Under pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin America’s democracies require assistance coordinating internal efforts, maintaining accountability and safeguarding fundamental freedoms. International support, including the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) programming to strengthen democratic processes within the region, are vital to helping ensure their success and preventing instability from spreading across the Western Hemisphere.

The pressures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are testing democracies in Latin America, where authoritarianism is a recent memory for too many: Only in the 1980s and 1990s did democracy begin to overtake dictatorships to the point that there are now only three autocracies in the region—Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela—where there were once fifteen.

Some argue that authoritarian regimes, with their rigid command structures, are better able to mobilize ministries and militants and tell citizens what to do during the COVID-19 crisis. According to this line of argument, democracies – with their messy checks and balances, dispersed agencies, multiple levels of government and negotiated decision-making processes – are less-equipped to respond swiftly and decisively to these challenges.

Yet this is precisely the time when democracy is ever more important. Governments that are transparent, inclusive, respectful of fundamental freedoms, and remember that their first duty is to serve their citizens are better positioned to handle this crisis than authoritarian regimes that oppress people and manipulate the situation to perpetuate themselves in power.

Some of Latin America’s democracies have taken proactive steps to address the pandemic. In late January, Panama’s government started preparing law enforcement and public health agencies and implemented an aggressive communications campaign to deal with the pandemic. On March 21, Colombia’s President Iván Duque appointed a crisis manager, while Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra announced forward-leaning economic relief measures for citizens and businesses.

Still, the response among democracies has been uneven, some lagging far behind or implementing problematic measures: The presidents of Brazil and Mexico dismissed social distancing even as local officials were closing schools and enforcing curfews. Complaining of poor interagency coordination, Ecuador’s health minister resigned March 21 as bodies started appearing in the streets of Guayaquil. Bolivia has clamped down on press freedoms and asked COVID-19 victims to wear ankle monitors.

Long after the pandemic is over, the economic devastation it has caused will continue to be felt in a region already beset by economic problems. Some 30 percent or 188 million Latin Americans live in poverty, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.  The poverty rates are much higher in countries such as Haiti (58 percent), Honduras (52 percent), Guatemala (59 percent) and Venezuela (87 percent). Throughout the region, millions live in crowded shantytowns without regular access to running water, garbage pickup or electricity. Already high unemployment and underemployment rates are growing, especially in the hard-hit hospitality, tourism and trade industries. Supply chains will likely be disrupted, and much of the $100 billion in remittances sent by family members living in foreign countries could dry up. A global depression could hit Latin American societies especially hard. 

It’s important that our democratic neighbors get the response to COVID-19 right. Improving interagency coordination on public health and then economic recovery needs help. Just as important is preserving the continuity of legislative functions through innovative means such as virtual meetings. Oversight of economic stimulus measures are needed to keep precious resources from being squandered through corruption.

Our democratic neighbors can’t do all this alone. For 37 years, IRI has worked to strengthen democratic processes within the region through trainings at national and local levels and among the three main branches of government. Programs with local civil society partners have helped improve electoral systems and reduce corruption. IRI’s Safe Cities series of conferences have brought together mayors from across Latin America to share best practices. Today, IRI’s field offices in Colombia, Ecuador and Panama are working with legislative assemblies to help them adapt to the crisis environment.

The community of democracies in the Western Hemisphere must join forces to ensure that Latin America’s hard-won democratic gains are not lost – or risk a cascade of destabilization that will be felt far beyond Latin America, and which would present malign actors like China, Russia and Iran with an open door to step up their ongoing influence efforts in Latin America. An effective, democratic response to the COVID-19 pandemic is vital to safeguarding Latin America’s democratic gains and shoring up American interests.

Up ArrowTop