While much of the United States is experiencing spikes in the numbers of coronavirus cases, the pandemic is also devastating countries in Latin America. Outbreaks in some of the region may be worse than those seen in countries such as Italy and Spain. Countries that had functional health systems are now seeing those systems pushed to the edge of their capabilities, and virtually the entire region faces a pandemic-induced recession.
If the relationships between the United States and its Latin American neighbors were intact, it would be difficult to envision this situation occurring without some form of material aid and mutual support emerging as a result. But Washington has deprioritized its relationships in Latin America in favor of concentrating on threats in the Middle East and East Asia, saving an occasional nod to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. This was a damaging posture well before the pandemic struck.
The question is not one of Washington’s ability to alleviate the damage the new coronavirus is doing to Latin America, but rather one of political will. Last month, the New York Times reported that the State Department and USAID had failed to spend 75% of aid that had been approved by the U.S. Congress to alleviate the impact of the virus abroad. Of the aid that was spent, that which was reserved for personal protective equipment was limited.
Not that the U.S. domestic response to the pandemic is a model to be imitated. It would be an understatement to say that the administration’s approach to containing the coronavirus at home has been flawed and ineffective. This stands in contrast to its traditional liberal democratic peers, such as Canada, New Zealand and the European Union, but is very much in line with countries whose leaders have been categorized as authoritarian or semi-authoritarian.
It has been noted that countries with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leadership are more likely to become COVID-19 hotspots for longer amounts of time than their liberal-democratic counterparts. The New York Times also highlighted the difficulty of curbing the virus in “illiberal populist” governments, putting the United States, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom on the same list of countries “run by populist male leaders who cast themselves as anti-elite and anti-establishment.”
The same pattern rings true in Latin America: Authoritarian leadership is one of the clearest deciding factors of any country's approach to COVID-19. As in Europe, Trump’s election seemed to set a trend away from a liberal trajectory and favoring the emergence of populist candidates with varying authoritarian tendencies.
Brazil and Mexico are the most striking examples of this. Each of their presidents, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, in Mexico, was elected on a populist platform, and each has neglected the virus’s danger since it exploded into a global pandemic.
Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, downplayed the severity of the virus, attended anti-lockdown protests, and assured the public that his athletic physique would protect him from contracting it before he tested positive for the coronavirus this month. He took no action to prevent the virus from spreading, leaving states to flatten the curve, as in the United States. Over 65,000 Brazilians have now officially died, but it is likely that many more deaths remain uncounted.
AMLO, a left-wing populist, similarly downplayed the coronavirus in Mexico, first insisting it was “not serious.” Mexico’s federal government provided little structure for confronting the virus. At one point, hospitals in Mexico City began cataloguing deaths from COVID-19 one-by-one, and the resulting number was significantly higher than the official figure the local and national governments published for the capital city. In May, AMLO claimed to have “tamed” the virus, and pushed for Mexico to reopen its economy. Since then, the death toll has only climbed further.
This phenomenon is not restricted to the most obvious cases of populist leadership in the region. Chile, which has a president from the right, hastily reopened its economy and saw cases sharply increase.
The other deciding factor on the impact of COVID-19 in Latin American countries is social and economic inequality. Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, or ECLAC. Compounding the pandemic scenario is an upward trend for poverty rates since 2015. Last year, ECLAC released a report projecting that the number of people in the region living below the poverty line would rise from 185 million people in 2018 to 191 million in 2019.
The inconsistency of documented deaths in the region, which can often be attributed to urban and rural poverty, makes the total number of deaths frustratingly impossible to know for sure. Venezuela is a case in point. Amid a humanitarian crisis nearly a decade old, the obscurity in which many people are certainly dying of the coronavirus leaves room for the imagination to run wild. Likewise, Venezuela is ruled by a similarly illiberal populist -- one who has left his own people to face the coronavirus without a health system.
An effective response from the United States would depend on the government’s willingness to implement aid among existing structural fault lines, and to engage with countries and organizations in Latin America to alleviate inequities to medical care and other basic needs. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the current administration would suddenly commit to substantial aid and distribute it in a purposeful way that would create a better outcome.
When and if Washington’s relationships with its allies and neighbors ever return to normal, the most positive change the United States could make to its own strategy would be to address its own history in the region of destabilizing governments and economies. Washington should fully participate in regional and international efforts to curb the growth of inequality, so that governments are able to reliably flatten the curve when and if another health crisis strikes.
Sarah White is a research associate at the Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.