Dr. Evan Ellis, Latin America Research Professor for the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, talks to Haverford School headmaster Dr. John Nagl about the challenges and opportunities that will confront the incoming Biden administration in Latin America and the Caribbean. This article is the first of a two-part look at key strategic issues across the region.
John Nagl: How do you expect COVID-19 to impact the dynamics of the region?
Evan Ellis: The pandemic will be with us for a while in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many nations in the region are not expected to vaccinate substantial parts of their populations until 2022, and some such as Nicaragua will still be struggling with vaccinations well into 2023. COVID-19 has also exposed weaknesses in public health systems, compounded by socioeconomic factors and poor policy responses in some countries, with the result that although Latin America and the Caribbean has 18% of the world’s COVID-19 cases, it has 27% of COVID-19 deaths, more than 546,000 as of mid-January.
The pandemic reinforces multiple interdependent challenges in the region likely to leave it poorer, more fiscally constrained, with greater social unrest, more leftist populist governments, and an expanded presence of the People’s Republic of China.
With respect to poverty, the January 2021 migrant caravan from Honduras illustrates how the shuttering of businesses and evaporation of informal sector opportunities due to the pandemic, coupled with limits in the ability of governments to compensate, to create long-term economic damage affecting millions.
In fiscal terms, the money spent on the COVID-19 response, and the associated debt incurred, will now force governments across the region to cut budgets, postponing investment and limiting their ability to advance development and respond to serious needs. Colombia’s debt climbed by approximately 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020.
The adverse effect of the pandemic on citizen wellbeing will likely lead to an increase in crime as social distancing measures are relaxed. Already, there are anecdotal reports that home invasions and other forms of crime have increased, although citizen reluctance to risk contagion by waiting hours in police stations or other high-risk reporting sites arguably has suppressed reporting.
Regarding social unrest, the sources of citizen frustration that gave rise to major protests in Ecuador, Chile, and, to a lesser extent, Colombia in 2019, have been supercharged by the pandemic. COVID-19 has worsened all of the factors that contributed to those protests, including unaddressed economic need and crime. It has also fueled new grievances, including corruption associated with the government COVID-19 response, criticisms of that response, the lack of capacity in the health sector, disagreements with the imposition of social distancing and other control measures, or the failure to do so, and budget shortfalls. A range of current protests are directly or indirectly linked to the pandemic and government response, from the burning of the Congress in Guatemala, to street protests in Chile, to demonstrations over payments owed to municipal governments in El Salvador, to the indigenous march on Bogota in Colombia.
The pandemic has helped the populist left in the region, giving authoritarian governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua justification to clamp down on protests. It has further contributed to difficult conditions which have created an opening for the left to win in Ecuador’s elections, whose first round is in February. It similarly advances chaos which could open a space for the left to prevail in Peru’s fragmented political landscape in April, or through the writing of a new constitution in Chile as its Constituent Assembly is selected in the same month.
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