LATIN AMERICA is a notoriously cyclical region, and the end of the long commodity boom has hit its countries hard. Although a weakening economy does not necessarily make officials more corrupt or criminals more violent, it does eliminate the distraction from these endemic problems that rising living standards provide. From Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, discontent is growing. Mexicans are up in arms over the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 student activists; Venezuelan streets have erupted in occasionally violent protests against the authoritarian and economically incompetent government of Nicolás Maduro; and Brazilians are calling for the impeachment of their president, Dilma Rousseff, as a result of a kickback scandal and a credit-rating downgrade.

This year’s Latinobarómetro poll, an annual survey of public opinion produced since 1995 and published exclusively by The Economist, reflects this broad souring of the regional mood. Latin Americans are fed up with their leaders: government approval ratings across the 17 countries in the study have fallen from 60% in 2009 to 47% today. They are abandoning political moderation in favour of polarised ideologies, as the share of respondents who call themselves “centrist” rather than “left” or “right” has dropped from 42% in 2008 to 33% now. They are losing faith in civic institutions: 34% of the public say they trust the state, down from 42% in 2013. Most disturbingly, they are drifting from each other. A mere 16% of those surveyed agree that “You can trust most people”, which ties the lowest rate Latinobarómetro has ever recorded.


The only country where corruption is seen as the biggest problem is Brazil. Although the South American giant is no stranger to back-room dealings, the revelation that Petrobras, the national-champion oil firm, had overpaid subcontractors in a bid-rigging and bribery scheme worth some $3 billion constituted a massive scandal even by local standards. Brazilians have taken notice, with some protesters planting brooms on beaches to call for a clean-up of politics (see picture). As recently as 2010, just 3% of them said corruption was the country’s most pressing challenge; this year that figure has soared to 22%, just above the 20% mark that it reached at the height of outrage over a legislative vote-buying scheme in 2005. The share of Brazilians who say that they or their relatives have come across an act of corruption in the past year is nearly twice as high as in the second-ranked country.  

These worrisome trends may prove to be little more than ephemeral collateral damage from the commodity bust. Historical Latinobarómetro data reveal that both support for democracy and satisfaction with it tend to march in lockstep with the economy: the lowest figures during the past 20 years were registered in 2001, amid the last sustained recession in Latin America (see chart). Similarly, the high-water mark occurred in 2010, which was also the region’s strongest year for GDP growth.

But according to Marta Lagos, the head of Latinobarómetro, lurking behind these cyclical fluctuations lies a steady long-term weakness. Ever since the poll began, respondents have consistently ranked arms of the state—like the courts, the legislature and political parties—at the very bottom of the list of institutions they trust. In contrast, the only three groups that at least half of those surveyed say they trust are their families, neighbours and churches.

Comparing data from different regional studies, Latinobarómetro finds that inter-personal trust in Latin America—ties that reach further than family and friends—lags far behind not just Europe but South-East Asia and the Arab world as well. As Barney Frank, a retired American congressman, often said, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” It is likely that the fickle faith of Latin Americans in democracy is primarily a symptom of their deeper lack of trust.