Latin America and COVID-19

Political Rights and Presidential Leadership to the Test

in Democratic Theory
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  • 1 University of São Paulo, Brazil brigitte.weiffen@uni-konstanz.de

Abstract

Latin America was hit by COVID-19 in a moment of (socio-)economic distress and political unrest. This essay reflects on the immediate repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis for democracy in the region. It expounds how responding to the pandemic put to the test the still consolidating democracies with their long-standing defects in the areas of political and civil rights and horizontal accountability. In the course of coping with the crisis, it is precisely in these problem areas that additional risks for democracy have arisen due to infringements of political rights and the performance of presidents. Regarding the latter, the ambiguities of presidential leadership become particularly evident when comparing pragmatic and populist responses to the crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Latin America at a moment when democracy was already sailing in treacherous waters. According to the Varieties of Democracy data, the region's democracies have seen an erosion of political liberties, the protection of individual freedoms, and checks and balances between institutions over the past ten years. Declines were particularly pronounced in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Paraguay (Lührmann et al. 2020). Latin American governments’ credibility has been heavily contested after a string of corruption scandals, and confidence in political institutions such as parliaments, cabinets, courts, and political parties is at its lowest level in decades. In the past few years, almost every country has been affected by massive anti-government protests; contestations around elections; the interruption of presidential mandates due to impeachment, military interference or pressure from the streets, often followed by unpopular interim governments; and high levels of polarization. More than 30 years after the end of military dictatorships, security forces have gained prestige due to their role in combating violence and organized crime, and military presence in public and political life is once again growing.

Furthermore, the outbreak unfolded under adverse economic and social circumstances. Latin America continues to be the world's most unequal region, with on average 53 per cent of employment in informal activities. In recent years, the end of the commodity boom and sluggish economic growth have acted as an obstacle to the provision of social protection programs, and the pandemic-related contraction of global demand will further contribute to the scarcity of funds. Especially the poorer sections of the population have been severely affected by the most common public health measure against COVID-19, the lockdown or stay-at-home instruction. Since they do not have savings to carry them through the crisis, inequality is likely to be further aggravated and poverty is expected to increase (ECLAC 2020). In the medium term, therefore, economic downturn and social distress are likely to lead to renewed waves of political uprisings.

Behind the backdrop of those circumstances, this article discusses the immediate repercussions for democracy while the health crisis is still underway. Around the world, COVID-19 has offered autocrats—and democratic leaders alike—an opportunity for abuse of power (Bieber 2020). However, in Latin America, the pandemic strikes previously existing weak spots of the political, economic, and social systems and makes them even weaker. It is putting to the test the relatively young and still consolidating democratic governments of the region. Long before the crisis, Latin American democracies were notoriously defective in the areas of political and civil rights and horizontal accountability. In the current situation, it is precisely in these problem areas that additional risks for democracy arise due to restrictions on freedom rights and the often-ambiguous role of a strong executive that characterizes the presidential systems of Latin America.

Crisis Response and Encroachment on Political Rights

With the progression of the virus, human rights were restricted worldwide in the name of fighting the pandemic. Reasonable precaution allowed leaders to institute extraordinary measures that disable basic democratic mechanisms. Latin America is no exception. The imposition of curfews (such as in Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic), the closing of businesses, bans on gatherings, and other constraining measures that force people into quarantine and keep them off the street (such as in Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, and Uruguay) were justified by the need to curb the rapid transmission of the virus. However, this took place in a region where the regime transitions of the past decades most often ended not in liberal, but in illiberal democracy, which combines free and fair elections with systematic constraints on citizens’ basic rights and freedoms (Smith and Ziegler 2008). It is against this background that the measures to fight the pandemic encroached on freedom of movement and assembly and thence the freedom to enjoy many other political rights and civil liberties. Consequently, demonstrations—as the most obvious way to protest against governments—could be prohibited because they would allow the virus to spread. Another possible consequence is that incumbent governments might postpone elections indefinitely, arguing that social distancing is incompatible with a procedure that calls on everyone to come to the same place on the same day.

The fact that infringements on the freedom of assembly effectively curb the right to protest has played into the hands of governments in those Latin American countries that saw a wave of mass protests over late 2019 and early 2020, driven by deep social discontent, frustrated aspirations, persistent vulnerability, and growing poverty (Blofield et al. 2020). Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela are cases in point. In Chile, long considered to be a model of democracy and prosperity in the region, discontent over socio-economic inequality, corruption, and deficient state services prompted mass protests in October 2019. The health crisis halted these protests and handed Sebastián Piñera's beleaguered administration an opportunity to regain strength. Chile's declaration of a “state of disaster emergency” and the military's presence on streets and squares once occupied by protesters muted raging dissent. In Bolivia, following left-wing president Evo Morales’ disputed re-election in October 2019, violent confrontations between his supporters and opponents exploded, which eventually forced him to resign and led to the institution of an interim right-wing government. In response, the former president's supporters staged protests against the interim government and denounced Morales’ ouster as a coup. The measures adopted against COVID-19 in March 2020 prohibited all kinds of gatherings and allowed for military deployment to maintain public order. In Venezuela, the Nicolás Maduro government sent the country into lockdown early on. While opposition leader Juan Guaidó—recognized by many Western governments as Venezuela's rightful president—called for an emergency government formed by representatives from the opposition and the governing party (but excluding Maduro), a pleasant side effect of the lockdown for Maduro was that it banned anti-government protests and indefinitely postponed any search for a negotiated solution to the political crisis.

The pandemic also delayed democratic decision-making processes. In Chile, the government decided to postpone a plebiscite on the creation of an assembly to rewrite the country's constitution, originally scheduled for April 2020. The referendum was convened in response to the street protests and was the product of a broad, cross-party agreement that helped to ease political tensions. While a new date for the referendum has been fixed for October, the pandemic presented a welcome opportunity for pro-government conservative sectors to improve their position facing the upcoming constitutional process. Bolivia suspended a new presidential election scheduled for early May. Interim president Jeanine Áñez, who originally promised to serve only as a caretaker, has since consolidated power and announced her plan to run for president. The tenuous constitutionality of the interim government and indefinite postponement of elections sent an ambiguous message. Also, the mobilization of security forces as part of the health emergency declared on March 20 sounded the alarm. Moreover, the health emergency decree foresaw prison sentences of up to 10 years for “crimes against public health,” including “misinformation” and “causing uncertainty for the population”—a broad provision that might be abused to quell freedom of speech and target political rivals.

In sum, postponing elections or referenda for months might allow incumbents to strengthen their power and hold the vote when it suits them. Involving the police and especially the military in enforcement measures such as street patrols builds on already existing warning signs of increasing military interference in internal security matters and in politics. In Latin American history, political involvement of the military was associated with the suspension of elections, erosion of democratic institutions, and human rights violations. Hence, some responses to the pandemic raised concerns about the abuse of extraordinary powers for narrow political motives. Temporary restrictions might be perpetuated beyond the time of the current health crisis and some countries might end up less democratic than they were before March 2020.

The Ambiguities of Presidential Leadership

In emergency situations, the executive occupies the central stage. Citizens expect decisive government action and are more willing to tolerate power concentration and constraints on their rights. In numerous countries around the world, governments passed emergency laws or declared states of emergency in reaction to the coronavirus. The extraordinary powers given through such emergency measures are a resource that actual or would-be autocrats, but also democratic leaders can exploit to consolidate their power. For example, shifts toward executive power in countries such as Hungary or the United States caused international concern. Checks and balances are often ignored, and parliamentary oversight is curtailed or suspended for the duration of the crisis.

Tough protective measures might meet with popular approval when combined with perceived honesty and integrity. President Alberto Fernández of Argentina emerged as regional exemplar in quick and reasonable crisis response and transparent communication (Blofield et al. 2020). Fernández first gathered medical advice and then secured the support of a broad coalition of actors, including political opponents, governors, and mayors. Despite excessive debt and limited fiscal space, the government provided compensation measures for small and intermediate businesses, low-income workers, and the informal sector. Governments in Peru, Colombia, Chile, and El Salvador also acted quickly by putting quarantine measures in place by mid-March. In all of these cases, the resolute responses by presidents shored up their popularity (Sabatini 2020).

However, elected executives’ actions are also being dreaded in Latin American presidential systems with their history of strong authoritarian leaders. After the demise of military dictatorships, Latin America continued to see democratic regimes in which presidents did their utmost to ensure that their powers remained unchecked by parliaments, courts, or other mechanisms of horizontal accountability—a phenomenon described as delegative democracy (O'Donnell 1994). One current example is the charismatic president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who initially gained respect by announcing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. At the same time, he did not seem content to govern through ordinary democratic means, and COVID-19 emboldened him further to attack supreme court rulings and undermine legislative decision-making.

On the other hand, a lack of responsible presidential leadership when it is most needed can also inflict great harm. The presidents of the two most populous countries in the region, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, after his initials), along with Nicaragua's authoritarian president Daniel Ortega, stand out among the few rulers of the world who continuously denied the threat posed by COVID-19. While the Brazilian, Mexican, and Nicaraguan presidents make an odd grouping since Bolsonaro is considered of the extreme populist right and AMLO and Ortega of the populist left, all of them responded with populist platitudes, by ignoring inconvenient evidence and minimizing the pandemic (Sabatini 2020). Certainly, they were also motivated by the desire to avoid future blame for the economic ramifications of lockdowns. However, these populist leaders rejected the adoption of restrictive measures not only due to their economic setbacks, but also out of disdain for science and expertise. They systematically downplayed the warnings regarding the spread and lethality of the virus, because these recommendations were issued by the populists’ traditional “enemies”—the intellectual/scientific elites and international organizations. Instead, they invoked their own “experts” and pseudo-science, making claims such as that their populations were genetically protected, or that prayer or religious devotionals could prevent an infection.

Bolsonaro compared COVID-19 to a little flu (e.g., Borges 2020) and challenged and purposefully undermined social distancing guidelines, mingling with supporters. Likewise, AMLO organized rallies in the first weeks after the pandemic hit Mexico, hugged and kissed supporters, and shared videos of these gatherings on social media. When asked how he protects himself against the virus, he showcased a religious amulet. Only in the course of April did he heed the advice of Mexican health and scientific organizations, gradually backing off his denialist positions and endorsing social distancing measures.

In Brazil, Bolsonaro's ideologically motivated denial was accompanied by a lack of central coordination and increasingly confrontational behavior. Crisis response measures were adopted mostly against the president's wishes. Mayors in large cities and governors in the most affected federal states—among them several former allies of Bolsonaro—imposed quarantines, and congress passed legislation to provide poorer Brazilians with monthly stipends. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro attacked anyone who publicly challenged him, lashing out at the press, the opposition, and subnational and local authorities. In April, he dismissed his popular health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had become a defender of the national health service and an advocate of isolation measures. Mandetta's successor Nelson Teich resigned in May, after barely one month in office, due to disagreements with Bolsonaro over social distancing and the use of the malaria drug chloroquine to treat coronavirus. The post of health minister subsequently remained vacant.

Rather than seeking responses to the crisis, Bolsonaro politicized it, raising the radical tone and mobilizing his base. This included disinformation campaigns and the spread of fake news, orchestrated by the so-called “hate cabinet,” an office composed of three special advisors to the president working closely with one of Bolsonaro's sons, Carlos, who is in charge of the Brazilian president's social media strategy. On a regular basis, supporters took to the streets and organized gatherings, motorcades, and public prayers for the president. Known for his disrespect for democratic institutions, Bolsonaro also rallied demonstrations calling for the shutdown of congress and the supreme court, besides praising the country's former military dictatorship. As the numbers of COVID-19 infections and fatalities soared during April and May 2020, he just shrugged off the news.

Bolsonaro's inability to govern and his repulsive behavior drained his government of the little legitimacy it had. The president's confrontational stance culminated in his political isolation, and his support base shrank to his most radical followers. Evening after evening for several weeks in March and April, Brazilians banged pots and pans in protest against the president. His incendiary response to the pandemic brought polarization to a level not seen in decades.

Conclusion

Like everywhere else in the world, policy-makers in Latin America had to cope with the tension between protecting individual liberties or public health. Measures of social distancing are needed to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus. It is still subject to debate though to what extent a state can legitimately restrict the liberties of its citizens in order to serve the common good (see the contribution by Wolfgang Merkel to this special issue). There is a serious risk that the protection of public health can serve as a pretext for governments to erode fundamental rights and expand executive power.

In Latin America, the health crisis occurred against the background of long-standing defects of democracy and in a context of (socio-)economic distress and political crisis. As this article has shown, the immediate repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis for democracy are twofold. First, especially in countries already affected by democratic erosion, leaders might be tempted to take advantage of the crisis and prolong instruments such as the state of emergency to do away with obstacles to their rule. Second, presidents’ attitudes and decisions have decisively shaped responses to COVID-19. The nature of Latin American presidential systems implies that the incumbent's behavior might present challenges to democracy both when (s)he is too strong and when (s)he is too weak. Overall, the experience of the first months after the COVID-19 outbreak seem to suggest that populist attempts to instrumentalize the issue as a mobilization strategy might backfire, whereas more pragmatic responses generated higher public approval (Sabatini 2020).

Yet, while the pandemic temporarily suspended protests, it might deepen polarization and political crisis. This applies to countries where emergency response measures served incumbent leaders as an opportunity to snuff out protests, but it is also a valid assumption for countries where divisive leaders reacted to the pandemic not by reaching high for national unity, but by aiming low for partisan gains. Moreover, the pandemic exposed old structural problems such as the inherent tensions of highly unequal democracies. Economic downturn is on the horizon for all governments in the region, no matter which emergency response they adopted, and the loss of confidence in democracy might become even more severe where governments fail to provide adequate solutions to social and economic problems.

References

  • Bieber, Florian. 2020. “Authoritarianism in the Time of the Coronavirus.” Foreign Policy, March 20. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/authoritarianism-coronavirus-lockdown-pandemic-populism/.

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  • Blofield, Merike, Bert Hoffmann, and Mariana Llanos. 2020. Assessing the Political and Social Impact of the Covid-19 Crisis in Latin America. GIGA Focus Latin America 3/2020. Hamburg: German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Borges, Anelise. 2020. “‘A little flu’: Brazil's Bolsonaro playing down coronavirus crisis.” Euronews, April 10. www.euronews.com/2020/04/06/a-little-flu-brazil-s-bolsonaro-playing-down-coronavirus-crisis.

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  • ECLAC. 2020. Latin America and the Caribbean and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Economic and Social Effects. Special Report COVID-19 No. 1, April 3. Santiago, Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

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    • Export Citation
  • Lührmann, Anna, Seraphine F. Maerz, Sandra Grahn, Nazifa Alizada, Lisa Gastaldi, Sebastian Hellmeier, Garry Hindle, and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2020. Autocratization Surges—Resistance Grows. Democracy Report 2020. Gothenburg: Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O'Donnell, Guillermo A. 1994. “Delegative Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 5 (1): 5569.

  • Sabatini, Christopher. 2020. “Latin America's COVID-19 Moment: Differences and Solidarity.” Expert Comment, Chatham House, April 30. www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/latin-america-s-covid-19-moment-differences-and-solidarity.

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  • Smith, Peter H., and Melissa R. Ziegler. 2008. “Liberal and Illiberal Democracy in Latin America.” Latin American Politics and Society 50 (1): 3157.

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Contributor Notes

Brigitte Weiffen has held the Martius Chair for German and European Studies, a visiting professorship sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), at the Department of Political Science, University of São Paulo, Brazil, from 2015 to 2020. Her research interests include comparative democratization, transitional justice, and conflict and crisis management by regional organizations, with a particular focus on Latin America. E-mail: brigitte.weiffen@uni-konstanz.de

Democratic Theory

An Interdisciplinary Journal

  • Bieber, Florian. 2020. “Authoritarianism in the Time of the Coronavirus.” Foreign Policy, March 20. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/authoritarianism-coronavirus-lockdown-pandemic-populism/.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Blofield, Merike, Bert Hoffmann, and Mariana Llanos. 2020. Assessing the Political and Social Impact of the Covid-19 Crisis in Latin America. GIGA Focus Latin America 3/2020. Hamburg: German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Borges, Anelise. 2020. “‘A little flu’: Brazil's Bolsonaro playing down coronavirus crisis.” Euronews, April 10. www.euronews.com/2020/04/06/a-little-flu-brazil-s-bolsonaro-playing-down-coronavirus-crisis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ECLAC. 2020. Latin America and the Caribbean and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Economic and Social Effects. Special Report COVID-19 No. 1, April 3. Santiago, Chile: Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lührmann, Anna, Seraphine F. Maerz, Sandra Grahn, Nazifa Alizada, Lisa Gastaldi, Sebastian Hellmeier, Garry Hindle, and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2020. Autocratization Surges—Resistance Grows. Democracy Report 2020. Gothenburg: Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O'Donnell, Guillermo A. 1994. “Delegative Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 5 (1): 5569.

  • Sabatini, Christopher. 2020. “Latin America's COVID-19 Moment: Differences and Solidarity.” Expert Comment, Chatham House, April 30. www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/latin-america-s-covid-19-moment-differences-and-solidarity.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, Peter H., and Melissa R. Ziegler. 2008. “Liberal and Illiberal Democracy in Latin America.” Latin American Politics and Society 50 (1): 3157.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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