Covid-19 threatens to shake democracy around Latin America

. Apr 20, 2020
Pro democracy demonstrators in Tarija, Bolivia. Photo: Charles Bingaman/Shutterstock Pro-democracy demonstrators in Tarija, Bolivia. Photo: Charles Bingaman/Shutterstock

On Sunday, April 19, Brazil celebrated Armed Forces Day. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro organized motorcades in cities across the nation, defending their embattled head of state and praising the military. Some even pleaded for “intervention” from the Armed Forces, asking for a repeat of a notorious decree from the 1964-1985 military dictatorship which dissolved Congress, suspended constitutional rights, and led to the institutionalization of the state-sponsored torture of the regime’s opponents.

As if in blatant disregard for the democracy that elected him president in 2018, Jair Bolsonaro decided to join one of the quasi-putschist rallies, delivering a short speech atop a pickup truck, declaring that it was “time for people to take power” and that there would be “no negotiation” with Congress. 

</p> <p>With the International Monetary Fund predicting The Great Lockdown will thrust Latin America into a <a href="">near-unprecedented economic crisis</a>, there are concerns about political stability in a region where not all democracies are created equally.</p> <p>According to <em>The Economist</em>’s <a href=";mode=wp&amp;campaignid=democracyindex2019">2019 Democracy Index</a>, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica were the only two Latin American countries considered &#8220;full democracies.&#8221; Meanwhile, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina straddled the cut-off between &#8220;flawed democracies&#8221; and &#8220;hybrid regimes.&#8221; With the social and economic unrest created by The Great Lockdown, these systems tend to become even more fragile.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-2219606"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The right to vote</h2> <p>Among the defining pillars of democracy is free, fair, and regular elections. Here, the Covid-19 will have an unavoidable impact. Numerous countries across the region had scheduled elections for this year and there is every possibility they will all be postponed.</p> <p>In Chile, the electorate was set to go to the polls this month to decide on launching a new Constituent Assembly. A result of the chaotic <a href="">wave of protests and police violence</a> in 2019 that nearly led to the downfall of President Sebastián Piñera, the crucial vote has now been pushed back to October.</p> <p>Elsewhere, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay all have municipal elections to contend with. In Bolivia and the Dominican Republic, however, there are presidential matters to solve.&nbsp;</p> <p>Bolivian politics is in complete disarray ever since former President Evo Morales was &#8220;convinced to step down&#8221; in a military coup, leaving opposition senator Jeanine Áñez to declare herself the interim president. General elections had been planned for April 3, but have been suspended with no indication of when they will take place.</p> <p>In the Dominican Republic, municipal elections went ahead in March, just as the region was beginning to isolate at home with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. The subsequent presidential elections were pushed back to July 5, but even that date seems unlikely.&nbsp;</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1958731"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Democracy takes a back seat</h2> <p>According to political science professor José Álvaro Moisés, the existence of a new priority for both institutions and public opinion — as made clear by the suspension of courts and delaying elections — could damage democracies in Latin America. He told <strong>The Brazilian Report </strong>that &#8220;the attention of leaders and the public may be diverted&#8221; due to economic recession and the Covid-19 pandemic.</p> <p>The expert pointed out that the existence of stable democracies depends on democratic and republican leadership, something which comes at a premium in Latin America, with its history of coups, dictatorships, and personal power projects. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the responsibility of two leaders has been put in the spotlight: Brazil&#8217;s Jair Bolsonaro, and Nicaraguan President <a href="">Daniel Ortega</a>.</p> <iframe title="Democracy Index 2019" aria-label="Latin America choropleth map" id="datawrapper-chart-N6gYq" src="//" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" style="width: 0; min-width: 100% !important; border: none;" height="527"></iframe><script type="text/javascript">!function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}})}(); </script> <p>On April 15, Mr. Ortega made his first public appearance after 34 days, amid rumors that he had in fact died. Addressing the nation, the Sandinista leader-turned-president said that Covid-19 &#8220;only killed one person&#8221; and suggested the pandemic is “one of God’s punishments” and that his country is prepared to face the outbreak.</p> <p>In Latin America, financial woes are usually followed by <a href="">social revolt</a>. With all signs pointing to one of the worst economic downturns in the region&#8217;s history, and public protests dissuaded during the coronavirus pandemic, Latin America&#8217;s democracies must brace themselves for a long, turbulent, and unprecedented period of unrest.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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