The current global crisis of democracy also extends to Latin America, where half of the countries display signs of democratic erosion. In this context, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated many of the previously existing historical problems and has highlighted the necessity of undertaking profound structural reforms that allow the governance of the already fragile regional democracies to be strengthened.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, the democracies of Latin America, which had already come into this new decade fatigued, as seen in Central America and the Caribbean with El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Haiti; and in South America with Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia, have emerged even weaker. Since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Latin America in February 2020, the region has not only experienced major shifts in its institutional and political dynamics but has also seen further deepening of the structural problems already affecting regional democracies, all of which exhibit worrying new symptoms of weakness.
Latin America and the Caribbean has been the most vulnerable region to the pandemic. As a consequence of the prolonged health and social crisis, poverty across the region has hit historic highs and has had a strong negative impact on inequality and employment. But the pandemic has also served as a pretext for some rulers, such as in Brazil and El Salvador, to monopolise more power and misuse the state of emergency, which is constitutionally provided for special situations and provides for the adoption of exceptional measures. As a result, COVID-19 brought about an accelerated political and institutional deterioration as well as an increase in public distrust of both politicians and institutions.
The pandemic has made more evident the weaknesses of Latin American governments, which have been traditionally ineffective in the implementation of public policies, to deal with the health crisis, and has led to greater levels of discontent towards democratic institutions. Latin American societies, after the economic boom, were already showing clear signs of democratic disaffection, derived from the ineffectiveness of Latin American democracies in channelling social demands and finding solutions to the growing social frustration. In addition, a large number of people experienced the measures taken by Latin American governments, including confinement measures and greater presence of military and security forces on the streets, as nothing more than an imposition of authoritarianism on individual rights. The distrust in the state, typical of Latin American political culture, has led to this disaffection, which in some cases has turned into open rejection of the system.
The political area in which the pandemic’s impact on democracy was most noticeable was in the electoral field, regarding the celebration of elections and their participation, as well as the conduct of campaigns and voting procedures. Other political problems also damaging the institution of democracy include several scandals, in countries such as Peru and Argentina, involving the early vaccination of political leaders and their friends and family members regardless of the established schedules and requirements, thus deepening the distance between political elites and citizens. This phenomenon, which more and more defines the political life of the region, splits societies into two or more different sides, each of which presents its particular vision of the country, different and often incompatible with that of the others, making it impossible to reach a minimum political consensus. In short, polarisation deteriorates coexistence and hinders good governance.
The weakness of Latin American states has favoured the emergence of personalist leaderships, in which the new caudillos deliver an anti-elite rather than an anti-system message. In the context of the pandemic, a fourth populist wave has emerged in the region, “COVID-populism”. The “COVID-populists”, who all displayed some denialist disdain for the pandemic, tend to be personalistic movement leaders, as with Bolsonaro (Brazil) and López Obrador (Mexico), with a polarising and populist message, which opposes the political and party system. Moreover, without solid political cadres and no structured agenda, they often lean on fringe political parties, such as Bolsonaro in the PSL.
The new populism relies on nationalist messages and actions, and appeals to sentiment to garner support. Relying on their charisma and simple messages to better reach all sectors of society, these populists exploit resentment and social frustration to channel discontent with politics and politicians. They also seek to overthrow institutional structures, restraining the control capacity of other counter-powers, in particular that of the judiciary and the legislature, without which it is impossible to stop the concentration of power, and power remains in the hands of political leaders with no interest in democracy. Throughout Latin America, COVID-19 has fostered a dangerous tendency to support such populist solutions.
In short, the pandemic has worsened Latin America’s historical social, economic, and political difficulties and intensified the deterioration of the democracies in the region. The lack of effectiveness of governments to respond to the demands of citizens, of more and more discontented, polarized and fragmented societies, and to the health and economic-social challenge derived from COVID-19, has led to the appearance of new populisms and personalist authoritarian leaderships, and in general to the growth in the fragility of Latin American democratic systems.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post, with the title drawing me in to learn how te COVID-19 pandemic affected democracy in latin America. After reading your post, I immediately thought of the consequences for democracy COVID-19 had in other countries, such the United States. I think it is important to note for the United States that Donald Trump, arguably a populist leader as well, came to power before the pandemic, making it important to distinguish whether or not the pandemic facilitated more democratic erosion or if the pandemic acted as a justification. As for your post, I believe the layout of your post was easily understandable, making your argument stronger. The examples of how the pandemic has allowed for an increase in executive power and an increase in the gap between the people and the elites makes it easier to understand how this “fourth wave of populism” was possible. I found it very interesting how this wave of populist leaders uses anti-elite rhetoric rather than anti-establishment rhetoric, facilitating an even greater gap between the societal groups and a larger base of support for these leaders. I agree with your argument that COVID-19 has resulted in negative implications on democracy in latin America, but cannot help but wonder whether or not this rise of populist leaders in Latin America would have been feasible or as successful without the global pandemic.
This blog post was very well done. I agree that in Latin America and elsewhere, COVID-19 has highlighted pre-existing inequalities, which has contributed to distrust in political systems. I think you provide some strong examples such as Peruvian and Argentinian politicians receiving early vaccinations for themselves and their networks. I also thought the example of the pandemic as a pretext for rulers in Brazil and El Salvador was a great example of how the pandemic contributed to democratic erosion. At various points in your piece, you mentioned the public’s disaffection with existing political systems and a growing distrust of politicians. In what countries in Latin America were this disaffection most noticeable? How do you quantify this disaffection? Did it affect voting participation or is it mostly visible through protest? I think you raise strong points but I would like to see more examples regarding the public’s disaffection. It would strengthen your argument that COVID contributed to democratic erosion.
Great blog post, Lucia! This is such an important issue, and you have clearly outlined the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on Latin American democracy. Whenever I would complain about the COVID measures we were facing in the United States, I would see what my friends were dealing with in Brazil and Colombia, and that would help keep things in perspective. I appreciated the examples you used and how certain populist leaders such as Bolsonaro and Obrado (and Trump, I would argue) used their personalistic platforms to promote polarization and effectively erode democracy. I think a crisis is a wanna-be authoritarian leader’s dream…it allows them to seize power in ways they could not do in times of peace. In addition to what you said, I believe the effect the pandemic had on education will also have a long-term effect on democracy in Latin America. We know that an educated populace is beneficial to democracy. The pandemic kept many students out of school for long periods of time, and the lack of reliable internet and technology meant virtual learning was near impossible in many parts of Latin America. Time will tell how this lack of consistent and quality education will have on this rising generation of voters and political actors.
I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post and found it to be a very interesting read! I definitely agree with you and believe that COVID restrictions played a pretty big role in empowering populist leaders while also strengthening their political support amongst loyal followers. The permanent mark COVID left on Latin America is absolutely tragic, it’s even more disheartening to think about the political leaders that should have been aiding their countries amidst tragedy took advantage of an already terrible situation to attain more power and further their own political agendas. Is there at least one Latin American country that you would consider to have been successful in navigating COVID policies more so than others?