ELEVEN: Latin America: Politics in Times of COVID-19

This chapter analyses the actions taken by political stakeholders – presidents, state powers, opposition, political and social actors – in the face of the COVID-19 health crises in 18 Latin American countries. To do so, we study the actors in charge of communicating the outbreak of the pandemic and analyse the type of discourse they used. Then we explain which institutions undertook leadership in the crisis, highlighting the relevance almost always acquired by presidents and the secondary role played by the legislative and judicial powers. Thirdly, we discuss the role played by other political and social actors. Finally, we note the impact that the COVID-19 health crisis has had on the region’s democracies, emanating from the dynamics of the concentration of power in the executive and based on the results of elections held since September 2020.

The aim of this chapter is to outline the response of institutions and social and political actors of the countries of Latin America to the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the pandemic on democracy is also analysed in the knowledge that decisions taken during the pandemic may have been similar to those that triggered the stock market crash of 1929, the 1973 oil crisis and the 1982 debt crisis. We have based this research on the assumption that the health crisis has represented a crucial turning point insofar as it has generated a situation of uncertainty in which the response of the most relevant political, social and economic actors in each country has been key in determining subsequent political and institutional development. The literature (Mahoney, 2000; Alcántara, 2020a) claims that this situation has entailed new social realignments and political coalitions, economic decision-making that is different from what was previously implemented as well as different wars of ideas – all of which signal the beginning of a new era.

In this respect, the health crisis that began in Wuhan, China, as a result of the outbreak of a new type of virus (COVID-19) at the end of 2019 has led to a situation of crisis in most countries around the world. In response to the pandemic, governments in almost every country worldwide have established containment measures and suspended social and economic activities, as well as closing borders. But over and above the health emergency, the crisis has revealed multiple structural limitations of a different nature, as well as the demagoguery of a considerable number of political authorities.

This scenario has also played out in Latin America, where, although the pandemic arrived a month later (see Table 11.1 for the key dates of the pandemic in the region), its after-effects were more devastating than in any other region of the world. As of 20 April 2022, in absolute terms, Brazil was third in the world (after the United States and India) in terms of number of infections and the second in deaths (30,279,270 and 662,266, respectively), with Mexico having the fifth highest number of deaths (323,973) and Peru the sixth highest (212,676) worldwide.1

Table 11.1:

COVID-19 key dates and number of deaths in Latin America

Country Date of first case in 2020 Date of first death in 2020 Date of first ‘Suspension of Guarantees’ in 2020 Number of deaths per million inhabitants *
Argentina 3 March 7 March 19 March 2.285
Bolivia 10 March 28 March 21 March 1.901
Brazil 26 February 18 March Not implemented 3.131
Chile 3 March 20 March 18 March 2,998
Colombia 6 March 16 March 17 March 2.774
Costa Rica 6 March 18 March 16 March 1.649
Cuba 11 March 18 March Not implemented 751
Ecuador 29 February 13 March 16 March 2.040
El Salvador 18 March 31 March 14 March 638
Guatemala 13 March 15 March 6 March 1.044
Honduras 11 March 27 March 16 March 1.116
Mexico 27 February 18 March Not implemented 2.534
Nicaragua 18 March 26 March Not implemented 35
Panama 9 March 10 March 13 March 1.924
Paraguay 7 March 20 March 16 March 2.658
Peru 6 March 19 March 15 March 6.533
Dominican Republic 22 February 16 March 20 March 407
Uruguay 13 March 28 March Not implemented 2.072
Venezuela 13 March 26 March 17 March 199
Source: Martí and Alcántara (2020: 13) and worldmeter.info/coronavirus

* Data from 7 April 2022. Data from some countries (notably Nicaragua and Venezuela) are inconsistent with reality.

Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants

The health crisis in Latin America came at a difficult moment for the economy and society. In 2019, the economy was deteriorating, and growth forecasts were only modest. After starting the 21st century with a long decade of growth (from 2000 to 2012), referred to as the commodities boom, this cycle ran out of steam, and with the fall in tax revenues, many anti-poverty policies were ended when they were most needed.

The response to the crisis: the reaction of governments, political and social actors

There has been considerable variability in the response to the COVID-19 health crisis among governments, political and social actors in each of the countries. Reactions have varied according to timelines, strategic decision-making, constructed narratives, the capacity and willingness to promote public policies and the objectives of each government.

With a view to analysing governmental responses, in this section we have classified the actors that first ‘communicated’ the outbreak of the health crisis and how it was being managed, the type of discourse they constructed, whether they maintained the same discourse throughout the crisis and the type of media used to deliver their messages. This is followed by a discussion of the institutions and actors’ that assumed leadership in the crisis, noting the relevance of the head of state, the prime minister (or similar position if there is one) and the legislative or judicial authority. Thirdly, the role of political and social actors in the crisis is highlighted, be they the opposition, the media, organized civil society or community initiatives. Finally, based on this discussion, some tentative conclusions will be offered in the final section, reflecting on the impact of the crisis on the state of the region’s democracies.

Who communicated with the public and how?

As mentioned, the first thing to establish are the actors who communicated the outbreak of the virus and measures to manage the health crisis, the type of discourse they adopted and the channels used to convey the information. In this context, it should be noted that all governments have operated in a situation of confusion, improvisation and a rapid depletion of available resources.

As a result, in the first few weeks of the pandemic a sense of fear was generated, which governments had to counteract by means of communication policies aimed at reassuring citizens. Table 11.2 shows how governments fared in the area of communications.

Table 11.2:

Government communications in response to the COVID-19 crisis

Country The President was responsible for communicating with the public Presence of another major actor War/religious discourse Strategy maintained Preferred media

(TV, radio, networks)
Argentina Yes Head of government,

Minister of Health,

Minister of Interior

No Yes, regarding COVID

First integrative, then cracks appeared
TV and networks
Bolivia Sometimes Head of government,

Health Minister Others
War/religious Yes

President campaigning for elections
Public TV
Brazil Yes No Religious Yes – denial

Two health ministers resigned
Social networks
Chile Sometimes Health Minister

War/religious Yes

Two different health ministers
Columbia Yes Health Minister

Minister for Social Protection

No Yes TV, Radio and networks
Costa Rica Sometimes Health Minister

No Yes TV and public radio and social networks
Ecuador No Vice-President

Government ministers

Health Minister

War/religious Erratic TV, Radio and networks
El Salvador Yes Some ministers Armed Forces Religious Yes TV, press and networks
Guatemala Yes Health Minister

Religious Erratic

Change in health minister
TV, Radio and networks
Honduras Yes National Risk Management System (SINAGER)

Religious/war Yes TV, Radio and networks
Mexico No Under-Secretary for Health No Yes TV, Radio and networks
Nicaragua No Vice-President

No Yes – denial Public media linked to the government
Panama Yes Health Minister

Religious/war Yes TV, Radio and networks
Paraguay Sometimes Ministers War Yes TV, Radio and networks
Peru Yes Ministers

Armed Forces

War Yes, first consensus, then not TV, Radio and networks
DominicanRepublic Sometimes Minister to the Presidency, Health Minister, Candidate to the presidency Religious Yes, first consensus, then not TV, Radio and networks
Uruguay Yes Secretary to the President and Others No Yes, first consensus, then not TV, Radio and networks
Venezuela Official: Yes

Acting president: Yes
Official: Vice President and Minister for Communications

Acting President: Technical experts
Official president:


Acting president: No
Official: Yes

Acting: Yes

TV, Radio and networks

Acting: networks
Source: Martí and Alcántara (2020: 372–3).

Table 11.2 shows how, in all cases, the president appealed to and asserted the ‘nation’ with a strong emotional content. All the heads of states embraced their national flag in an attempt to close ranks in the face of an unknown and invisible enemy coming from outside. Only in this way can the patriotic rhetoric deployed with reference to ‘unity’ be understood. However, this does not mean that all presidents have been equally active in the media. It is true that most have taken centre stage, and the fact that some of them were infected with the virus has added to the emotion of their media appearances.

Exceptionally, however, in some countries, presidents have delegated communications to other political figures. In others, heads of state have only occasionally made an appearance because of their provisional status or because of the weight acquired by other government figures (vice-presidents, ministers of health, government and social protection), technical staff (epidemiologists, health managers, economists) or members of the armed forces. In this sense, including military personnel in the mise-en-scène was consistent with the construction of a patriotic discourse to which a military and, in some cases, religious discourse was added in many of the countries.

Which institution has taken the leadership role?

Once identified as communication policy, it is important to indicate which institutions and actors have assumed leadership in the crisis, noting the relevance (or not) of the head of state, the prime minister (or similar position if there is one) and the legislative or judicial authority. In order to reflect on political leadership, it is worth noting the (high, medium or low) intensity of the level of activism deployed by the president of the republic, the executive, the legislative authorities and the judiciary in each country. This task is summarized in Table 11.3.

Table 11.3:

Institutional leadership during the COVID-19 crisis

Country Activism/ President of the Republic Activism/


legislative authority

Positive image of the President (%)*
Argentina High High Medium (online) Low 67
Bolivia Medium Medium Medium

Rule by decree
Low 58
Brazil High High High High

Chile High High High Low 23
Columbia High High Low Low 52
Costa Rica Low High Medium Low 50
Ecuador Low High Medium Medium 16
El Salvador High High High High 91
Guatemala High High Medium Low 64
Honduras High High Medium Low 49
Mexico Medium High Low Low 50
Nicaragua Low Medium Low Low 30
Panama Medium High Medium Low 40
Paraguay High High Medium Low 63
Peru High High Low Low 66
DominicanRepublic Low High Medium Medium

Central Election Board
Uruguay High High Medium Low 61
Venezuela High High Low -AN Pro-government

High -AN Opposition
Low 13

*The data on the presidential image are from the Legislative Directory. See: https://directoriolegislativo.org/en/informes/report-on-presidential-approval-ratings-may-jun-2020/ (Accessed 15 July 2022).

Source: Martí and Alcántara (2020: 374).

From the data shown in Table 11.3, a recurring theme emerges: the central role of the executive, both of the head of state and of their governments. It could hardly be otherwise given the presidential nature of the region’s political systems. This is reflected in the fact that presidential activism was high in almost all countries, with few exceptions. But besides the role of the president, it is worth noting that government involvement was also high, with the exceptions of Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Another very different matter is the role played by the legislative authorities or the judiciary, which was generally of medium or low intensity. Only in four countries did the legislative authority play an intense role, namely in Brazil and El Salvador, to counter the hyper-leadership of their presidents – in the case of Uruguay, due to a solid opposition and in the case of the Chilean Chamber of Deputies due to existing social mobilization. But even more lax than the legislative authority was the judiciary, which was only active in El Salvador in order to keep President Nayib Bukele in check, and in Brazil where it acted as an arbiter between institutions.

It is clear from the foregoing that the executive’s involvement has been overwhelming in relation to the rest of the authorities and actors. The virtual elimination of press conferences with unscripted questions, the permanent use of direct presidential and governmental briefings to the nation and the quest to promote a presidential image have been instruments in constant use.

Has anyone objected?

After pointing out the actions taken by the authorities, it is also necessary to highlight the role played by political and social actors in the crisis, be it the opposition, the media, organized civil society or community initiatives. The positioning of actors that have supported or challenged governments, such as opposition parties, civil society, private media and community networks, also needs to be discussed. In order to assess this, Table 11.4 has been constructed to provide an overview of the level of involvement of opposition forces, the private media, social and community networks.

Table 11.4:

Level of involvement of political and social actors in the COVID-19 crisis

Country Role of opposition parties Role of private media Role of civil society organizations Community initiatives
ARG High High Medium High
BOL High Mayors, Department heads High in favour High


Mutual aid networks
BRA High Medium polarized Medium Medium
CHI Low Medium in favour High Medical Association Medium
COL Medium Medium in favour Medium Medium
CRC Medium consensus Medium Medium Medium
ECU Medium opposition Medium critical High conflict Medium
ES Medium Medium critical High Medium
GUA Medium Medium Low Low
HND Low Medium in favour Medium Low
MEX Medium Medium critical Medium Medium
NIC Medium High critical High High
PAN Low High Low Low
PGY Medium High Medium High
PE Low High Low Medium
RD High

Campaigning for elections
Medium High Low
UY Medium High High Medium
VZ High High opposition High High
Source: Martí and Alcántara, 2020: 378.

For a democracy to function effectively, it is important that opposition parties and the media play their part. In periods of crisis, these actors can play either an oppositional or consensus-building role and, depending on the strategy adopted, one can see how the political arena works in each country. The data shown in Table 11.4 indicate that during the COVID-19 crisis there have been countries in which the opposition – following the first few weeks after the outbreak of the pandemic – opted for consensus and support for the government, and others in which it maintained a strategy of confrontation, continuing with the previous dynamics that this crisis has only served to reinforce.

However, political opposition to the governments was not only experienced by the parties represented in the legislature but was often manifested from the territorial power. In countries where there has been territorial tension historically, differences have always existed between the central power and the power of large municipalities and states, provinces or departments. In some cases, these differences have stemmed from confrontations of a strictly political origin, as these entities were being governed by opposition parties. The need for some regional leaders to counterbalance the political strength of the president has much to do with their quest to improve both their own and their political parties’ electoral prospects in the next elections.

On the other hand, there is the role played by the private media, which has sometimes worked intensely against the government, such as in Venezuela or Nicaragua – where the media have substituted the role of a political opposition, albeit with great limitations – or in Argentina, where confrontation between the private mass media and justicialismo (the political establishment) is commonplace. In other countries, the media has strongly supported the executive, such as in Bolivia, Colombia and Honduras, as a result of the close relationship between the media system and political power, while in others, the media system has played a more diversified role – some groups being pro- and others anti-government – as has been the case in Mexico and Brazil. It should be noted that in none of the countries have the media played a minor role – as is the case with civil society, community networks or some parties – thus reflecting the fundamental role of the media in today’s world. Another point to note is that in all countries without exception there has been an abundance of fake news and hoaxes circulating on social media.

The role of civil society and, of course, community initiatives should also be noted. Within this field, in Venezuela and Nicaragua, where institutional opposition is repressed, civil society actors and community initiatives have been very important and take a prominent social and political role. The case of Chile, which has seen the Chilean Medical Association play an exceptional role in managing the pandemic, also stands out. However, in most cases, civil society actors – pressure groups, trade unions, professional associations and so on – have taken on an active, though not crucial, role.

On a different note, we must not forget the ongoing presence of organized crime, as well as successive outbreaks of rioting, generally in peripheral urban areas or remote places. To this must be added the state’s inability to manage certain territories over which a number of informal and illegal groups exert their control.

What kind of public policies have been promoted?

It is also important to highlight the public policies related to health, the economy and security that have been promoted to combat the COVID-19 crisis. It has been pointed out (Malamud and Núñez, 2020) that, despite their heterogeneous nature, almost all of these policies were similar and were aimed at the same goal: to prevent infections, isolate the infected and preserve the – often meagre and weak – public health systems. To this end, emphasis was placed on personal hygiene, social distancing and reducing mobility (both by monitoring and transferring incoming cases). Polymerase chain reaction testing and track-and-trace policies for the infected were also implemented, but these last two measures were less widespread due to their cost. In the end, all these measures were deployed on the basis of similar strategies (whether they were called quarantine or not). It is worth noting that these measures were adopted in 15 of the 18 countries within a minimum time frame (see Table 11.1). Likewise, in May 2020, almost all the countries started implementing very similar quarantine extension policies.

Taken together, this shows that beyond the ideology of governments and leaderships, most executives acted very similarly with regard to nominally deploying substantial policies. The most significant differences between governments were in the budget available and the state’s capacity to implement the measures in question. The question needs to be asked of how it was possible that governments so different from one another could have implemented such similar policies. The most plausible answer is not that convergence in policy decision-making has resulted from reflection on best possible practice, nor from a unilateral imposition, but because policies implemented in some countries have been taken as a reference, thus influencing the decisions of others and resulting in the same measures being adopted (Meseguer and Gilardi, 2008).

Another aspect that deserves attention is the effectiveness of such measures on a country-by-country basis. And this – in addition to ‘government will and capacity’ – has depended on structural factors, such as investment in the health sector and ‘stateness’, and also on certain conditions, such as population density, the level of informal employment and the relative isolation of the country (Martí and Alcántara, 2020). In this sense, the pandemic has ‘understood’ very little about ideologies and charismatic leaders. Yet, one can see that the worst strategy was to deny reality, which was the tactic chosen by President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Latin American democracies after the pandemic: weary or sick?

The political situation in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis is not promising, adding to the deterioration experienced during the previous decade by democratic regimes. A lack of trust in politics, the assumption that democracy ‘does not solve problems’ and the perception that corruption has not abated have clearly led to a situation characterized not only by difficulties in representation but also by acute polarization (Alcántara, 2020a, 2020b). The electoral dynamic itself, which had worked reasonably well in recent years, has begun to show weaknesses in its functioning, as highlighted by the recent elections in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras and Paraguay. Meanwhile, the existence of political dynamics with strong, personality-driven presidencies in Brazil, Mexico and El Salvador could lead to democratic erosion. Moreover, in countries such as Argentina, Colombia, Chile or Ecuador, the discontent seen on the streets is a sign of a new cycle of tension and instability.

At the same time, various indicators measuring the quality of democracy over the last five years (V-Dem, The Economist Intelligence Unit, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index) have revealed that it has been deteriorating in recent years. The concentration of power in the hands of presidents for handling extraordinary measures to tackle the pandemic, together with restrictions on rights, may serve to maintain the inertia in favour of strong governments. To this must be added a backlog of unresolved problems, which are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic and its aftermath. The risk of the difficult circumstances described here lies in the potential for authoritarianism that leaders may have been able to deploy during the months of the pandemic, when the activism of many leaders has been noteworthy (Alcántara, 2020c). Moreover, the combination of the effects of the economic crisis with the emptying of state coffers and the decline in representation has led to the strengthening or upsurge of proposals that have an authoritarian bias in the purest tradition of the region – although cases such as that of Chile seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

The problem in the face of future uncertainty is that often, when things get complicated, it is easy to revert to traditional formulas, and in Latin America, messianic caudillismo (political domination) and populism are just such formulae. Thus, in the democratic arena, Latin America’s governments are facing the toughest test of the last 30–40 years (Meléndez, 2020; Reid, 2020; Rodríguez and Ivarez, 2020). It is clear that the political cycle following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant impact on the region’s democracies and will be further exacerbated by the handling of vaccine policies. There are five aspects of the political fallout from the health crisis that stand out:

  • The pre-eminence of the executive branch over all other institutions.

  • The personalization of politics to the detriment of parties.

  • The judicialization of politics as a tool to oppose those in power.

  • The (even) greater importance of mass media, both traditional media and social networks.

  • And increasing distrust in the work of politicians among the general public.

These aspects imply the concentration of power in few institutions and few hands, as well as greater intra-institutional and media conflict and a strong erosion of social capital. In this sense, it can be said that the critical situation resulting from the COVID-19 crisis has generated less polyarchic systems, which are under greater tension. In these circumstances, the danger lies in a possible decline in democratic principles that – although it already existed before the pandemic – could increase. In the case of the opening of an illiberal cycle, it could be affirmed that the COVID-19 crisis has had effects similar to the stock market crash in 1929, the oil crisis of 1973 and the debt crisis of 1982. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether, after the first cycle of the health crisis, marked by public emergency, exceptional circumstances and political personalization, a new period is to come requiring a political logic more focused on the administrative and managerial capacity of the state to meet the challenge of vaccine rollout and economic recovery.


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