(This article is the last of a series of five that look into the consequences of the coronavirus crisis on Latin America).
Finding number five – Do not expect too much social responsibility
In the midst of this crisis, all Latin American governments except Nicaragua had taken preventive measures prior to the end of March 2020. Prevention was the best way to address the poor quality of health infrastructures and to compensate the incapacity of governments to give accurate answers to the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis led all countries to close their land borders and to suspend their flights; only Brazil, Mexico and Nicaragua kept some airline routes open. Many countries decreed quarantine, and almost all governments adopted economic and social emergency plans under the concept of “the state of exception”.
Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Salvador were the first to realize the importance of the challenges they were facing. They adopted a complete set of preventive measures: general quarantine, closure of borders and schools, and suspension of flights. These measures came together with the launching of specific programs to assist the many workers of the informal sector that had been weakened by the economic impact of the quarantine. Mario Alvares, Bishop of Colombia’s poorest region Choco, described the quarantine as “the equivalent of death (by starvation)” for this category of the population. Many other Latin American states followed by adopting similar measures: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay.
Due to a structural lack of means and a globally unfavorable conjuncture, governments needed to secure internal consensus and external support if they wanted to guarantee the success of their health and budgetary measures. Unfortunately, as of April 2020, many countries did not have these conditions guaranteed yet.
Internal consensus depends on several preconditions. In some cases, it was impossible to reach internal consensus because of issues that prevailed prior to the pandemic. The most prominent example is Venezuela. The fiercest opponents to the regime decided to make coronavirus part of their struggle. From the Spanish embassy in Caracas where he hides, Leopoldo López, leader of the right-wing party Voluntad Popular, considered that the best way to provide medical aid to Venezuelans was having president Nicolás Maduro stepping out of power. This approach was also adopted by Cubans exiled in the United States. In a similar way, the electoral, social, and partisan quarrels that were prevailing in Bolivia and Chile made it difficult to reach consensus on health issues. Other countries, such as Brazil and Nicaragua, faced serious internal disagreements because of the policies that were promoted by their governments. In Brazil, such discrepancies resulted in a very serious institutional crisis. President Bolsonaro adopted measures against some of his supporters who claimed his “irresponsibility”, although his decisions were censored by the judicial and the legislative powers as well as the majority of the State governors.
Many social and budgetary measures have been adopted to try and slow down the contagion. Some of the measures are to guarantee a minimum wage to the workers of the informal sector affected by the quarantine, to address the challenges concerning the repercussions of the recession and to avoid bankruptcy. Nonetheless, all of these measures ended up exceeding the financial capacities of Latin American states. Even before the health crisis, indebted Argentina and Ecuador had asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to postpone, facilitate or reschedule the reimbursement of their loans. In addition, because of the pandemic, Colombia asked the IMF to grant it an exceptional loan of 11 billion dollars.
Although European countries are deeply affected by this health crisis and facing tremendous difficulties, they are still willing to help their Southern neighbors in Africa and the Middle East. The Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called for solidarity and the lifting of sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela. On the 31st of March 2020, the United States, who applies these sanctions unilaterally, conditioned its approval to the early organization of free and transparent elections in Venezuela without the participation of Nicolás Maduro; the Venezuelan President had been charged with drug trafficking by the United States five days before. Besides, on the 4th of April, in a coordinated move against Cuba and Venezuela, the United States announced sea and air military exercises as a way to combat drug trafficking and its contribution to the spread of the coronavirus, according to the White House statement. Mauricio Claver Carone, an expert of Latin America and the Director of the National Security Council Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, backed this decision as he was speaking on one of the TV channels of Florida, a state that is key to presidential elections and where many communities of Cuban and Venezuelan origin with dual citizenship live.
On the other hand, as President Trump was engaged in his Crusade to identify scapegoats, he also threatened repeatedly the World Health Organization (WHO). Within this framework, could China potentially lodge an appeal? China has been the first country to deal with this crisis and its effects, and it may not have the necessary means that would allow it to step in and take over the financial role of the United States and the European Union. That being said, it is also true that the Chinese private company AliBaba donated a total of 2 million face masks, 104 respirators and 400,000 coronavirus test kits to various Latin American countries. Also, Mexico placed an order for respirators and face masks sold by China. Beijing could also complete its traditional offer of financial loans by also granting agricultural, energy, and mineral primary products, as it did with Ecuador. Nonetheless, a part of the ruling elite of Brazil rejects China’s cooperation and trade relations. Some even criticized China publicly and awkwardly like President Bolsonaro’s sons and the Brazilian minister of Education.
The future is uncertain. The lack of solid health infrastructure, the socioeconomic challenges, the quarrels that prevail within the power structures, and the delays in taking decisions will allow the pandemic to further expand. Since Latin American States were already facing difficulties before COVID-19, the measures that they adopted will most likely destabilize their economies on a large scale. Nevertheless, China ironically should be able to get back on track following the coronavirus shock thanks to the resumption of its industrial activities and the selling of its raw materials in Latin America, where most countries happen to be its first or second commercial partner.
The real winners of this situation of global emergency are the States that responded to the crisis by relying on themselves. Mexico, for example, slammed the door of OPEC as a sign of protest against a Saudi-Russian agreement centered on the decrease of oil production as a way to increase the average price of the oil barrel. The United States took the Mexican quota for itself. Donald Trump and Andrés Manuel López Obrador had negotiated together this rather unusual agreement.
To compensate the negative impact of the coronavirus crisis on the income generated by tourism, Cuba decided to go and conquest international medical markets. This decision had two advantages: first, it allowed vital foreign currencies to enter the country; second, owing to persistent American warnings against countries that deal with Cuba, Habana benefited from showing solidarity to countries that needed more health workers to face the epidemic. Since the beginning of the health crisis, entire teams of Cuban doctors have been sent to Andorra, Angola, most of the Caribbean states, Lombardy in Italy as well as to the territories of the Overseas France (Guadeloupe, Guyana, Martinique, Saint-Pierre et Miquelon).
Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky is a researcher on the Iberic world at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). He is also the director of the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.
This article first appeared in French on the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: J-J. Kourliandsky (2020). “Latin America, COVID-19, and the impossible quest for a consensus”, Observatory on contemporary crises, May 25, 2020, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/latin-america-covid-19-and-the-impossible-quest-for-a-consensus-j-j-kourliandsky/
This article is part of a series of five that look into the consequences of the coronavirus crisis on Latin America. To read the other articles: