Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Emergency Measures Amid the Pandemic Threaten Democracies?

Governments throughout Latin America have employed sweeping emergency measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In Peru, President Martín Vizcarra has ordered the military to enforce the country’s quarantine. // File Photo: Peruvian Government. File Photo: Peruvian Government.

In the face of the Covid-19 health crisis, some Latin American and Caribbean governments have implemented tough measures to keep citizens at home, including temporarily waiving constitutional rights such as freedom of movement. At the same time, some governments have invoked extraordinary powers to pass emergency economic packages without consulting the legislative branch. To what extent do such drastic measures pose risks for democracies in the region once the pandemic has passed? How can governments ensure their systems of checks and balances hold up, even during times of crisis? What lessons can be drawn from the current circumstances in terms of areas to be improved on in Latin American and Caribbean democracies, including the strengthening of state institutions and the rule of law?

Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA): “This is a danger that transcends Latin America, as seen in Hungary over the past few days. It would be foolhardy to deny democratic governments the ability to restrict freedoms, bypass normal controls and deploy the military in times of emergency, as long as they do so temporarily and under strict oversight from legislatures and judges. The risk is that this becomes par for the course in democracies. Or moreover, that it becomes the norm, not simply because authoritarian leaders demand it, but because fearful citizens tolerate it. In times of great uncertainty, the longing for the ‘paternal’ embrace (and it’s paternal, because it’s always men) of authoritarian leaders can be a powerful impulse. This danger is most acute, of course, in those countries where the rule of law was weak well before the virus struck. That’s most of Latin America. In those cases, it is possible, indeed likely, that emergency legislation and a more prominent role for the military will stick around after the public health crisis is over. Conversely, the likes of Costa Rica, Uruguay and Chile, with vigorous checks and balances, independent judiciaries and a vibrant free press, are in a much better position to resist any authoritarian temptation. Yet, we are still in the early days. The real test will come if the mammoth economic crisis that is already engulfing the region (and the world) leads to widespread social unrest. In such a situation, the inclination of many governments to invoke emergency powers and resort to authoritarian measures to try and restore public order may become irresistible. It is then that the role of judiciaries and, in particular, constitutional courts may prove decisive.”

Sergio Bitar, nonresident senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and president of Consejo Chileno de Prospectiva y Estrategia: “This pandemic seriously threatens democracy. Before it exploded, democracy was already besieged, with delegitimized governments, institutions and elites; rising social protests rejecting inequality, violence and corruption; and almost stagnant economies. The pandemic and the economic crisis will exacerbate all these problems. We must be alert in order to avoid a return to authoritarian forms or anomie. What dilemmas are Latin Americans facing? Fear and vulnerability can predispose people to trade freedom for security. The expansion of digitization, the monitoring and traceability of each person and the government’s direct support for the unemployed and the poor for their survival, can open the door to surveillance systems and social controls still unknown. Armed forces overseeing quarantines and curfews may become common. There is a risk of authoritarianism and social control. This forces us to forge a new path forward, avoiding the risks of populism and authoritarianism. The pandemic presents a transformative opportunity in favor of a better democracy. Substantial changes will be made viable, including reforming institutions to broaden political participation and social dialogue, and to correct inequalities and favor inclusion. A solid public health system will become a priority. A stronger state is needed. The public sector should increase its capacity to reduce discrimination and in the provision of public goods, as well as to coordinate new programs to increase innovation, public-private coordination, education and innovation, in order to create new competitive industries and grow. Substantive national reforms and global multilateral coordination are urgent and will be more feasible after this pandemic. Citizen empowerment and strengthening democratic institutions can help to contain the risk of new authoritarianism and build a stronger democracy.”

Nicolás Mariscal, member of the Advisor board and chairman of Grupo Marhnos in Mexico City: “Covid-19 is no longer a national or a regional challenge; it has reached a global scale. This pandemic has affected Latin America later than other regions. Instead of coordinating similar responses, however, individual efforts have varied drastically. The measures themselves do not necessarily pose risks to democracies, but their consequences might. These include sanitary steps to reduce contagion, such as social containment measures and border closures, which will hinder activity in the region. Also, a global economic slowdown, the decline in commodity prices, tighter global financial conditions and the interruption of global value chains have already overshadowed a projected growth of 1.3 percent for 2020. An unfavorable economic scenario will defy democracies in the upcoming year. Governments will face conspicuous challenges. Not only is this pandemic one of the worst public health crises ever endured, but the economic downside is constantly worsening. Latin America is the region with the widest socioeconomic gap. Governments must ensure policies and strategies to buffer the impact on medium and small companies. The informal sector permeates across all Latin American nations, and containment recommendations will deeply affect people pertaining to it. Political leaders must seek joint efforts with the private sector and civil society to design public policies and emergency bills for an integrative approach. Existing loopholes in legal frameworks, along with perennial corruption, could represent obstacles in addressing Covid-19. Exchanging information and better practices among countries will help improve it in these regards. More than ever, multilateral cooperation and communication will be essential to combating a global challenge from a regional perspective.”

Shannon K. O’Neil, vice president, deputy director of studies and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations:Latin American governments are not alone in invoking extraordinary powers and measures to try to protect their people and economies from the potential devastation of coronavirus. In some countries, these new measures occur in a context of already threatened institutional checks and balances, presidents leaning on the military to support their chosen policy measures in Bolivia and El Salvador, or ignoring the authority of independent agencies and institutions in Mexico before the virus hit the region. Covid-19 challenges Latin America’s traditional means of societal pushback against presidential overreach: protests are limited as few want to join in large numbers in the streets. The health crisis is also slowing or stopping other efforts that had the potential to deepen democratic inclusion and accountability, such as the new constitutional process in Chile or the holding of elections in Bolivia. Yet the economic recessions or even depressions to come in many Latin American countries may keep current presidents from solidifying any overreach. With just a couple of notable exceptions, Latin America’s leaders still depend on the legitimacy garnered from elections. The next round of midterms and national elections will be difficult for those managing the crisis. By providing space for opposition, this may temper less-than-democratic moves today.

Maria Velez de Berliner, managing director of RTG-Red Team Group, Inc.:The region’s democracies were under pressure from disaffected groups before Covid-19 struck. ‘Shelter in place’ keeps these groups at bay now. However, their heightened dissatisfaction is a distinct probability, if regionwide poverty, inequality, unfairness, criminality, insufficient education and health care, and concern about meager pensions grow, and if unemployment and employers’ closings escalate. Checks and balances on presidential power are regional illusions. The region’s presidential systems, senatorial majorities and corrupt, or corruptible, judiciaries have combined to give presidents control over the institutions responsible for and tasked with curbing presidential proclivities to authoritarianism and demagoguery. A combination of perpetual international borrowing, poor revenue collections and aggrieved populations diminish their range of responses to national crises. Effective, established, reliable cooperation among government, industry and labor are prerequisites to effective and timely crisis management. Layoffs and employers’ closings aggravate the distrust of workers toward employers. And employers with a history of perceiving government and labor as hindrances to an unfettered market economy are reluctant to negotiate with labor and/or government when their company’s profits go downward. Governments’ haphazard response to Covid-19 is reinforcing the historic weakness of the regions’ institutions and social bonds. Unfair, rigged, fraudulent and bought-for elections, the region’s political reality, do not democracies make. And presidents who prop their administrations with repressive, corrupt militaries and police forces become leaders of democracies in name only. This crisis represents an opportunity for all stakeholders to come together in search and implementation of equitable solutions across the board, to the extent internal constraints permit. If these governments fail to handle Covid-19 fairly and effectively, they are risking a regionwide turn to demagoguery and authoritarianism under the veneer of democracy’s name.

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