As hard as the economic restrictions are in the U.S. due to the pandemic outbreak, other countries are facing even more severe measures. While the U.S. has issued stay-at-home orders, for example, other countries have opted for more extreme quarantines. Want to go for a short walk to stretch your legs, get some vitamin D, and some fresh air? Better head to the grocery store. Otherwise, you may find yourself with a big fine–or, even worse, in jail. In some cities you need a special permit to walk the streets.
We should expect that, as the pandemic recedes, economies will return to a new normal situation. Some countries will recover faster. Other countries will recover slowly. In Latin America, a grim future almost certainly awaits. That is, in part, because of the virus, which seems likely to get worse in the coming months But it is also because of the policy decision being made. There are a few reasons for this.
Latin America is moving towards winter, when the virus is expected to become more prevalent. That is made all the worse if seasonal differences are not well appreciated. With countries in the Northern Hemisphere like the U.S. beginning to relax their economic and social restrictions as they head into the summer, there will be pressure in Latin American countries to do likewise. But, for countries in the Southern Hemisphere, the timing could not be worse.
Additionally, many Latin American countries have poor infrastructure. Many lack the medical equipment in hospitals to care for COVID-19 patients. Years of populist policies fostered overconsumption, crowding out necessary investments. And the heavy debt burdens many Latin American countries face make increasing investment now especially difficult. The temptation to double down on populist policies will be difficult to avoid.
The weak institutional framework common throughout the region presents a new opportunity for populist and authoritarian regimes to rise as the saviors of the “neoliberal virus.” Despite originating in China, many in Latin America see the virus as a failure of capitalism. The fact that capitalist countries are well on their way to developing a vaccine has done little to dissuade the anti-neoliberals.
Legislatures in some Latin American countries have struggled to adapt to the pandemic. According to the Directorio Legislativo Foundation, six Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras, Panama and Peru) were still working to modify their respective regulations and develop platforms for deliberation and remote voting in late April. In the meantime, presidents have gained much power. In some cases, presidents are essentially legislating and then executing their own orders.
Some will no doubt push back, claiming that strong executive powers are justified in an emergency. But it is the presidents who will decide when the state of emergency ends. That is a very dangerous setting for a region with a long history of political instability.
No country gets to choose when a pandemic occurs. But they do get to choose how they deal with such events. Latin American countries are, by and large, unprepared for such calamities. And Latin American leaders seem at least as likely to bolster their own power, while repressing basic liberties, as they are to mitigate the deleterious effects of the disease.