Pandemic could spark 'explosion of protests' against US allies in Latin America

Pandemic could spark 'explosion of protests' against US allies in Latin America

Latin American governments with close ties to the United States could struggle to weather a storm of political protests as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, American officials and analysts fear.

“If there was a lot of social discontent with government performance in Latin America before COVID, you can imagine in this brave new world the amount you're going to have after,” a senior U.S. official said recently.

That forecast spells trouble for American partnerships in the region, which President Trump’s administration often refers to as the “hemisphere of freedom,” given the number of democratically elected leaders who have risen to power in recent years. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 underscored how the “pink tide” of leftist and anti-American leaders has receded in recent years, but his response to the pandemic has former allies on fire-weather watch.

“The only reason why we haven’t seen demonstrations is because of the virus,” Brazilian Sen. Sergio Olimpio Gomes said this week. “Once social distancing is over, you’ll have a scenario of hunger and desperation that may create conditions for an impeachment.”

Gomes suggested that the president is “on the razor’s edge” of being ousted and placed the blame squarely with Bolsonaro himself. That rebuke is just the latest in a month of rough waters for the anti-communist leader. His widely-respected justice minister resigned in late April after Bolsonaro fired a federal police chief, spurring speculation that the president was attempting to protect his son from an investigation. And he has gone through two health ministers in the last month, even as Brazil develops into a coronavirus hot spot.

“Bolsonaro was a great opportunity for us, the United States — you had someone for the first time in a long time who did not see relations with the United States as a zero-sum game,” said American Enterprise Institute scholar Roger Noriega, who led the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau under former President George W. Bush. “And now, the guy is floundering.”

Bolsonaro split with his health advisers over how to stop the spread of the contagion when the health ministry’s social distancing guidance conflicted with his views about how to protect the economy. “The great humble masses cannot stay at home,” he said last month.

That position evokes the debates that have unfolded in the U.S., but even American conservatives inclined to view Bolsonaro favorably are critical of the degree to which he flouts public health advice. “He's making the gamble that his base is not going to be afflicted so much by corona, and also, that his base is going to care more about the economic crisis,” the Heritage Foundation’s Ana Quintana said. “That’s a huge gamble to make, and I think Bolsonaro is being incredibly irresponsible.”

The potential for protests exists far beyond Brazil’s borders, as the pandemic interferes with social and economic life throughout the region. Chile endured a national strike in November, and the simmering anger flared this week in the capital city of Santiago, where police clashed with protesters struggling with “hunger and lack of work,” according to local officials.

"I understand the deep anguish of millions of Chileans, thousands are starving,” Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said Tuesday.

That kind of desperation could contribute to a “dramatic increase in crime and criminal violence across the region,” the senior U.S. official said, which law enforcement and security forces may struggle to manage during a pandemic. A crime wave, combined with the economic and public health crises occasioned by the pandemic, could trigger “the re-explosion of social protests” around Latin America.

“You get the dramatic prospects for political change in the context of a system whose previous leaders and previous rules have been completely thrown out of the question and delegitimized,” the official added. “A year from now, we are going to be looking at a dramatically different region.”

That spells trouble for the government institutions that function as “antibodies to crime” and foster democracy, according to Noriega.

“If these institutions are eaten away because a president is swept out of power by violent unrest, or if the state is overwhelmed by the health crisis and doesn’t have the resources to respond, if democratically elected governments lose credibility with populations, then the criminals benefit across the board,” the AEI analyst said. “Unfortunately, those are the phenomena that are at work in virtually every country in the Americas right now.”