Russia and Global Security Risks
COVID-19 in Latin America: A Litmus Test of Leadership

The lull caused by the pandemic will end sooner or later, and the region will have to face its consequences. The inevitable decline in socio-economic indicators will be a challenge to regimes and socio-political systems, writes Dmitry Rosenthal, Deputy Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Latin America.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become a challenge for Latin America. Its healthcare systems were not ready for a coronavirus outbreak. Affected by the chronic underfunding of medical facilities and the poor sanitary situation in the region, they failed to develop a unified programme of measures for the treatment and prevention of the disease. The number of victims has already exceeded 130,000; more than 3 million people have become infected.

The economies of Latin American countries have suffered a heavy blow. The restrictive measures which were introduced, temporary shutdown of enterprises, and a decrease in demand for exported goods (their main consumers due to the spread of the virus also found themselves in a difficult situation) have led to a drop in regional GDP. According to International Monetary Fund forecasts, the GDP of the region will fall by 9.4% on average; Mexico’s GDP is projected to contract 10.5%. Coupled with the perennial problems that face Latin America – a high level of poverty and inequality, these circumstances risk resulting in a radical change in the political landscape of the region and an explosion of social unrest.

Pandemic as a new opportunity

In the context of the rapid spread of COVID-19, the governments’ willingness to pursue urgent and decisive measures to combat the pandemic has become the litmus test of their managerial abilities. Effective steps in this direction would allow the heads of state to expand the electoral base, absolve themselves of past failures and regain public support. This is urgently needed for the leaders who survived the social protests of 2019 – Lenin Moreno of Ecuador, Sebastián Piñera of Chile, and Iván Duque of Colombia. Although the results of polls vary widely, the dynamics of electoral preferences allow us to evaluate the measures adopted by Latin American leaders.

The Colombian president, who introduced strict restrictive measures, has coped best with the task. The violators faced heavy fines, and in some cases, long prison sentences. Despite frequent accusations by officials of abuse of funds allocated to combat the virus, public support for Iván Duque increased from 32% before the pandemic to 51 – 57% in the spring of 2020. (Hereinafter, the data of the Argentine Research Centre Directorio Legislativo).

Lenin Moreno was less fortunate. He was crippled by the apparent unpreparedness of Ecuadorian medics and other emergency services for the COVID-19 outbreak in the early days. The curfew imposed and tracking of the infected using mobile phones did not lead to a significant increase in his popularity rating: it increased from 13% to 19 – 23%. Sebastián Piñera improved his position a little, increasing support from 10% to 19%. At the same time, Chileans are less likely than any other Latin Americans to trust their president’s measures to combat the pandemic.

The quarantine and measures to ensure the socio-economic support of the population and entrepreneurs introduced by the Argentinean leader Alberto Fernandez helped to contain the spread of the virus; in July, the number of infected people did not exceed 90,000. Despite the fact that the opposition and some public figures opposed restrictions (the term “infectadura” is derived from the words “infection” and “dictatorship”, and was invented for the occasion), public sympathy remained on the side of the head of state. This success confirmed his leading role, in tandem with Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, in stopping speculation on this matter.

Latin Americans stand for tough measures

In the struggle against the pandemic, the governments of Latin American countries have faced a serious choice. Strict restrictive measures were encouraged by the population, but negatively affected the economy. In Peru, in particular, centre-right president Martín Vizcarra was one of the first in Latin America to impose strict quarantine and deploy police to counter marauders. Similar decisions were made by the head of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who declared a curfew and threatened to imprison foreigners trying to enter the territory of the country. Both politicians experienced an improvement of public support, despite the fact that the results of their actions were not always effective. So, Peru ranks second in Latin America in terms of the number of infected people (316,000).

Another tactic was chosen by the government of Jair Bolsonaro, who refused to impose serious restrictions. The consequence of this decision was almost 1.76 million infected people, a record for the region and the second-worst in the world. Brazil became the only Latin American country from which entry into the Eurozone is prohibited. Against this background, the president had a conflict with the Ministry of Health, state governors, and public figures. His position has significantly weakened, his rating decreased from 32% to 30-16%. At the same time, he saw support from low-income groups of the population, for whom work is a necessary condition for survival.

The Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at the start of the pandemic, was also limited to minor measures. The decision to impose a quarantine was handed over to state governors, and transport links with other countries were still carried out. At the same time, the president accused the media and political opponents of escalating hysteria regarding the virus. The regime was tightened only after an increase in the number of infected people. The unpreparedness for decisive action was another blow to his standing in the polls. His rating, which showed a negative trend before the pandemic, continued to fall, reaching 49% in April, according to some surveys, and has even shrunk to 19%.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega opposed the imposition of restrictions, fearing the economic consequences of this decision. He accused quarantine supporters of trying to destabilise the country and misinform the population. Under these conditions, 76% of citizens do not approve of the government’s strategy to combat the virus; statements about artificially underestimating the data on the number who have been infected, or are dead, are circulating in the press.

Calm before the storm

The spread of the pandemic in Latin America slowed down many social processes, giving respite to political outsiders. So, in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro used the COVID-19 outbreak for propaganda purposes, urging the United States and its allies to lift sanctions and unblock its accounts in international banks. The government succeeded in striking an agreement with the opposition parties, (including the most implacable of them – the People’s Will) to join in fighting against the disease. Under these conditions, some polls signalled a rise in the president’s rating by a few percent. However, it is still very low and does not exceed about 6-10%.

The difficult epidemiological situation led to the postponement till September of the presidential election in Bolivia, which had been scheduled for May 3. This circumstance played into the hands of the interim head of state, Jeanine Áñez, who according to surveys only ranks third and won’t make it to the second round of voting. The change in the timing of the promised vote may have given Áñez a chance to gain political points, but it’s prompted supporters of Luis Arce Catacora to protest. Catacora is the candidate from the Movement to Socialism; he is polling in first place and is supported by deposed former president Evo Morales. It is possible that in the event of a second wave of COVID-19, voting may be delayed again.

In Chile, by agreement of the main political forces, the constitutional referendum which was to be held on April 26, 2020, was postponed until October 25. This postponement leaves many social conflicts in the country unresolved; it does not allow Chile to proceed with altering the Basic Law, which has remained unchanged since Augusto Pinochet was in power.

The lull caused by the pandemic will end sooner or later, and the region will have to face its consequences. The inevitable decline in socio-economic indicators will be a challenge to regimes and socio-political systems. In turn, the introduction of quarantine and the closure of borders may become an obstacle to integration activities, the restoration of which will take a lot of time and effort. Amid these new historical conditions, the countries of Latin America will have to learn how to make do.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.