washington-based rights group, said democracy in the United States is still robust compared with other countries around the world, but it said it had weakened significantly over the past eight years and “the current president’s ongoing attacks on the rule of law, fact-based journalism and other principles and norms of democracy threaten further decline.”

The United States ranked 51 of the 87 countries that were assessed as free in the “Freedom in the World” report released Monday, the day before President Donald Trump was scheduled to deliver his State of the Union address. Sixty-eight countries had net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2018, according to the report.

Since the 1970s, Freedom House has monitored the status of political rights and civil liberties around the world in its annual report.

Sixty-eight countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties during 2018, according to the report. The United States ranked on a level with Greece, Croatia and Mongolia but well below other democracies such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

“The greatest danger comes from the fact that American democracy is not infinitely durable, especially if a president shows little respect for its tenets,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Antidemocratic rhetoric and the rejection of democratic constraints on power can be first steps toward real restrictions on freedom.”

Such deterioration in established democracies such as the United States also could potentially hurt the cause of freedom globally, the report said. “Other nations watch what is happening in the United States and take cues from its leaders’ behavior. The ongoing deterioration of American democracy will accelerate the decline of democracy around the world,” said Abramowitz.

This is the 13th straight year that the “Freedom in the World” report has found a decline in global freedom. “Just as we have called out foreign leaders for undermining democratic norms in their countries, we must draw attention to the same sorts of warning signs in our own country,” said Abramowitz.

However, the report noted that the post-Soviet wave of democratization did produce some lasting gains and that “came in no small part because of support and encouragement from the United States and other leading democratic nations.” Although there has been a regression in many newly democratized countries, Freedom House said that in two-thirds of the countries whose freedom status improved between 1988 and 2005, that status has been maintained to date.

Here’s a look at other countries in the Americas where Freedom House expressed concerns:

Venezuela: “President Nicolás Maduro extended his authoritarian rule with a profoundly flawed presidential election characterized by bans on prominent opposition candidates and voter intimidation. Maduro has presided over an economic collapse and accompanying humanitarian crisis that has left millions struggling to meet their basic needs.”

Nicaragua: “President Daniel Ortega pursued a ferocious crackdown on a nationwide anti-government protest movement, with violence by state forces and allied armed groups resulting in hundreds of deaths. The harsh conditions in Nicaragua and Venezuela have added to the region’s already substantial migration crisis.”

Brazil: “Right-wing populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro captured Brazil’s presidency after a contentious pre-election period that featured disinformation campaigns and political violence. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric was steeped in disdain for democratic principles and aggressive pledges to wipe out corruption and violent crime, which resonated with a deeply frustrated electorate.”

Mexico: “Mexico promises to end corruption and confront violent drug gangs also propelled left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency, though he has yet to explain how he will accomplish his goals.”

Cuba: Not only was Cuba assessed as “not free,” as were Venezuela and Nicaragua, but it received an aggregate score of just 14 on a scale where 100 is most free. Nicaragua, which had been rated “partly free” the previous year, had an aggregate score of 32 and Venezuela’s score was 19.

The United States scored 86. Canada led the way in the Americas with a score of 99 and 10 other countries in the region scored higher than the U.S. They included the Bahamas, Barbados, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Uruguay.

Haiti, rated partially free, had a score of 41.

Of the 50 countries designated “not free,” 13 were listed as worst of the worst. Cuba avoided that designation, which included Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Central African Republic and Libya. Syria scored a 0, the lowest possible score.

There were some democratic advances in the Americas, however. The report cited Ecuador “where space for civil society and the media has opened.”

But it added: “Yet it too grapples with serious challenges. An Ecuadoran journalist and two of his colleagues were killed along the Colombian border by leftist guerrillas, and anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Mimi Whitefield has covered Latin America and the Caribbean for more than two decades. The Miami Herald’s former Rio de Janeiro bureau chief and a 2017 winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, she now focuses on Cuba coverage.