Catastrophizing the state of the world in which one comes of age is a common fallacy of youth. I intend to avoid this pitfall. Still, contextualizing the present state of affairs is a tremendous feat. My generation is graduating from university amidst the looming sixth mass extinction, as our planet continues to warm, and humanity appears unable to free itself from imperial wars.
Yet as I begin to find my footing in this world, my way of contributing to solving these seemingly insurmountable challenges, I am imbibed with hope rather than fear. This faith emanates from the fabric of the communities in which I have been fortunate to be embedded. For it is in the folds of community — living, learning, and working with people who care deeply about making the world a better place and about each other as human beings — that we find the strength to persevere, even when it appears that much of the progress we thought we had made as a species is disintegrating in real-time.
From Costa Rica to Chile, Latin American democracies are in jeopardy.
Three months ago, I submitted my honors thesis to the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) as a student in its Fisher Family Honors Program. Under the advisement of my brilliant mentors, Professors Beatriz Magaloni and Jeremy Weinstein, I spent the last year and a half of my time at Stanford conducting original research on citizenship in Chile, a country currently working to redefine its social contract.
Though Chile is one of Latin America’s poster children — lauded for its economic success and the strength of its democratic institutions — in 2019, the world watched with bated breath as protests erupted nationwide. Over a million people took to the streets in the capital alone, fueled by a broad range of demands from improved healthcare and pension systems to greater recognition of Indigenous peoples and women’s rights. Through in-depth, semi-structured interviews, I sought to understand how low-income citizens — a group standing to gain significantly from the protestors’ demands — saw the state and understood their role as citizens of a democratic polity. Because democracy derives its legitimacy from the participation of its members,1 how people self-conceptualize their citizenship and choose to exercise their rights and responsibilities matters greatly in determining the vitality and longevity of this political system.
I was born and raised in Costa Rica, one of three liberal democracies in Latin America, and consistently ranked among the best democracies in the Western Hemisphere — even above the United States according to V-Dem’s liberal democracy index and Freedom House’s freedom score. Growing up, however, I was perplexed and disillusioned by the reality I witnessed at home.
In 2018, my country confronted one of the most contentious presidential elections in its recent history: the candidates that faced off in the runoff were both from nascent parties promising to diverge from the status quo, bogged down by corruption scandals and legitimacy crises.2 Across Costa Rica, young people worried about our democracy formed Coalición Costa Rica, a nonpartisan national civil society coalition dedicated to safeguarding our democratic system by working towards a more informed and participatory country. As a founding member of this organization’s local branch in my hometown, Monteverde, I went door-to-door informing voters on the critical issues at stake that election cycle, organized transportation systems to bring citizens to the polls, and spearheaded events to increase my community’s engagement with these elections.
That April, as I worked the polls at the Escuela de Santa Elena — a local school serving as a polling station—I found I, too, was losing faith in democracy. Our efforts felt insufficient. I was disheartened by the rationale folks gave for selecting their chosen candidate; I was frustrated by the imperfect nature of our system. How many people had not voted that day? How many had not voted simply because they could not get to the polls? How many did not know who to vote for or how to choose, and how many more thought that regardless of who won, their government would continue to fail them? If I saw so many shortcomings in my home country — allegedly one of the best democracies — what was it like elsewhere?
Community and collaboration are vital ingredients to solving the pressing issues facing our societies.
This was one experience among many that motivated me to come to Stanford, determined to learn how democracies across Latin America could be strengthened from the ground up, creating systems of governance that fulfill their promise of working in service of all their members.
Through my honors thesis, I sought to explore this question using rigorous empirical research. I saw the case of Chile as one that could shed light on the challenges democracies in my region face. In particular, I observed striking parallels between the growing discontent with and diminishing trust in democracy in Chile and Costa Rica. From developing a research design, writing the interview protocol, and securing IRB approval, to conducting fieldwork in Santiago, creating local partnerships, recruiting participants, and conducting interviews, writing my honors thesis pushed me to use the tools I had acquired throughout my undergraduate career in service of contributing to our understanding of the state of our democracies.
The concluding chapter of my thesis features an epigraph with a statement from former Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, cautioning that “if we renounce politics and each one takes refuge in the individual,” our civilization will break down.3 These words speak to how democracies suffer when people withdraw from the political community — from decision-making processes, public spaces, and their democratic citizenship. Citizen participation is democracy’s oxygen; this form of government hinges on our ability to act collectively and integrate members’ voices into its functioning. The Chilean experience illustrates the perils of a disjointed society divided into isolated units.
A similar sentiment holds for addressing the challenges of our time. Ideas require feedback and discussion to flourish, for it is only once they are subjected to scrutiny through a variety of paradigms that they are able to withstand the chaotic pressures of real-world implementation. This process is not about relentless criticism or antagonism: it is about cooperation and collaboration, operating under the premise that those around you care as deeply as you do about solving the pressing issues facing our societies.
My time at CDDRL was transformative, not only in my growth as a young scholar but also in my development as a citizen of the world.
My time at CDDRL was transformative, not only in my growth as a young scholar but also in my development as a citizen of the world. This is precisely because, beyond an intellectual home, I found community here. From daily greetings, smiles, exchanges of heartfelt conversation, and comradery — within the honors cohort, between students, staff, and faculty—emerges a culture of care that nurtures the whole person. Such quotidian interactions brim with positivity, converting weekly research seminars, workshops, or even casual encounters in Encina Hall into powerful energy sources. It is this spirit that informs the relationships that are born here, turning a group of remarkable individual scholars into a community.
On days when it seemed my thesis did not want to get written — when the headlines on the constitutional process in Chile, presidential elections in Brazil, or violence in El Salvador flooded my inbox, dampening my ability to continue reading journal articles and coding interviews — coming to CDDRL became an antidote. I could find solace in conversations with advisors and mentors, work sessions with other students, or moments of shared humanity with the wonderful staff and faculty at the Center.
Confronting the troubles of our time with the intention of finding solutions — facing a myriad of setbacks along the way — requires a kind of dynamic resilience that takes a great deal of courage and resolve. Yet engaging in this endeavor embedded in a collaborative, vibrant, and compassionate community, like the one found at CDDRL, makes even the hardest days a little bit easier. Such communities are the key to having the stamina and faith to continue developing new, innovative, and daring solutions in an environment where they will be pushed to become their best versions.
Becoming intimately familiar with the case of Chile has proven a sobering endeavor on the practicalities of democratic reform. As I finalized my thesis, Chile was embarking on its second attempt at re-writing its constitution after the draft resulting from the first was vehemently rejected by a majority of the population.
Perhaps above all, both my research itself and my time at CDDRL more broadly have impressed upon me the need to care for our political communities as one would a delicate flower in a tropical garden.
1. O’Donnell, Guillermo. “The Quality of Democracy: Why the Rule of Law Matters.” Journal of Democracy 15, no. 4 (2004): 32-46.
2. Colburn, Forrest D., and Arturo Cruz S. “Latin America’s Shifting Politics: The Fading of Costa Rica’s Old Parties.” Journal of Democracy 29, no. 4 (2018): 43-53.
3. Klein, Darío. Vota y Verás: Reflexiones de Pepe Mujica. Syncretic Press, 2018.