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Latin America, the most desperate continent

Latin America, the most desperate continent
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

One might have initially hoped that the South American continent would be spared from the coronavirus. The reality is nothing of the sort. The epidemic is wreaking havoc, which is exacerbated by the poverty of the population. The populist profile of many of the continent’s leaders, starting with Bolsonaro in Brazil, does not help in finding a way out of this double economic and social crisis, the stigma of which may be felt for a long time in this part of the world. 

Latin America has become the new epicenter for the coronavirus epidemic. With just 8% of the world’s population, the continent has over half of the number of new deaths from the virus. Brazil broke a sad record this week, with 35,000 new patients infected in one day. In Ecuador, the number of "excess deaths" is estimated to be close to 20,000. In Peru, which has a population of 32 million, the number of people infected (214,000) is higher than figures from France and Germany. From Chile to Argentina, from Mexico to Columbia, "the evil is spreading." Only two countries are the exception: Uruguay and Costa Rica, two states which are more democratic than the others and which benefit from a rare and exceptional commodity in this part of the world: the confidence of their citizens. 

Endemic poverty

Trust is needed in order for "social distancing" measures to be imposed from the top down, but that’s not the only factor. Poverty makes protective distancing simply impossible. Housing, and more generally the economic conditions (to stop working is to "starve to death"), largely explain the situation the continent has found itself in. 

With just 8% of the world’s population, the continent has over half of the number of new deaths from the virus.

Beyond this endemic poverty, politics also play a factor. The fact that the region’s top three economies, those of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico (which, geographically speaking, is not a part of South America), are simultaneously being run by populist leaders, only serves to reinforce the patterns of fragmentation and division on the continent. 

At the start of the 19th century, Simon Bolivar dreamed of unifying South America. He bitterly concluded slightly before his death that he had "only plowed the sea". Far from bringing together the continent’s countries, the epidemic has instead led them further apart, playing a negative role in accelerating divisions. 

Of course, even before the coronavirus epidemic, the continent already seemed to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Argentine president Alberto Fernández had threatened to pull out of Mercosur in 2018. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro responded by threatening to expel the country from the bloc. Venezuela, "frozen in despair" under Nicolás Maduro and Colombia under Iván Duque give the sense of being ready to fight it out militarily. 

"The Trump of the Tropics"

In this populist galaxy, there exists nevertheless a man unique in his category in Latin America: Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil. Recalling Gabriel García Márquez and his masterpiece Love in the Time of Cholera, one is tempted to make the comparison of "Madness in the Time of Covid-19". The problem is that he is the president of the most important country in South America by far. 

In this period of pandemic, "the Trump of the Tropics" is outdoing himself. As with Donald Trump, we can observe in Bolsonaro the same underestimation of the virus’s severity, which he has called "a little flu," and the same willingness to prioritize the economy over health. However, they also both increasingly have reason to worry facing losses in their respective popularity. President Bolsonaro has only a 20% approval rating, whereas 50% of Brazilians do not approve of his choices in handling the pandemic. 

A decisive question remains for a country historically familiar with military coups: that of the president’s relations with the armed forces. Bolsonaro is only a former captain and does not enjoy the support of the country’s military elite. His rank was not high enough, and he seems to be too much "of the people." Bolsonaro will find it difficult to rely on the army to consolidate power. Conversely – unless there is a health development beyond control – we do not see the Brazilian army taking power in the name of "rationality" to save the country from a president who has become a danger to the health of his own citizens. Bolsonaro knew to position military allies in key levels of the state. The only unknown factor in Brazil remains the role of the "military police."

As with Donald Trump, we can observe in Bolsonaro the same underestimation of the virus’s severity, which he has called "a little flu," and the same willingness to prioritize the economy over health. 

In law, these forces depend on state governors, the vast majority of which are anti-Bolsonaro. However, these "armed militias" are much closer to the ideas of the current president than to their supervisory authorities of the state governors. What would the military police do if the legislative and judiciary powers managed to implement an impeachment process against Bolsonaro for corruption or incompetence, as with the previous case against Dilma Rousseff?

The Latin American "backyard"

Brazil’s weight in Latin America is so significant that when this giant struggles, everything struggles. "Brazil is the country of the future and always will be," said the general de Gaulle with both pessimism and humor in the 1960s. In Brazil today, fear has replaced the hope that had existed during a short period from the Cardoso years (president from 1995 to 2003) to the beginning of the Lula years, who seemed, at least initially, to expand and extend the work of his predecessor. 

There is another question for Brazil which also applies to the continent as a whole. It is, of course, that of relations with the United States. It is certainly difficult to see that Trump’s America is giving lessons in responsibility to Bolsonaro’s Brazil.

The paradox is that after having done far too much for decades, if not centuries, North America may not be doing "enough" with South America. The former has taken its distance from its Latin American "backyard," allowing China to partly take its place. 

Largely alone and divided against itself and its demons – extreme violence, corruption, social and racial inequalities, and without forgetting the basis of everything: poverty aggravated by the falling prices of hydrocarbons and raw materials in general – the continent seems to be sliding.

There is more poverty in Africa, but there is also more hope there than in Latin America, perhaps the most desperate of all continents in the time of Covid-19. 



Avec l'aimable autorisation des Echos (publié le 22/06/2020)


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