Economy and politics in Latin America

Cynthia J. Arnson
Distinguished Fellow
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Washington, D.C., USA

COVID-19 has wrought deep and lasting changes in Latin America and the Caribbean, as in other parts of the world. But comprehending the pandemic’s impact requires looking first at what preceded it.

With notable exceptions, the region had stagnated economically by 2019. A 2002-08 commodities boom had lifted millions from poverty, but a subsequent slow-down in growth dashed the expectations of a precarious middle class. The UN reported that growth from 2014 to 2020 was the lowest in seven decades. Modest gains in reducing the region’s high inequality also came to a halt. In 2018 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development explored how long it would take for someone in the bottom ten percent of the income distribution to reach an average income level. In OECD countries, it took about four-and-a-half generations. In Brazil, 9; in Argentina and Chile, 6; and in Colombia, almost 11, the worst of all the countries surveyed. By late 2019, an accumulation of grievances—inequality, corruption, poor governance, lack of opportunity—led to mass protests in countries as diverse as Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Haiti.

Soon, however, strict COVID-induced lockdowns emptied the streets of protestors while plunging the region into its worst economic crisis in over a century. Latin American and Caribbean economies contracted by an average of 7 percent, the worst performance among all emerging market. Tens of millions were thrown out of work and into poverty or extreme poverty. By 2021, the Food and Agriculture Organization reported that more than 40 percent of the population suffered from moderate to severe food insecurity; and by mid-2022, the World Food Program said that the number of acutely food insecure had grown six-fold over pre-COVID levels. Governments wisely expanded social safety nets but took on greater debt at a time of shrinking revenues. According to the World Bank , by the end of 2021 average public debt in the region had risen to over 75 percent of GDP, compromising future public investments in education, health, and innovation.

The global effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine set back the region’s modest economic recovery in 2021. Escalating food and energy prices sent inflation soaring to the highest levels in twenty-five years, according to the International Monetary Fund, disproportionately impacting the poor. Rising interest rates in the United States and elsewhere made dollar-denominated debt more expensive, further straining government coffers.

The region’s politics became more volatile in light of the accumulation of economic pain and COVID-induced death tolls that, per capita, were the highest in the world. Surly electorates voted incumbents out of office, punishing them for the pandemic’s hardships. Candidates of the left in Chile and Colombia replaced presidents of the center-right in elections held in 2021 and 2022, respectively. The shift had less to do with ideology than with a desire to rebuke existing leaders. A similar dynamic took hold in Brazil; elections scheduled for October 2022 favor the left over an incumbent rightist. And in Ecuador, a businessman of the center-right triumphed in 2021 following years of leftist rule. Once elected, however, political oppositions found their honeymoons short-lived. The depth of socio-economic pain, limited fiscal space, political fragmentation, growing demands by indigenous and racial minorities, and conflicts over the environment and the region’s extractive industries have tested leaders regardless of ideology.

Thus far, democracy in the region has proved resilient: in its 2022 survey, the Americas Barometer of Vanderbilt University called democratic attitudes “weak but stable.” But trends in public opinion are worrisome. In 2021 the Santiago-based polling firm Latinobarómetro found that fully 70 percent of citizens were dissatisfied with how democracy functioned. And only 22 percent believed that the country was governed for the benefit of all rather than a powerful minority. The Americas Barometer found that more than three in five citizens believed most or all politicians are corrupt. Most sobering, albeit perhaps unsurprising, was a late 2022 finding by Vanderbilt, that over half of the region’s citizens would trade elections for a basic income and services. The trend was strongest among young people and those of lower educational attainment and income.

The diverse political systems of Latin America and the Caribbean are not all headed toward the authoritarianism characterizing Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. But dangerous signs of democratic erosion abound. Effective leadership, institutional strengthening, and a more forgiving international environment hold the keys to the region’s democratic future.

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