Latin America, COVID-19, and the art of political manipulation – J-J. Kourliandsky

(This article is the fourth of a series of five that look into the consequences of the coronavirus crisis on Latin America).

Finding number four – A twofold dodge to the health crisis

Many politicians have chosen to react to the coronavirus crisis by denying it

When it comes to public expenditure in Latin America, governments tend to have limited margins for maneuvering. Challenges brought by social questions and the quality of hospitals are so big that addressing them accurately would need a financial response that some politicians have deemed too high.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is one of those leaders that underestimated the seriousness of COVID-19. On the 15th of March, he declared that coronavirus was nothing more than “a 24-hour flu”, “a measly cold”; in his own words, “there is no reason to enter into a neurosis, sooner or later everybody is going to be sick, it is not the end of the world”. In practice, Bolsonaro participated in several public events, shaking hands with people working in the streets as TV cameras were filming.

At the beginning of the crisis, his Mexican counterpart, Andres Manuel López Obrador, followed a similar path: he encouraged people to keep going to cafes and restaurants, and he mingled with the crowd while being broadcasted live.

Some chiefs of state, such as Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, adopted minimal measures to guarantee economic sustainability, but in a less pretentious manner.

Others, such as Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega, literally disappeared from the public eye, without taking any measure to protect the population.

As if denial was not enough, some of these leaders also chose to rely on spiritual methods with the advantage of depending on ancestral collective beliefs without pressuring the treasury coffers. In Costa Rica for example, public authorities provided a helicopter to the Catholic church; the aircraft then flew over the country having on board a very unusual passenger: Our Lady of the Angels, who had been taken out of the sanctuary of Cartago especially for the occasion. In Nicaragua, on the 14th of March, president Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo encouraged the population to participate in a march called “Love in times of coronavirus”. Further North, in Mexico, on the 19th of March, president Andres Manuel López Obrador started his press conference by showing off a collection of religious medals that, according to him, “stopped the enemy, because Jesus is with me”. In South America, on the 26th of March 2020, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro published a decree that stated that churches and temples provided essential services, and therefore had to remain open.

The pandemic has been used for political and/or religious purposes

Some leaders saw in this crisis a political opportunity.

In Bolivia, the government suffers problems of legitimacy, but because of COVID-19, the presidential elections have been postponed. This way, it could keep pressuring anti-governmental activists as well as the opponents to a decree on health emergency that allows the arrestation of its critics.

In Chile, because of the pandemic, social movements had to put their activities on hold while the campaign for a referendum on the creation of a constituent assembly was also suspended. Then, on the 4th of April 2020, president Sebastian Piñera was filmed and photographed on “Plaza Italia”, a square that he could not access between October 2019 and March 2020 because of the anti-governmental protests.

Many politicians have been able to seize the opportunity of the current context to serve their own interests. In Bolivia, the party of former president Evo Morales, the Movement for Socialism, asked the Cuban embassy to bring aid and a medical delegation to the country. This demand was formulated while Bolivia was in a presidential campaign, casting doubt on whether its real aim was to secure medical help for Bolivians.

In Colombia, the lockdown gave some criminal gangs an opportunity. The leaders of the social movements that focus on the rights of the indigenous and the little peasants were killed in their own homes by those that opposed the Colombian Peace Process.

Lastly, some of the religious representatives suggested reading the pandemic through an apocalyptical lens. In Mexico, the bishop of Cuernavaca stated that God was punishing the population because it had allowed the passing of pro-abortion laws and dispositions that call into question family and its structuration.

Elsewhere, such as in Brazil, Pentecostal Evangelists saw the hand of Satan behind COVID-19, as rendered clear with a statement made on the 22nd of March 2020 by Edir Macedo, the “bishop” of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

In Chile, evangelical churches used social networks to encourage people to cut short their lockdown. Their message has been understood and even relayed by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and by Daniel Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, in Nicaragua. On the 4th of April, Jair Bolsonaro met with a delegation of shepherds, and he decided that the day of the 6th of April would be dedicated to “fasting and praying”. In Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo encouraged the population to “keep walking with the strength of faith” (To be followed).

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 art of political manipulation”, Observatory on contemporary crises, May 20, 2020, URL:

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:

How did the coronavirus reach Latin America? – J-J. Kourliandsky

Latin America, COVID-19, and the economy – J-J. Kourliandsky

From COVID-19 to Latin America’s inequalities – J-J. Kourliandsky

Latin America, COVID-19, and the art of political manipulation – J-J. Kourliandsky

Latin America, COVID-19, and the impossible quest for a consensus – J-J. Kourliandsky


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