Latin America’s Wave of Protests Was Historic—Then the Pandemic Arrived

The coronavirus and lockdowns have worsened the region’s economic divides—and set the stage for more political upheaval.

A protester holds a sign  during a protest against corruption and hunger amid the coronavirus pandemic outside the presidential palace in Panama City, on June 25.
A protester holds a sign during a protest against corruption and hunger amid the coronavirus pandemic outside the presidential palace in Panama City, on June 25. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Late last year, several Latin American countries experienced a wave of unprecedented mobilizations, and there was a cautious optimism that the region was on the verge of correcting its long-standing inequality problems. In October and November, protesters in Chile demanded an end to neoliberal economic policies, eventually securing major concessions from the government, including a promised referendum on amending the dictatorship-era constitution. In Colombia, protesters filled streets across the country in November calling for an overhaul of the pension system and better protections for those most vulnerable. While talk at the time of a “Latin American Spring” may have been a stretch, the sense that the winds were shifting toward an incrementally more socially just region, with governments more responsive to all citizens, was palpable.

Now, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, that generational protest movement is at a crossroads. The Chilean constitution referendum, for instance, has been pushed from April to October in light of the ongoing crisis. In Bolivia, where leftist Evo Morales resigned under pressure from the military, the interim right-wing government led by Jeanine Añez has cracked down on subsequent dissent. Añez is now a candidate in the elections that have been called to solve the political impasse—elections that have been delayed in light of the national lockdown. As the protest movements lose momentum, the concessions they eked from their governments—including promises to address inequality—are in danger of getting lost, precisely at a time when the economically vulnerable are at risk of being ravaged by the pandemic. That’s a recipe for long-term instability.

“Although the coronavirus has dampened the risk of unrest in the short term, we think that in the coming months and years we’ll see that the economic crises brought about by the coronavirus will just heighten these pressures and create the potential for even greater instability and even more social unrest,” said Fiona Mackie, the Americas director at the Economist Intelligence Unit, who added that she predicts a massive drop in the gross domestic product across the region. “These issues that we saw around access to public services and income inequality, along with other issues that have been prevalent in Latin America, like corruption, high youth unemployment, crime—all of these persist and will emerge again as problems.”

Although the virus was comparatively late to emerge in Latin America—the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Sao Paulo on Feb. 26, nearly a month after the World Health Organization declared the virus an international public health emergency—the region now seems set to become one of the hardest-hit areas of the world. Late last month, the director of the Pan American Health Organization said the region had become the new epicenter of the pandemic, as the number of new cases reported daily surged past totals from the United States and Europe.

Remote indigenous tribes in Brazil have reported cases—a development that could wipe out entire communities, which are less able to receive medical attention due to their isolation. In Manaus, Brazil’s Amazon capital, workers have been hurriedly digging mass graves in the face of a surge in coronavirus deaths. In Peru, sprawling food markets have become hot spots for the contagion. Seventy-nine percent of vendors at Lima’s largest wholesale market tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-May, during the height of the country’s strictly enforced quarantine. Peru and Chile are reporting some of the highest infection rates globally and remain under significant restrictions, as do other countries including Colombia. However, Mexico and Brazil, despite rising outbreaks, have begun partial reopening.

The initial effects of the lockdowns are already visible. A recent survey from the Inter-American Development Bank found that the virus is exacerbating inequality in the region, with greater job losses among lower-income respondents while wealthier people are not only more likely to remain employed but also have greater food stockpiles at home and higher savings. This trend, replicated globally, is likely to be particularly brutal in Latin America. A 2018 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that earnings from the “informal economy” represented 40 percent of the GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2010 to 2014. Those informal workers are often street vendors selling chewing gum and individual cigarettes at stoplights or domestic workers cleaning the condominiums of the middle and upper classes. Forced to stay at home on lockdown, many have struggled to make ends meet. Many do not have bank accounts, a hurdle to receiving government relief money.

In the past few months, local and federal governments have responded in very different ways. Following protests over the lack of guarantees for informal workers, Claudia López, Bogotá’s newly elected and progressive mayor, punted the issue of state-sponsored relief to the national government and announced a charity drive—dubbed “Solidarity at Home”—in which locals can contribute funds to help those on the bread line. Officials say they have raised $13.7 million, while the national government claims to have allocated $120 million to help up to 3 million informal workers. In Brazil, where the response out of Brasilia continues to meet fierce criticism, the government did create a self-professed “war budget” against the pandemic, equivalent to nearly 3 percent of the country’s GDP. However, in Brazil’s favelas, communities and charities have picked up the slack, ensuring food deliveries for those most in need. In Argentina, the government has announced that low-income workers will receive one-off handouts of $147, while Chile is organizing emergency cash transfers for 4.5 million people; the Dominican Republic is doing the same for 1.5 million people. Utility shut-offs have been banned in Colombia, Argentina, and Ecuador, while Peru’s government has told low-income citizens that they can postpone their utility bill payments. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made only around 0.7 percent of GDP available in response to the outbreak and faces renewed opposition from state governors who have gone further with economic stimulus measures.

However, those out of work, particularly in the informal economy, are likely in for a sustained downturn with little government aid as the pandemic continues. “Unfortunately, Latin America’s most vulnerable populations will be disadvantaged by this pandemic and likely emerge in even more fragile conditions,” said Benjamin Gedan, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America program. “Then there’s the inability of the government to provide support for these communities. You can’t provide a payroll tax holiday to informal workers who are by definition outside the system. The region’s inequalities will be deepened by this pandemic.”

“Unfortunately, Latin America’s most vulnerable populations will be disadvantaged by this pandemic and likely emerge in even more fragile conditions.”

With government coffers stretched, civil society across the continent is attempting to fill the void, at least temporarily. In Colombia, Mafe Carrascal, a Bogotá-based anti-corruption activist, says that the battle for a more equal society has shifted online. “Activism has always been online as much as in the streets, and that’s even more the case when public health is such a consideration,” Carrascal said. Activists across the continent have echoed similar sentiments.

Despite the grim prognosis for Latin America, those who participated in protests last year still envisage a chance for achieving political change. Jennifer Pedraza, a student activist in Bogotá who took to the streets from November until the quarantine took hold in March, said that the appetite among society for reforms has only been reinforced by the pandemic. “Of course, we can’t protest during this period of social isolation, and in fact, we are campaigning remotely for the continuation of lockdown measures,” she said. “But the fight continues one way or another.”

While most in-person protests are on hold until the pandemic is under control, some demonstrations have taken place. In Chile in May, protests flared up on the outskirts of Santiago over inadequate food relief for those most vulnerable. In Brazil, residents in Sao Paulo’s favelas marched to the state governor’s mansion to demand aid. In countries across the region, residents are banging pots and pans from their windows, a common form of protest.

Although a pronounced recession seems guaranteed for the region as a whole, the policy response to the virus may affect which governments enjoy renewed support and which see new or further unrest in the next few years.

Despite the immediate economic downturn, several governments that were previously unpopular have taken strident steps to curtail the virus’ spread and have seen a boon in overall popularity. In Peru, which for years has faced a series of political crises stemming from corruption cases, citizens have embraced President Martín Vizcarra’s strict quarantine measures, which have been enforced by the military. Colombia’s Iván Duque, whose tenure since 2018 has been marked by legislative stasis and a deterioration in the implementation of the peace process, received tempered plaudits for resisting calls from the financial sector to open up the country. Argentina’s new president, Alberto Fernández, also continues to show his administrative chops, combining strident lockdowns with a recognition of the need for socioeconomic change and comprehensive relief packages for informal workers. That has allowed him to step from the shadow of his vice president, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a controversial stalwart of the country’s left. The pressure to provide long-standing solutions for the region’s most vulnerable citizens persists, but the immediacy and strictness of these governments’ responses to the pandemic have given them breathing room.

However, in Brazil and Mexico, the two largest countries and economies in the region, the heads of state are paying heavy political penalties for a slow-walked and denialist response. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the virus, leading former allies to break with him. As Brazil’s daily death toll surpasses that of the United States, the Trump administration has barred travel from Brazil. Mexico’s López Obrador continued to hold rallies while confirmed cases of COVID-19 mounted; his personal leadership has continued to attract criticism amid accusations that the country is undercounting deaths.

“Their responses have been so reckless and irresponsible that it’s hard to imagine them fully and rapidly repairing their images,” said Gedan, referring to Bolsonaro and López Obrador. “Particularly because in the short term at least, the public health consequences of their approach to the pandemic will be universally experienced and devastating, and the medium-term economic consequences will be even more severe once they come to the inevitable conclusion that you have to take this public health risk seriously.”

Joe Parkin Daniels is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. Twitter: @joeparkdan