COVID-19: Political Impact in Latin America

(May 1, 2020)
Commentary by Maria Victoria Murillo (ILAS Director, Columbia University) 
Research by Andrea Quijano (Columbia University GS 2020, Economics and Political Science)

COVID19 had immediate political consequences in Latin America. Given the logistical challenges created by social distancing, elections were postponed in many countries, ranging from municipal elections in Uruguay to presidential election in Bolivia and a national plebiscite in Chile. Whereas social distancing also reduced social mobilization in Bolivia and Chile, these measures suspended measures seeking institutionalized solutions to the political crisis that had deeply affected both countries at the end of 2019.  Additionally, COVID19 produced ‘rally around the flag’ effects on presidential popularity for several presidents, such as Alberto Fernandez in Argentina, Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou in Uruguay and Ivan Duque in Colombia, but also hurt those presidents who dragged their feet in establishing measures for social distancing, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico. Policy responses varied across the region without following a clear pattern in terms of regime type or even ideology with regards to the restrictive nature of quarantines and border closures. However, existing state capacity in health and social programs shaped patterns of response as shown by the relative success of Costa Rica with a strong health system and the stronger social response of Argentina and Brazil, compared to Mexico, in terms of social policy for the informal sector. The outlier in the region is Nicaragua, where the government has refused to take measures of social distancing and is not even acknowledging cases. The cost of social distancing is enormous in a region where large swaths of the population depend on the informal economy and are not covered by any safety net. The responses of governments vary in depth and breadth, mostly following state (and fiscal) capacity as well as prior policy legacies. The tension between the health and economic impact of social distancing measures has produced tensions across different levels of government, with Brazil providing the most significant case in terms of conflicts between president and governors as well as the firing of the Health Minister during this crisis.

In the following downloadable file, we have summarized the Political Impact of COVID-19 in Latin America. Below we provide more detailed discussion of the finding summarized in this table.

The Political Consequences of COVID19 in Latin America
Whereas South America ended 2019 a year of social protests, especially in the Andean countries, COVID19 transformed the politics of the region. Protests had spread in 2019 through the Andes from Bolivia to Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile, the prior poster child of the region. The pandemic brought elections and protests to a halt in both Bolivia and Chile, where there had continued into early March 2020. Whereas the Bolivian elections promised a solution to a political crisis, which started with the prior presidential elections and involved the military request of president Morales to resign, the Chilean constitutional plebiscite promised an institutional escape valve to months of protests focused on diverse demands, but unified by their criticism to the legitimacy of the system sustained by the 1980 constitution. Therefore, the electoral stand-by delayed possible institutional resolution to the deep polarization characterizing in both countries. In other countries, without such levels of political conflict, the electoral calendars were also upended. Local elections in Colombia, Paraguay, Uruguay were suspended and especial elections were also postponed in many other countries. Electoral campaigns, moreover, have been suspended both due to regulation and the emergency situation (TABLE 1). Hence, a crucial mechanism for accountability in democracies has been deeply affected by COVID19.

Table 1: Elections and Electoral Campaigns

CountryPostponementElectoral campaign
MexicoThe local elections in Coahuila and Hidalgo are postponed.Through a controversial electoral reform, legislators can now campaign for reelection without leaving office.
ColombiaJAC (community action board) elections are postponed. 
VenezuelaThe National Electoral Council suspends operations. 
EcuadorThe request to postpone presidential elections, which are in February 2021, was rejected by the president.Proposal: candidates should not receive state funds for campaigns.
PeruThe local municipal elections in Chipao, Ayacucho district, are postponed.The Partido Morado will focus its 2021 campaign on Peru’s reconstruction post-COVID.
BrazilMato Grosso senatorial election is postponed. Request to postpone municipal elections. 
BoliviaPresidential elections were meant to be on May 3rd. They should be held within 90 days, being August 2nd at the latest.The candidates will now use telecampaigns. Some candidates have offered to use their campaign funds for COVID.
ParaguayPrimary elections (scheduled for 12 July) and Local (Municipal) elections in Paraguay (scheduled for 8 November) moved to 2021. 
ChileThe Constitution referendum was on April 26th. New tentative date: Oct 26th. 
UruguayLocal (departmental and municipal) elections are postponed.FA canceled its physical campaigns and prepares campaigns on social media.
ArgentinaMunicipal elections in the City of Río Cuarto (Cordoba) are postponed. 
Costa Rica  
El SalvadorNo changes to the 2021 elections. The political parties will hold primaries between June and July. 
HondurasNo changes to the 2021 elections. 

Across the region, the impact of the social organizations, which had previously flooded the streets to make their voice heard in political systems of weak responsiveness, was suddenly eroded as countries imposed curfews with police enforcement effectively killing the possibility of social mobilization, further dampened by fear of contagion. The quarantines were enforced in many countries by curfews, which further restrict mobility. Limits to political demand through extra-institutional mechanism have therefore also been dampened further restricting avenues for political accountability. Indeed, in some cases the enforcing of health quarantines seemed politically motivated in its application. In Bolivia, according to Human Rights Watch, the interim government has used the quarantine measures selectively to repress mobilization in MAS strongholds further heightening political polarization even when its expression is muted by social distancing. Similarly, in Venezuela, PROVEA accuses the government, of taking advantages of COVID19 to ramp up repression, including against health workers complaining for labor conditions and journalist reporting on COVID19 information the government wants to hide. El Salvador has also been criticized for imprisoning those breaking the quarantine and by its treatment of prison inmates, whereas the Peruvian security forces were legally excepted from prosecution if using ammunition to enforce social distancing. The used of COVID19 for political reason has been raised in particular in cases of democratic erosion into authoritarianism as shown by the situations of Venezuela and Nicaragua (where the government has continued to denied the health crisis). There is also growing concern in Bolivia and El Salvador, where the armed forces had taken a prominent role in politics recently.

However, regime or ideology do not seem to map clearly to the health policy responses and the type of social distancing or even the resorting to curfews. Right-wing Bolsonaro and left-wing Lopez Obrador refused to believe the dangers created by COVID19. In both cases as described by the table, their policies were confronted by state governors, who required stricter quarantines or more expansive economic policies—even when they were presidential allies. Similarly, in Chile, the majors were instrumental in pushing President Sebastian Piñera to adopt measures of social distancing and school closure and some of them demand more stringent rules for their municipality. In Mexico, several governors also enforced stronger measures of social distance and sought to compensate with local policy the relative mild austere measures of the federal administration for economic support. By contrast, in Paraguay, there were some majors, which because of their dependence on Brazilian traffic for their economy, complained in the opposite direction to the president towards more lenient policies of social distancing (TABLE 2). Yet, in all four federations, there has been some disagreement with subnational policies (even in Argentina, several governors refused some measures of quarentine flexibilization adopted by the president at the end of April).

Table 2- Presidential Popularity, Quarantine Measures, Government Conflicts

CountryPresidential Popularity Circa April 2020Quarantine EnforcementInternal Conflicts
MexicoAMLO started March with 54% approval and finished the month with 49%. On March 23rd, 42% considered the government’s COVID management was very bad and 14% considered it was very good. On April 3rd, the ratings are 18% and 23%, respectively.The country implemented social distancing measures, but they do not include a mandatory quarantine. Some states have adopted curfews and imposed quarantines.Some state governors, such as in Michoacán and Jalisco, have imposed local stay-at-home orders, opposing the president’s policies. Due to the slow presidential response, some governors have also implemented economic recovery plans, despite their fiscal limitations. This has benefitted local politicians’ popularity as they are using this opportunity to get noticed. These local politicians include Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, AMLO’s ally.
ColombiaDuque’s COVID management has increased his popularity, which was at 26% in November, to 51%. 61% approve his response to COVID.Violators of the Obligatory Preventive Isolation must pay a fine and may face prison for up to 8 years.Illegal armed groups have assassinated at least 10 community and indigenous leaders. The Attorney General has opened over 296 cases accusing government officials of misusing COVID funds, which has already caused the suspension of Chocó’s governor, Ariel Palacios. According to La Silla Vacía’s investigation on 48 government contracts, 6 out of 10 contracts overpaid for food baskets, which could have fed 200k more Colombians if the prices were not inflated.
Venezuela6% approved Maduro in March, compared to 4% in December.   The police detain people who do not wear a mask and people involved in social gatherings, whether at home or in the streets.Allies of Maduro and Guaidó have begun talks amid COVID. While Guaidó denied these talks, Maduro recently said he is open to dialogue, without making references to the talks. Both sides are convinced that the COVID crisis is an opportunity to defeat the opponent.
Ecuador38% approved Moreno in March, compared to 45% in December.Covid-positives, identified through their phones, who don’t follow the quarantine will be imprisoned. Since March 25th, the government imposed a curfew from 2 PM to 5 AM. Violators will face economic sanctions.The national government proposed a 3-stage plan to relax social distancing measures starting on May 4th. Local governments are responsible for deciding when to start implementing each stage. The president proposed setting a $1200 million fund for the COVID emergency, but he does not have the national assembly’s support since the latter opposes raising taxes for Ecuadorians. Since the government has resumed talks to eliminate gas subsidies, the CONAIE, the leading group protesting the elimination of subsidies last year, warned the government of “any reaction of the people” against new economic measures.
PeruVizcarra’s approval ratings have improved since the COVID crisis. On March 12th, 52% approved Vizcarra’s management of COVID, while this number jumped to 87% on March 21st.Curfew from 6 PM to 4 AM. Violators will be fined, detained, reported, and prosecuted. The fines range from 86 to 430 soles. The military and national police are exempted from prosecution if they harm or kill people who don’t follow the curfew during the emergency.Defensoría del Pueblo did not report any new social conflicts in March. The last time that the state agency reported no new cases in a month was in August 2017. The number of protests fell from 144 in February to 85 in March.
BrazilBolsonaro’s approval rating has fallen from 35% to 33%. 45% think his COVID response is bad or terrible, while 27% thinks he has done a good or excellent job.  The ratings on his COVID response have decreased from 35% to 27%.The Ministry of Health recommends social distancing. More than 20 states have imposed stronger measures, such as a mandatory quarantine. Bolsonaro issued an executive order to restrict states from imposing quarantines, which was later revoked by the Supreme Court. White key ministers, congressional leaders, and most governors have implemented WHO protocols, Bolsonaro joined a rally against quarantines. In April, Bolsonaro fired the health minister and the federal police chief. The latter spurred Sergio Moro’s resignation, the justice minister who is popular for jailing corrupt politicians.
BoliviaIn January, the interim president had a 43% approval rating. In March, her ratings fell to 32%. 34% consider that the president’s response to COVID is good to excellent.The National Government, together with the National Police and the Armed Forces will apply strict quarantine measures. Curfew from 5 PM to 5 AM. Those who fail to comply will be arrested for 8 hours and may be prosecuted. The government will do “cyber patrols” against fake news, allegedly coming from MAS.While the elections were originally on May 3rd, the interim government decided to hold them between June and September, facing backlash from MAS, Evo Morales’ party, which demanded sooner elections. In April 30th, the Legislative Assembly approved that elections should be held within 90 days from the original date, being August 2nd at the latest. MAS has the majority of seats in the legislative branch.
Paraguay61% think the president’s COVID management is good. In January, he had a 31% approval rating.Mandatory quarantine, except for going to the supermarkets, pharmacies, hospitals, or banks. The fines for violating the quarantine are used to buy supplies for police stations. On May 4th, the country will start relaxing its quarantine measures.The President proposed transferring 50% of the royalties from the binational hydroelectric plants received by municipalities and governors to the Ministry of Health, but it was blocked by the Senate, who claimed that mayors and governors are more efficient in managing these funds. Consequently, the municipalities must allocate at least 50% of the energy funds to the mitigation of the virus. The Governor of Amambay threatened to confront the military blocking the border with Brazil. He says he is supported by the local merchants who are affected by the suspension of traffic between the two countries. Ciudad del Este inhabitants are growing impatient against lockdown rules.  
ChilePiñera’s approval ratings have increased consecutively for 2 weeks, reaching 25%. 12% think that Piñera’s COVID management is good/very good. 61% think it is bad/very bad.National curfew from 10 PM to 5 AM. Some states have a mandatory quarantine. Failure to comply may lead to fines and prison.56 mayors signed a letter addressed to the president asking for a mandatory national quarantine on March 20 pushing the national government towards school closures and a policy of social distancing.
UruguayThe president has a 59% approval rating and his government’s COVID management has a 62% approval rating.Non-mandatory quarantine, but people are following stay-home suggestions.There is growing concern over Rivera and Livramento, a binational border city in both Uruguay and Brazil, due to increased numbers of COVID cases in Brazil versus Uruguay. The closing of borders between the two countries does not apply to binational cities.
ArgentinaThe president’s approval rating has jumped from 48% when his presidency started to 55% in late March. His current approval ranges from 60% to 83%.Mandatory isolation and restricted circulation. Those who fail to comply may be prosecuted.The decision to release prisoners from jail and to grant them house arrest faces backlash from both government supporters and opponents.
Costa RicaThe president’s approval rating has jumped from 21% in December to 65%. 93% approve the government’s response to COVID.Curfew from 7 PM to 5 AM and weekends all day. Vehicles can circulate according to the license plate number. Violators may be fined. 
El Salvador97% approve the president’s response to COVID. Bukele had an 81% approval rating in January.One person per family is allowed to leave twice per week to buy medicine and food. They need a designation letter from their family. Violators may be detained.Remittances may be halved in 2020, which represent ~17% of the GDP. Bukele has overridden 3 Supreme Court rulings in 10 days regarding the quarantine. He vetoed a decree approved by the National Assembly to increase the medical insurance coverage for healthcare workers. Bukele has vetoed 4 decrees in April. He is facing criticism for the violent and arbitrary detention of quarantine violators. As murders increased in late April, Bukele announced the police and the army are authorized to use lethal force in self-defense or to defense Salvadorans. The government announced stronger measures against jailed members by showing prison photos.
Guatemala89% approve the president’s response to COVID. The president had a 56% approval rating in January.The circulation of people and vehicles is restricted. Curfew from 4 PM to 4 AM. Schools and non-essential businesses are closed.The president vetoed a legislative decree forbidding to interrupt access to basic services for vulnerable Guatemalans, claiming that the decree was unconstitutional. Instead, he proposed a similar new bill that must be approved by the legislative.  
HondurasJuan Orlando Hernández had a 33% approval rating in January. 46% agree with the government’s response to COVID. 39% do not trust the ministry of health’s capacity to face the pandemic.Curfew from 3 PM to 9 AM. Violators will be detained for 24h or will be fined for half of the minimum salary. Public transportation and religious celebrations are suspended.The National Anti-Corruption Council denounced that the secretary of health overpaid 3.6 million lempiras ($144k) in the purchase of face masks and gloves. It has also denounced other irregularities, such as children and friends of high government officials obtaining emergency contracts.
NicaraguaDaniel Ortega had a 27% approval rating in January. 76% disproves the government’s response to COVID.The government will “strengthen the information” on washing hands, social distancing and using masks. It will also disinfect public transportation, bus stops, supermarkets, schools, and neighborhoods.The president is against the “stay home” campaign because it would destroy the economy. He claims that those asking stay home measures are the ones who revolted against his government in 2018 since they are using the pandemic as a means to “sink” the country. His wife and vice president has claimed that unofficial accounts of unreported cases and deaths are fake news, which is a popular strategy used by those who want to overthrow politicians or start a coup d’état. However, Nicaraguans are following stay home measures. 70% of restaurants have closed due to a lack of customers.
PanamaIn March, the president had a 36% approval rating, compared to 37% in December.Mandatory national quarantine. Curfew from 5 PM to 5 AM. Women can go out on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Men can go out on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. No one can leave on Sundays. The infringement fine is $50.Panamanians are protesting because they have not received the social benefits promised in the Panamá Solidario program. As a response, the government will start its grant program on May 15th. On the same day, the 81 municipalities of the country will close due to a lack of funds. Panama’s gender-based quarantine has spurred criticism, especially from human rights organizations, which claim that transgender people are being prevented from buying goods, fined, or arrested when they leave the house.  

The presidential popularity seems related to the level of internal conflicts with subnational authorities, more marked for less popular presidents as President Bolsonaro, who not only fought with governors, but also fire his Health Minister and was confronted by Court rulings siding with governors who are seeking to follow WHO guidelines.  His handling of COVID19 and support for ending measures of social distancing have not only resulted in the highest number of death in the region and political tensions, but have also cost him popular support and generated a polarized view on the illness among Brazilians. Lopez Obrador’s popularity declined when he denied the importance of the illness and improved when he passed some policies to confront it. President Piñera improved his popularity, but was coming from extremely low levels due to the political crisis, which started in October 2019. Hence, although he recovered some policy initiative thanks to COVID19, he could not avoid tensions with subnational authorities (TABLE 2). 

A crucial variable to consider the political responses is the size of the informal sector, which had brought even right-wing governments to focus on this hard-to-reach segment of the population. All countries in the region establish measured to provide some compensation to this sector with the exception of Nicaragua. Yet, the patterns do not seem to follow clear ideological lines. Whereas a center-right government in Uruguay instituted food aid for informal workers, the Brazilian Congress passed a law that established an extraordinary bonus for those workers and the Colombia government also established grants for informal workers. Left-wing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador only established extraordinary loans in addition to his existing social programs, but his peer Alberto Fernandez established extra bonuses for recipients of non-contributory plans as well as an extraordinary payment covering 8 million informal workers not receiving other type of government aid (TABLE 3). The most significant measures in terms of size (around 12% of the GDP) were adopted by Peru with a very large informal sector, as well as Chile and both countries had more fiscal space and access to credit.

Table 3-Informal Sector

Country% of Informal WorkersPolicies
Mexico56%AMLO announced loans up to 25k pesos for informal and small family businesses.
Colombia47%The government announced a 160k grant for informal workers, who are estimated to be 3 million.
Venezuela60%The government will give a 350k bolívares grant ($2.41) to vulnerable families.
Ecuador46%$60 grant for the workers who earn less than $400 monthly: informal workers, street vendors, hairdressers, sewers, bakers, small farmers, domestic workers, construction workers, carpenters, and mechanics.
Peru65%The Bono Familiar Universal will grant 760 soles to 6.8 million homes that do not have a source of income. It includes the Bono “Yo me quedo en casa,” Bono rural, and Bono independiente. The Bono “Yo me quedo en casa” (380 soles=$110) has reached 2.2 million families, in addition to the 408k recipients of the Independent Bono 380 for independent workers. The Bono rural 760 will benefit over 1 million rural homes.
Brazil40%In April, informal and independent workers received a 600 reales subsidy (~$120), which will be sent monthly between until June. According to the government, this program can benefit over 50 million Brazilians.
Bolivia62%The government announced Bono Familia ($72 per child) for families with primary school children, benefitting 1.5 million students. The Bono Universal is a Bs500 grant for citizens who do not qualify for other bonuses and do not have a salary, benefitting ~4 million citizens from 18 to 60 years.
Paraguay64%The government will distribute $100 million to 1.2 million informal workers.
Chile30%The government announced the creation of a $2 billion fund to distribute more resources and create more employment in low-income sectors. The program is expected to benefit 2.6 million informal workers.
Uruguay25%The government will distribute food baskets to 157k informal workers and those without social security in April and May. The government will implement a food plan in which the economically vulnerable can access a $27 grant.
Argentina49%The IFE is a 10k pesos grant (~$150) for 7.8 million informal workers who do not receive social benefits and who have earned less than 2 minimum salaries in the past 6 months. The retired who receive the minimum will receive a $46 grant. Asignación Universal por Hijo recipients will receive $47 per child.
Costa Rica46%The Plan Proteger provides a monthly bonus up to $220 for 3 months for informal workers, independent workers, and those who have lost their job.
El Salvador56%The government gives $300 per house to 1.5 million households who consume less than 250 kilowatts monthly, who are registered with the government as vulnerable and who are not in social security.
Guatemala70%The Programa Caja Saldremos Adelante provides food for 200k vulnerable households. The school nutrition program, which benefits 2.4 million children daily, will continue even though the schools are closed. 100k informal workers will receive a Q1,000 grant.
Honduras5870%The government launched the Honduras Solidaria program to give 800k families food and hygiene products. The program will reach 5 people per family every two weeks for the next 30 days.
Panama46%Panamá Solidario is an emergency plan to benefit 1,350,000 families. It consists of giving food and grants for families in need. It will benefit vulnerable families, people in remote areas, independent and informal workers. The Bonos Solidarios are $80 grants (4 grants of $20).

To conclude, the responses of the region present different patterns that seem less clearly tied to ideology or even regime type, but more significantly associated to the presidential reaction and subsequent popularity as well as the size of the informal sector, state capacity, and social policy legacies.  The main political consequences, however, are the weakening of two crucial mechanisms for political accountability in a region that was dealing with widespread discontent with political representation. Elections have been postponed and protests have become untenable. There is therefore no escape valve for the discontent that had been long simmering in the region, and which is likely to heighten as a result of the dismal economic consequences that the pandemic will have in its economies.

Table 1 Sources

CountryElections PostponementElectoral Campaign
MexicoCentral ElectoralEFE
ColombiaEl Heraldo
VenezuelaEl Universal
EcuadorEl ComercioEl Universo
PeruJurado Nacional de EleccionesPublimetro
BrazilO Globo
BoliviaCámara de DiputadosInfobae
ParaguayTribunal Superior de Justicia Electoral
ChileThe Guardian
UruguayLa RepúblicaSputnik
Costa Rica
El SalvadorEl Salvador
CountryPresidential PopularityEnforcement of QuarantineInternal politics/economics
MexicoMitofsky_AMLO, DemotecniaGobierno de MéxicoAmericas Quarterly 
ColombiaIPSOS_April, El Tiempo, PolimétricaASAS-COA, El Tiempo, Caracol, Semana, La Silla Vacía
VenezuelaIPSOS_April, IPSOS_December     ProveaNYT
EcuadorIPSOS_April, IPSOS_DecemberEl Universo: covid-positives, curfew, finesEl Comercio, El Universo, El Universo, Ecuavisa, El Universo, El Universo
PeruIPSOS_PeruPágina 12, Infobae, El Universo, ASBNamericas, Defensoría
BrazilRPP, Reuters BBCCNN, HRW, TIME, Reuters
BoliviaIPSOS_April, Captura Consulting, Página SieteSputnik, La VanguardiaReuters, La República, Diputados 
ParaguayMultitarget, Mitofsky_JanuaryBBC, ABC, InfobaeÑandutí, ANSA Latina, Ñandutí
ChileEmol, Activa ResearchBBC, América EconómicaLa Tercera
UruguayIPSOS_AprilLa Red 21El Observador
ArgentinaManagement & Fit, La NaciónBBCInfobae, Infobae 
Costa RicaEl PaísBBC
El SalvadorMitofsky_COVID, Mitofsky_January BBCEl Salvador, Pew Research, HRW, El Salvador, Factum, El Faro, Twitter, NYT
GuatemalaMitofsky_COVID, Mitofsky_JanuaryBBCPrensa Libre, Prensa Libre
HondurasLa Prensa, Mitofsky_JanuaryBBC, La PrensaCESPAD, CNA
NicaraguaConfidencial, Mitofsky_JanuaryInfobaeLa Prensa, Forbes 
PanamaIPSOS_April, IPSOS_DecemberBBC, La EstrellaPrensa, La Estrella, La Estrella, HRW 

Table 3 Sources

Country% of Informal WorkersInformal Sector Policies
MexicoEl EconomistaEl Economista
VenezuelaCrónica UnoAS
EcuadorEl TelégrafoEl Universo
PeruEl PaísAS, Gobierno, Presidencia, Mag. 
BrazilJapan TimesEFE
BoliviaEuropa PressPresidencia, CNN
ChileINELatin Finance
UruguayRadio Uruguay AS/COA
ArgentinaInfobaeGobierno, CNN, Infobae
Costa RicaEl FinancieroMag.
El SalvadorAPSFrance 24
HondurasEFE, La Tribuna AS/COA, La Prensa
NicaraguaUN, Havana Times 
PanamaWorld BankPanamá Solidario, La Estrella