Pandemic politics may reshape Latin America

Ariel Castro-Martinez | Latin America Fellow

Latin America’s late-2019 political turbulence may have been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but political volatility is returning to the continent and its consequences may define the next decade. Longstanding poverty, inequality, and political divisions prompted large-scale, anti-government protests to erupt disparately across the Andes in 2019. A year later, these frustrations are compounding into near-universal resentment of government failure.


Surprisingly, it is countries like Brazil and Mexico––led by populist leaders who did not impose strict lockdowns––where national suffering has not instilled anti-government despondency. Unforgivingly, where stricter measures were taken but ineffective, distrust in government is deepening.


Of the world’s twenty countries most affected by COVID-19, Peru leads by death rate, followed by Brazil and Ecuador. Three more: Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina comprise the top ten at the time of writing. The United Nations International Labour Organization estimates that incomes and work hours in Latin America and the Caribbean have decreased 20 per cent so far due to the pandemic––double the global average. Existing poverty, inequality, and largely informal employment are making the region doubly vulnerable through ineffective government intervention.


Peru and Chile - Democracies tested


In Peru, a divided legislature is taking aim at both its economy minister, for her handling of the nation’s pandemic economy, and President Vizcarra, who survived impeachment in an unrelated political scandal. In 2019, divided protests punctuated the nation’s ongoing democratic reforms, while 2020 parliamentary elections produced the most fragmented congress in the nation’s history.


In Chile, an out-of-touch President Piñera is struggling against abysmal approval ratings for his administration’s crisis management. Student-led protests in 2019 galvanised opposition towards Chile’s neoliberal politics, and in 2020, inequality re-emerged as the Piñera administration’s defining weakness in its ability to limit COVID-19’s spread.


Participatory constitutional reform in Chile, and Peru’s flexible political structure may serve as circuit breakers. However, if the inequality and division that fuels pandemic and protests are not redressed, mutually reinforcing health and political crises threaten to self-perpetuate.


Bolivia and Ecuador - Exiled populists resurge


Bolivia and Ecuador are facing deeper political crises.


In 2018, President Moreno succeeded Ecuador’s long-serving, now-exiled leader, Rafael Correa, seeking to undo his predecessor’s decade of over-expenditure. In October 2019, the removal of fuel subsidies sparked fierce national protests amongst poorer Ecuadorians. Worsened by soaring COVID-19 deaths, Moreno’s credibility hit single digits in July 2020. Moreno’s democratic reforms and prosecution of the former populist president have raised concerns over upcoming elections. Correa hopes to return to power through his protégé in 2021.


Seeking to make a similar comeback from exile is militarily-ousted former Bolivian president, Evo Morales. Morales’ agitations for his party’s return to power in October elections have been labelled terrorism by Bolivia’s interim president. Morales’ ousting after thirteen years in power incited violent protests in 2019.


For both countries, unpopular incumbents crippled by protests and pandemic are fighting resurgent, populist, left-wing leaders remembered for tackling poverty and inequality. Democratic crises and increasingly desperate economic conditions will likely push old populists back into power while immobilising state responses to an apolitical virus.


Colombia and Argentina - Crisis-hardened administrations


Colombia and Argentina’s governments have been challenged by pandemic and discontent, but in each case their legitimacy in the minds of voters has been sustained by their role as managers of pre-pandemic crises.


In Colombia, conservative President Duque has lost approval over his administration’s violent response to insecurity from guerilla groups and anti-police protests. Former guerilla member, now opposition candidate, Gustavo Petro, is seizing on Colombia’s pandemic instability to boost his populist messaging.


In Argentina, a newly re-elected Peronist government led by President Fernandez is also losing ground. Unpopular capital controls and worsening poverty demonstrates the populist left-wing administration’s desperate inability to fix its already afflicted economy.


Even as trust dwindles, each government has long been favoured as their country’s respective security and economic crisis managers. Still, the pandemic is likely to push even Colombia and Argentina’s high crisis tolerances to unsustainable levels. If so, the lack of credible solutions to government-overwhelming crises may disillusion a generation.


Brazil and Mexico - Dodging responsibility


Brazil and Mexico did not avoid the pandemic, but its leaders may have sidestepped its political cost. Populist presidents Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Obrador of Mexico, both forewent enforcing national lockdowns, but have employed divergent strategies to mitigate economic and political losses.


Left-wing President Obrador has sustained his popularity with optimistic messaging and government austerity. Meanwhile, right-wing President Bolsonaro has boosted his low popularity with gruff detachment and stimulus checks. While their personal styles and use of state resources to handle the pandemic differ, Mexico and Brazil’s approaches coalesce in their devolution of ultimate responsibility for the pandemic’s health and economic outcomes to their nation’s people.


Rather than trying and failing to control the uncontrollable, Obrador and Bolsonaro escape the demoralising fate of almost every Latin American government whose flawed pandemic responses served only to justify their people’s cynical views of government.


Latin America’s post-pandemic regression


The tragedy of Latin America’s pandemic politics is that government inability to enact effective pandemic responses was punished more than government unwillingness. Quarantine, resource redistribution, and administrative capacity strained by poverty, inequality, and political division served only to amplify those very same societal weaknesses.


Governing in this environment turns technical failures into political failures. Compounded by frustrations simmering from late-2019, ongoing political failure coupled with human and economic loss smolders into anger and despair. Latin America risks sinking into an era of political nihilism. More than just rebuilding economies and livelihoods, healing in Latin America will require a restoration of public trust that underpins good governance and crisis management.


Latin America’s political future could look a lot like its past. The pandemic has wiped out a decade or more of human and economic development progress. Left-wing populist governments from Latin America’s ‘pink tide’ are mounting returns or holding steadier against more neoliberal and technocratic counterparts.


Growing instability will preclude an easy recovery and benefit the politics that promises protection to those hit hardest by societal and government dysfunction. This is not a crisis Latin America should waste; future resilience will depend on how well the region rehabilitates the key vulnerabilities that precipitated this year of chaos.

Ariel Castro-Martinez is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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