The deep impact of COVID-19 on Latin America –J-J.Kourliandsky

Latin America is a “deconstructed” continent where many examples of internal fragmentation and interstate antagonisms still prevail. This is due in great part to COVID-19 and its consequences on people. The pandemic has reopened wounds that have long been around.

The pandemic and its political impact
The pandemic has brought challenges to an already difficult state of play. Latin America is one of the regions of the world where societies and governments have failed to respond effectively to these challenges. Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Ecuador have been the most affected by the social and economic consequences of the current crisis. Data shows that in these countries, the number of deaths is among the highest in Latin America, unemployment is increasing, and poverty and the informal sector are on the rise. Meanwhile economic growth, internal consumption, and exports keep going down. Many countries suffered further precarity with COVID-19 and its repercussions. Their inability and/or their disinterest in trying to give an answer to preexisting socioeconomic challenges weakened them further and made things worse. A best-case scenario would have sent electors to the polls to sanction rulers. People have chosen instead to go to the streets to protest, as seen in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador at the end of 2019, and more recently in Guatemala and Peru.
Others have decided to seek better prospects in other countries, like the hundreds of thousands of migrants that have fled Venezuela and Central America. But more worrying is the fact that many leaders do not hesitate to manipulate rules and institutions in order to avoid both losing elections and being held accountable for the way they have managed the situation. This rather general phenomenon prevails in the case of presidents from the right (Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Salvador) and from the left (Nicaragua, Venezuela) alike.
So far, the international context has not provided any opportunity to counter this democratic drift. In fact, it has been the contrary. In 2017, conservative leaders driven by their own anxiety rather than by their sense of political duty created the Lima Group. This “Holy Alliance,” a sort of network of ultra-liberal collectives, aimed to overthrow regional leaders that believed in state regulation. The Venezuelan government was one of their main targets, but it reacted in a way that was rather telling: Caracas made it impossible for any political alternative to emerge. It politicized the judicial power, modified the electoral code, and gave legislative powers to a parliament that was submitted to its will, in effect taking over the opponents of the “National Assembly” that had been elected in 2015.

The quest for foreign backers
In reality, all of Latin America’s main ideological families sought to find powerful foreign backers. The Lima Group was praised by Donald Trump at a moment when the former American president wanted to have the upper hand in Latin America at any cost. The American leader made full use of his commercial, economic, and financial means with this objective in mind. Trump justified his actions by demonizing his Latin American rivals, calling them communists, Chavists, Castro-Chavists, and/or socialists. This state of play encouraged Latin America’s conservative leaders to undertake various initiatives. Among these, were calling the Venezuelan military to rise against their government, trying to cross Venezuela’s borders, recognizing opponent Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s Chief of State, or even dismantling the multilateral diplomatic frameworks that prevail on the continent (be it the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), or with the Union of South American Nations (USAN)). These steps were encouraged by the United States and were backed by a group of European countries (such as Germany, Spain, France, and the UK) that had agreed to follow in the footsteps of Washington.
Venezuela and Cuba reacted by opening up to more cooperation with America’s main technological and commercial rivals, China and Russia. Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela took strong initiatives in this direction: month after month, they increasingly engaged with Moscow and Beijing at the energy, economic, financial, technological, and even sometimes at the military level. They ended up being fully part of an “East vs West” arm wrestling. The difference with the Cold War was that these countries were now left without a choice; adopting this specific bias was a matter of survival for them.

The way forward
Those drifts and the threats they bring on the democratic order and the idea of a peaceful inter-American coexistence are very worrying, though things can also always move in back in the opposite direction. The end of the Trump era could now pave the way for a more positive context in Latin America, be it at the domestic and national level, or for what relates to interstate relations. Under Barack Obama’s presidency, things seemed to be moving in a positive direction: Washington and La Habana had normalized their relations, Obama had backed peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, and the Organization of American States had been renewed in its composition. It is worth noting that at that time, Joe Biden was the vice president.
Diplomacy is now moving forward. Despite France’s ambiguous attitude, Germany and the European Union ended up taking some distance with the Trump Administration. Juan Guaidó is no longer considered the president of Venezuela. In Latin America, the new leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico suspended any active participation in the activities of the Lima Group. The Mexican president reminded everybody that if they were determined to comfort the principles of collective peace and democracy, they had to stick then by the principle of non-interference and to show more respect towards the notion of sovereignty.
This renewed context may help guarantee more peaceful relations between the US and Latin America. The road map for such a new era was defined a long time ago by a great number of observers of Latin America. For example, in 2015, Argentinian experts Mario Rapoport and María Cecilia Miguez wrote the following: “It is essential to build a(…) national and regional framework that would favor greater economic independence, non-interference and a pacific settlement of conflicts and reject hegemony at the same time. As they move forward, societies will benefit from equity thanks to a fair combination of growth and distribution of wealth, with the objective of reinforcing representative democracy”.

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 is the adapted translation of a version published previously in French.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:J-J. Kourliandsky (2021), “The deep impact of COVID-19 on Latin America”,

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