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Handling the Pandemic in Latin America: Populism vs. Pragmatism

For the past few months, governments across the world have imposed lockdowns on their populations. Measures against the novel coronavirus have varied from one country to another. In early 2020 China imposed a massive and immediate lockdown on the affected populations and used technology to track every possible infected person. Most of Northern Europe, in turn, relaxed its regulations and trusted its citizens to take the necessary precautions. Southern Europe followed an approach of complete lockdown similar to that of China. The virus is rapidly spreading across the world and its epicenter has migrated from Europe to the United States, a country fairly closed and with special relations to Latin America.

Staying at home has become the best option to stem the spread of the virus. However, what happens when lockdowns are not an option? 55% of the Latin American active population works in the informal economy. This means that workers do not have a working contract or social security. Nor do they pay taxes and most live on a day to day basis, meaning that if for some reason work isn’t performed one day, then food won’t arrive at the table that day. Lockdowns and isolations may be recommended by their governments, but citizens are unlikely to follow if they cannot afford to miss a day of work. The pandemic has turned into a decisive trade-off between survival from health issues, or survival from hunger.

Latin America has long been considered a battlefield for left- and right-wing regimes. During the current pandemic, one might argue that one of these two types of government responds better to national emergencies. However, the best response is not defined by the type of political government, but by the type of political strategy. For instance populist governments seem to be more focused on using the emergency in favor of their own political advantage, while pragmatist ones are leaving most decision-making to technocrats (doctors and scientists), rather than taking decisions on their own.

The following article shows a comparison among multiple Latin American leaders and the success or failure of their strategies.



By being aware of this trade-off, leaders across the region have taken different approaches. Martin Vizcarra, Peru’s president, was the first Latin American leader to react against the pandemic. With only 71 cases, Vizcarra imposed a strict lockdown and curfew on the population. His finance minister Maria Antonieta Alva announced a bailout economic package of $26 billion (12% of the country’s GDP), including healthcare spending, tax cuts, and loans. In Peru; however, almost 70% of the active population work in the informal sector. In order to attend this share of the population, the Peruvian government will deliver cash handouts of 380 soles (100 EUR) to every family considered to be in a vulnerable situation. After having announced his measures, Vizcarra experienced a boost in popularity from 52% to 87%.

Martin Vizcarra addresses the nation to inform about the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the country.


Cuba is a worth-studying example when it comes to national emergencies. Besides counting on some positive health indicators such as a high life expectancy and universal healthcare, Cuba has the highest ratio of doctors to population in the world. Its preparedness against disasters has led to an outstanding low loss of human lives during hurricanes, compared to other countries in the region such as Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Cuba prepared for the chaos months before the coronavirus had arrived on the Island. In January 2020 Cuba began to train its medical staff, prepare medical facilities and inform the public about the upcoming imminent health crisis. By the time the Island received its first three cases of COVID-19 on March 11, all preparations were in place.

Cuba’s centralized state allows the government to mobilize resources and personnel quicker. Medical students are being mobilized nationwide to carry out surveys and perform medical tests to the most vulnerable. Cuba has also shown to rapidly adapt. For instance, when social distancing proved to not be enough to stem the spread of the virus, public transport was suspended and private drivers were hired to transport workers and patients. On March 21, Cuba sent a brigade of 52 doctors to Italy to help fight the coronavirus.

The Henry Reeve medical brigade arrives in Lombardy.

El Salvador:

Although considered a populist by some political scientists, Nayib Bukele, the country’s president, has taken a pragmatist approach towards the national emergency. Long before El Salvador had registered one single confirmed case of coronavirus, Bukele set a series of emergency measures. The country banned access to all foreigners, imposed a 30-day quarantine on Salvadorans returning from abroad and paused school classes for three weeks. 

Many other Central Americans began to follow his leadership. Some Nicaraguans,for instance, use Bukele’s precautionary measures as their own given the lack of leadership from their own governors.

March 11: Bukele addresses the nation to state that there have not been confirmed cases of coronavirus in El Salvador, but a quarantine will still be imposed.



In contrast, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, began his reaction against the virus by denying its relevance. On February 26 Brazil received its first case of covid-19 in Sao Paulo (first case in the whole region). The president of the largest economy in Latin America disregarded all lockdown measures and advised Brazilians to ignore the independent governors’ safety guidelines. While Bolsonaro was sending a message of irrelevance, the Brazilian Senate approved economic subsidies of monthly $115 to over 30 million informal workers.

In the midst of mixed signals from Brasilia, citizens have taken the situation into their own hands. Indigenous groups have shielded their communities from remote villages. Gangs in Rio de Janeiro have imposed lockdowns and curfews in their respective favelas. A desire to impeach Bolsonaro is gaining popularity as congressional leaders, the head of the Supreme Court, among others, have implored Brazilians to ignore the president’s suggestions regarding coronavirus.

As this article was published, Brazil had 38,654 cases and 2,462 deaths, the highest number of cases in Latin America and 14th overall.

In spite of the growing pandemic in the country, Jair Bolsonaro performs rallies across Brazil without any use of protection.


Similar to his Brazilian counterpart, Mexico’s left-wing, populist president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) firstly disregarded the relevance of the pandemic. On televised videos, AMLO told Mexicans to continue on hugging and attending family reunions. He assured that the saints will protect the country from “the external enemy”. However, Hugo Lopez Gatell, Mexico’s pandemic czar emphasised the severity of the situation and recommended the population to stay inside. 

Mexico’s economy is heavily dependent on oil exports, tourism and remittances received primarily from the United States. These three economic intakes will be severely damaged by the covid-19 economic crisis and the current disagreements among the OPEC+ countries. As for the economic measures taken by the president, AMLO approved more than 2 million small loans for small- and medium-sized businesses, and he promised to create 2 million jobs in a period of 9 months, a task considered to be in total contrast with reality given the lower amount of jobs created during his first year in office and the fact that this amount of jobs has never been created so rapidly in the history of the country. These poor economic measures were highly criticized by the private sector by affirming that the upcoming economic crisis will be more severe than the mid-90s Tequila Crisis, hence a stronger economic bailout is required. 

Last year, Mexico’s economy shrank by 0.1%, this year, the IMF expects a 6.6% contraction. In Latin America, only Venezuela’s economy will shrink more.

AMLO performs rallies across the country in spite of the pandemic safety measures.


Nicaragua’s response to the coronavirus can easily be described with one word: inaction. After 34 days of being completely vanished from the public scene, Daniel Ortega, the country’s president, remerged on April 15 to give a televised 30 min speech, where he failed to give a detailed action plan regarding the pandemic. Nicaraguans have long kept up with the Ortega-Murillo regime (second name taken from Nicaragua’s vice-president, and president’s wife, Rosario Murillo). During the past two years, amid student protests against social security cuts, the unconstitutionally elected government enforced military action upon protesters and ended up killing over 328 people, exhiling over 100 thousand people and imprisonating over 770 people for political felonies. This scenario left a scar in society that is coming to light during the pandemic. 

Today, Nicaragua still celebrates football and baseball leagues: two international outliers. The Nicaraguan government affirms there are only a few cases of coronavirus in the country. Meanwhile, its neighboring countries are reporting hundreds of confirmed cases.

Nicaragua’s private sector has promoted self-quarantine, but the federal government has repeatedly said that it is unnecessary. The country is just not ready to handle a pandemic, and the government has undermined the seriousness of the situation several times. Nicaragua lacks enough medical personnel. The government fired hundreds of doctors and nurses, as a punishment for aiding wounded protesters. Ortega also fired his finance minister on April 1st. Even the most remote actions taken by the government show their authoritarian side. For instance, in response to the covid-19crisis, the government released hundreds of prisoners as a humanitarian act; however, political prisoners were not allowed to leave.

Daniel Ortega addresses the nation after being absent for 34 days.

On the Brightside

Latin America; however, also holds a few advantages against covid-19. First of all, the region acknowledged the threat far in anticipation. Multiple governments, such as Venezuela’s or Argentina’s seized this opportunity and began to take appropriate isolation and mitigation measures. Nicolas Maduro, the leader of the former country, imposed a severe lockdown in the population with less than 20 confirmed cases. Similarly, Argentina declared total quarantine with less than 4 covid-19-related deaths. 

Even though some federal governments disregarded the importance of the crisis, most of the private sector, along with local governments, carried out measures well before the virus arrived. This anticipation, not enjoyed by either China or Europe, will be of significant help to flatten the coronavirus curve in Latin America. 

It is well known that covid-19 is mostly fatal among the elderly. Fortunately for Latin America, the region has a relatively young population. The region’s average age is 31 years old, unlike for example Italy’s, the European country worst hit by covid-19, whose population median age is 44.

The weather also seems to play an important role for some scientists. Although it is yet not confirmed, warm weather may also slow the spread of the virus. 

In contrast with Europe, Latin America is far more acquainted with recent epidemics. Diseases such as H1N1, Zika, among others, have prepared the region to manage this type of health crisis. For instance, the countries’ ports of entry are highly supplied with the appropriate equipment (e.g. laser thermometers, isolation rooms, laboratories, etc.). Public-, and private-sector protocols are also easier to enforce since they have been constantly rehearsed in the not-so-distant past. 

Latin America is considered among the most vulnerable regions to receive a pandemic. Especially at a time where most countries are experiencing a decline in economic activity combined with a rise in populism. It is now time for politicians to leave the decision-making to experts instead of using international emergencies at their own advantage. 


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