Latin America’s COVID-19 Moment: Differences and Solidarity

There has been no better example of the political diversity in Latin America than the varying responses of governments to the coronavirus crisis.

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A municipal cleaning worker disinfects the central market in Santiago, Chile on 7 April 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty Images.

A municipal cleaning worker disinfects the central market in Santiago, Chile on 7 April 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Getty Images.

Differing approaches across the hemisphere have had different impacts on presidential popularity and, at least in one case, on democratic institutions and human rights. Yet, even within that diversity, South America’s Southern Cone countries (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) have shown a sign of solidarity: protecting and facilitating trade flows, sponsoring cross-border research and ensuring citizens’ return to their home countries.

The response from populist leaders

On the extreme have been the responses of presidents of Brazil, Nicaragua and Mexico, all of whom have ignored the science of the virus and of experts and refused to implement isolation policies. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil fired his health minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta on 16 April for contradicting him and earlier had claimed that the pandemic was a hoax or little more than a ‘measly cold.’

Meanwhile, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has resisted closing businesses and schools. After a mysterious 34-day absence, Ortega appeared on television on 15 April reinforcing his refusal to close businesses saying that Nicaraguans must work or they will die and claiming that the virus was ‘imported.’

Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has also resisted the call for strict stay-at-home policies, though with his Deputy Health Minister, Hugo López-Gatell, has closed schools – recently extending the closure to the 1st of June and urging non-essential businesses to close – but focusing primarily on social distancing.

In contrast to his deputy health minister and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard – who had declared the situation a health emergency on 30th March, later than many neighbouring countries – AMLO has largely attempted to avoid discussion of the pandemic, claiming that in his case he has lucky charms that prevent him from contracting the virus.

And both Bolsonaro and AMLO have participated in large public rallies, doing all the things that politicians love, shaking hands and hugging babies, and in the case of the former even wiping his nose before embracing an elderly woman.

The Nicaraguan, Brazilian and Mexican presidents make an odd grouping since one (Bosonaro) is considered of the extreme populist right and the others (Ortega and AMLO) of the populist left. What unites them is good old-fashioned populism, a belief in a leader who represents the amorphous popular will and should be unfettered by checks and balances on his power, including something like… science.

An eclectic group

At the other extreme have been the quick responses by governments in Peru, Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Colombia which put quarantine measures in place in mid-March. In these cases, governments have even banned outdoor activities and in the case of Peru and Colombia (in the large cities) have imposed alternating days for when women and men can leave the house so as to better control outside movement.

This too, though, is an eclectic group. It includes a Peronist president Alberto Fernández in Argentina, conservative presidents Sebastian Piñera in Chile and Ivan Duque in Colombia, interim president and relative political neophyte Martin Vizcarra in Peru and outsider president Nayib Bukele in El Salvador.

El Salvador’s strict quarantine measures have led to rising concerns that Bukele is using the crisis to consolidate personal power, using the national police and the armed forces to enforce the quarantine and ignoring three rulings by the Supreme Court urging the president to end the abuses. In Argentina, Peronist Fernández has shown a surprising commitment to containment even as it hurts his party’s working-class base, not something typically expected of the populist Peronist Party.

In all of these cases, the quick, strong responses by the presidents shored up their popularity. Peru’s Vizcarra saw his popularity shoot up 35 points in a week to 82 per cent according to surveys taken in March. In late March 2020, Fernández in Argentina saw his approval ratings swell to 79.2 per cent with 94.7 percent of citizens approving of the government’s strict shelter-at-home policies. Even presidents Piñera and Duque who had struggled with low approval ratings throughout 2019 and saw those numbers sink even lower after the social protests that ended the year have seen their numbers rise.

According to an 20th April poll, Piñera’s popular approval rating swelled from 13 percent in March 18th at the start of the crisis to 25 per cent by 20th April; while hardly a sweeping popular mandate, even that level was unthinkable only a few months ago when administration was battered by social protests.

In Colombia, after a series of political missteps and the popular protests, Duque’s popular approval rating had slumped to 26 per cent; by April 2nd, 62 percent of Colombians supported the once-beleaguered president. (No recent surveys were available for Bukele in El Salvador.)

In contrast, Bolsonaro’s in Brazil has only nudged up. Before the crisis hit, the president’s popularity had been in steady decline from a high of 49 per cent in January 2019 to 30 per cent by early December 2019. But by the first week in April, in the midst of a crisis in which other presidents saw their approval ratings increase by double digits, after his public disagreements with the health minister, Bolsonaro’s had sunk to 33 per cent while the soon-to-be-fired Mandetta’s stood at 76 per cent.

AMLO in Mexico has fared no better. The populist leftist scored a high 86 per cent approval rating in February 1, 2019. By March 28, 2020 with concerns over his weak and flippant COVID-19 response and a severe contraction in economic growth, AMLO’s approval rating had sunk 26 points to 60 per cent and his disapproval stood at 37 per cent.

In the midst of disharmony, coordination

Despite these differences, many countries in the region have shown the solidarity they often speak of but rarely follow in policy or practice. Peru, Chile and other countries have collaborated in repatriating citizens back to their home countries in the midst of the crisis.

Even the countries of the Southern Cone common market, MERCOSUR, have pulled together on a number of fronts. The trade bloc had effectively been ruled a dead-man-walking after its failed efforts to integrate Venezuela into the bloc, lowering its standards to let in the petroleum dependent semi-authoritarian government of then President Hugo Chávez.

Even on the basics of internal cooperation, the block was struggling, unable to coordinate monetary policies and non-tariff trade barriers between the original founding member states, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The 35-year-old customs union seemed to get a breath a new life with the announcement that it had concluded 20-year-long negotiations with the EU for a free trade deal. Ratification of that deal, however, ran aground on the political differences between the recently elected governments of Bolsonaro in Brazil and the Peronist Fernández in Argentina.

Bolsonaro refused to attend the Fernández December 2019 inauguration, in protest of the newly elected president’s leftist leanings. And this was well before their sharply divergent reactions to the COVID-19 virus.

How surprising then that Mercosur has served as an effective coordination mechanism for these different and once opposed governments. The trade body is collaborating among member states to ensure the repatriation of citizens and has agreed to coordinate to ensure that trade flows, especially of medical supplies, are not interrupted by shutdown measures.

Mercosur has even gone one step further than several other bodies have failed to take. In early April the bloc’s governing body, based in Montevideo, Uruguay created a $16 million (12 million pound) fund to augment country research and assist in the purchase of supplies needed to combat the virus.

Now if Brazil, Argentina and the others could only coordinate their domestic coronavirus responses and economic policy. In late March Fernández announced he was pulling Argentina out of a possible Mercosur-EU trade deal.