Latin America’s Weak Democracies during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Latin America’s Weak Democracies during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Back in the 1970s, seventeen out of twenty countries in Latin America were ruled by authoritarian governments. Twenty years later, most of those countries have been lured away by the promise of equality and a sound democratic state, with the majority successfully keeping uninterrupted democratic governments over the past few decades. Nonetheless, this success does not translate into a strong system. There’s a fragility to democracy in Latin America, even decades after transitions. Only last year we saw protests in the region that lasted for months, with Bolivians protesting their then-president Evo Morales’ stay in power, Chileans protesting a metro fare hike, Ecuadoreans protesting the end of fuel subsidies, those in Colombia protesting the lack of opportunities, and a constitutional crisis driving growing concern in Peru. Once the pandemic hit Latin America, people’s discontent with their leaders grew and many countries saw corruption scandals emerge while the health crisis continued.  

One of the clearest takeaways from the 2019 wave of protests was how angry people were with their governments and their leaders. A poll given across the region in that same year showed that only 39% of the people were satisfied with how the democratic system was working in their country. There has also been an increase in tolerance for executive coups, as shown by the wide support for Peruvian President Vizcarra’s move to closing congress and call elections. Further, polls have also reported that the general citizen don’t have trust in their leaders, with trust in political parties falling to 13% and faith in the legislative system down to 21%. There seems to be growing discontent with both the system and the lack of opportunities and equality in Latin America as a whole. With people’s faith in democracy wavering, and fractures in the system becoming apparent, questioning the future of democracy in Latin America seems more relevant now than ever. 

Even though the region has been independent for a few centuries now, there are still vestiges of the old colonial system and institutions in the region. Most of these countries are centralized in the city, with a lack of development in rural areas and few opportunities for many to further their education or advance in a society that prioritizes the elite’s interests over that of the population. Nothing has become clearer with the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, there was a noticeable disparity between the privileged and the underprivileged. Even though the middle class in Latin America has grown considerably over the last few decades, the salary of the average CEO is paid about 28 times that of the average worker. While universities and cost of living have become more expensive, monthly wages have barely risen from above $300. After the pandemic hit Latin America, many lost their jobs, and the middle class has shrunk, with educational opportunities for young people stalling as governments have put classes online. In other regions, perhaps, this could have been a viable way to provide alternative forms of education, but in Latin America, many rural regions have poor access to the internet, and many kids don’t have access to a laptop. As a result, it has cut the chances for children or young adults to escape poverty. As reported in the New York Times, many university students have found themselves unable to afford their tuition fees, and have been forced to drop out in order to provide for their families under these trying circumstances. 

With many being asked to stay at home and unable to look for work, one would think the governments would implement relief programs to keep the economy running and support people unable to work. While many governments did offer some kind of relief money or package to their citizens, it was a very small amount, and only to those in the most precarious situations. Rather than appeal to the people’s collective conscience, many governments’ first step was to solidify military support before addressing their people, with generals behind them as they imposed new restrictions. 

While most Western countries didn’t entertain using the military to intimidate people from violating lockdown, it became the norm across Latin America. This show of strength echoes back to the 1970s, when the military had a prominent role in politics and many countries had military governments. Over the past year, the military has slowly but surely started to gain a more public role in Latin America again. 

Back in 2019, Peru’s former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski renounced the presidency before he was officially vacated. The transition of power was a fraught affair. It wasn’t until the then Vice President Vizccarra successfully obtained military backing that there was no further doubt regarding who would assume office. A few weeks later, it was the military’s backing that supported the interim government’s right to rule and caused Evo Morales to flee Bolivia. In Ecuador and Chile’s case, the military was called to contain protesters and stop the demonstrations. As the middle class in Latin America has grown, people have become better informed and more educated, which has caused the population to become aware of their countries’ corruption and the nepotism that rules the system. With protests becoming more common, and people’s discontent growing, corrupt leaders in Latin America are starting to rely more heavily on the military to cement their power and make sure uprisings do not occur. 

Latin American leaders’ reliance on their military to back their governments helps explain how corrupt leaders manage to maintain power in their countries and elude uprisings. If it weren’t for the military’s support, many governments would quickly fall apart. For instance, one might look at how the Bolivian military’s removal of their support for Morales’ quickly preceded his removal from power.  

What does this mean for the future of democracy in Latin America? 

With corruption scandals piling up, and continually weak democratic institutions, the dissatisfaction of Latin American people with their governments continues to grow. As job opportunities are limited further and the region’s economy keeps struggling, this discontent will only become larger. As we’ve seen with last year’s protests, Latin American people are tired of preserving a status quo that only benefits its own tiny elite and keeps taking opportunities away from the majority. Neoliberalism and the “laissez-faire” approach has reigned in Latin American governance for decades, but will the people keep electing leaders who do not support interventionism in years to come? Or might Latin America see the rise of leftist parties once again?

With the current political panorama and multiple elections coming up in the next two years, a radical change in the democratic system is not a far-fetched idea. However, whether or not this change will be for the better remains to be seen.

Edited by Helia Mokhber.

Featured image by Guido Coppa from Unsplash. No changes were made.

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