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Jon Lee Anderson: Populists Inflame the Coronavirus Outbreak Across Latin America

In mid-May, Brazil secured a grisly world record: it had the fastest-growing coronavirus infection rate of any country on earth. Within a month, it surpassed a million confirmed cases. This milestone made it second only to the United States in everything related to the pandemic, including total fatalities, with around a thousand people dying every day. By some estimates, Brazil may eventually see as many as thirty-four million infected and three hundred thousand dead.


The country’s far-right President, Jair Bolsonaro, has made no effort to curb the pandemic. Instead, he has belittled the threat of the virus, calling it mere “sniffles,” and responded to reports of sufferers by declaring, “We all have to die someday.” When state governors encouraged social distancing, Bolsonaro joined rallies with supporters to demonstrate against them.


Oliver Stuenkel, an associate professor of international affairs at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, in São Paulo, believes that Bolsonaro’s pandemic response is the result of a brutal calculation. “I think he looked at this and thought, This will cause a profound crisis in the Brazilian economy,” he told me. “He knows it’s hard for a Latin-American leader to remain in office with an economy that gets as bad as it is now. So, in the states where governors imposed social-distancing strictures, he’ll say the coming economic slump wasn’t his fault but theirs. If the numbers level out, he’ll say, ‘Look, it wasn’t that bad after all.’ And even if they are bad, he can easily construe some narrative that actually they really weren’t.” For the moment, Bolsonaro’s P.R. tactics seem to be working; although recent polls show rising disapproval of his performance, about thirty per cent of the population still fervently supports him, as immovable as the fans of his role model Donald Trump.


Among Brazil’s neighbors, the fear of contagion has led governments to tighten their borders or shut them completely. Still, two nearby countries have suffered soaring rates of covid-19. Ecuador has fifty-eight thousand cases and more than four thousand deaths. Peru—despite a three-month lockdown, enforced by the police and the military—has two hundred and eighty-eight thousand cases and nearly ten thousand deaths. In theAmazon region, where river traffic flows freely in and out of Brazil, the virus has spread to devastating effect, with some indigenous communities very badly affected. It has claimed hundreds of lives, including that of Paulinho Paiakan, a prominent Kayapo chief who came to fame in the nineteen-eighties when he helped lead protests alongside other indigenous leaders and global celebrities, including Sting, in opposition to the construction of a massive dam on the Xingu River.


Thanks in large measure to Bolsonaro’s negligence, Latin America has become the world’s virus hot spot, but the misery has not been equally distributed. The region’s chronic economic and social inequalities have meant that the poor, who often live in crowded slums and depend upon precarious daily earnings to survive, have been hit hardest.

It has not proved impossible for governments to curtail the effects. In Costa Rica, one of the first countries in the region where covid-19 appeared, the government banned mass gatherings within days, declared a state of emergency, and closed the borders. It has had three thousand seven hundred-odd cases and seventeen deaths. Responses need to be swift, organized, and consistent. Chile, like Costa Rica, mounted a quick and apparently effective early response. By late April, with a death toll still in the low hundreds, its government, led by the conservative President Sebastián Piñera, announced an optimistic plan to begin reopening the country. But a precipitous spike in cases quickly followed, forcing a much stricter lockdown in mid-May, which continues today. Six weeks later, Chile has two hundred and eighty-five thousand confirmed cases and nearly six thousand deaths. Piñera’s sin seems to be hubris, rather than a willful dereliction of duty. But, whether in Brazil or elsewhere, it seems broadly true that, when heads of state have reacted to the pandemic politically rather than clinically, their citizens have suffered for it. The region’s autocrats have arguably led the worst responses; as they try to force medical realities to conform to their preferred political narratives, the consequences have been, from country to country, devastating, punitive, or painfully absurd.


When the virus surfaced in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-of-center President, dismissed the dangers and encouraged people to go to restaurants, in order to support their local economies. He insisted on attending gatherings with supporters, where he was seen hugging old women and kissing babies. He claimed to have special protection from contagion, thanks to a pair of Catholic talismans, as well as a four-leaf clover and a two-dollar bill.


By the end of March, however, López Obrador had changed tack. He gave a speech recognizing the risks from the coronavirus, and encouraged Mexicans to practice social distancing. Three days later, his government declared a national health emergency, and issued guidelines. Schools, shopping centers, and government offices were closed, but there was no obligatory lockdown, and little testing was reportedly carried out.


A month later, Mexico’s official numbers—nineteen thousand cases, in a country of a hundred and twenty-six million—still seemed low by comparison with other countries. In late April, López Obrador proposed that his country had “tamed” covid-19, and his top health officials also suggested that the contagion would soon reach its peak.


Since then, a spike in cases, especially in Mexico City, suggests that the announcements of victory were premature. Media outlets in Mexico and abroad published stories accusing the government of undercounting the dead. A duel has ensued between the government’s critics and its defenders. At the height of the debate, José Hernández, a political cartoonist and commentator who supports López Obrador, expressed outrage over the critical media reports. “They portrayed things as really terrible,” he said. “It’s just not like that. Of course, there are deaths—this is a pandemic. But nothing like what is said.” He added, “Mexico City is the place with most contagion in the country, but it has been kept under control, and, thanks to the fact that movement has been reduced by sixty-five per cent, the epidemic has been contained.”


Other observers dismissed this as wishful thinking. Even López Obrador’s deputy health minister had estimated that the real number of infections was eight times greater than the confirmed number. Enrique Krauze, a leading historian and ardent critic of the Mexican President, told me, “López Obrador has never taken the pandemic seriously. After the outbreak he continued travelling throughout the country, encouraging social interaction and even hugs; his government has done almost no testing.”


By the end of May, the daily infection rate had climbed to thirty-five hundred. Nevertheless, the government put forth a plan to reopen the country to tourism. As part of the promotional effort, some Cancún resorts began offering tourists free days on rental cars and hotel stays. During the week when many hotels in Cancún reopened, Mexico reported the second-largest number of coronavirus deaths in Latin America: more than fifteen thousand. (There are now more than two hundred and thirty thousand confirmed cases and twenty-eight thousand deaths, with a daily new infection rate of roughly five thousand.) The real figure, by all accounts, is many times that. “López Obrador has restarted his trips around the country, without a face mask,” Krauze said. “While he does, Mexicans are dying quietly and stoically in their homes.”

Earlier this week, López Obrador declared his intention to travel to Washington to meet with Trump. The stated purpose of the trip, which will be López Obrador’s first outside Mexico since taking office, is to celebrate the implementation of the revamped North American trade pact between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. But the move has raised a firestorm of criticism at home. Mexico’s preëminent diplomat, the former foreign secretary Bernardo Sepúlveda, published an open letter arguing against the trip and reminding his successor as foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, that “Trump and his antagonism and contempt for Mexico cannot be forgotten and be simply erased from the memory of Mexicans.” Most controversially, López Obrador does not intend to meet with Joe Biden on the trip, and Sepúlveda warned that, amid the U.S. Presidential campaign, his participation in “an irrelevant ceremony will be interpreted as support for the reëlection of President Trump.” On Monday, in his daily press conference, López Obrador stubbornly defended his decision by saying he had “no problem of conscience in going to the United States.”


In El Salvador, the virus has been contained, but only with severe repression. The effort has been led by President Nayib Bukele, an insouciant thirty-eight-year-old former mayor and night-club manager, who ran for office as a political outsider, and who runs the country via Twitter. At the outset of the pandemic, before any cases were reported in El Salvador, he ordered one of the strictest lockdowns in the hemisphere. After closing the country’s borders and its international airport, Bukele deployed police and soldiers to make sure no one left their homes. Thousands of Salvadorans accused of violating quarantine were hauled away to “containment centers” for thirty-day detentions, as were Salvadorans returning to the country from abroad. When the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the detention decree was unconstitutional, Bukele ignored the rulings and ordered it extended.

Rule of law and transparency remain major issues in El Salvador, nearly three decades after a devastating civil war, and Bukele’s authoritarian streak has drawn criticism from human-rights organizations. In April, after a string of homicides in gang-controlled neighborhoods, he responded by orchestrating a mass humiliation. In prisons across the country, he placed gang inmates in cells with their rivals; he also arranged a bizarre photo op in which hundreds of handcuffed, shirtless gang members, with their heads uniformly shaved, were forced by armed guards into long rows, sitting body to body with the men in front of and behind them. This followed an episode in February, when Bukele ordered armed troops to accompany him into the Legislative Assembly, where he sat in the Speaker’s chair and demanded that legislators approve a hundred-million-dollar security-assistance loan to pay for a helicopter, night-vision goggles, and a video surveillance system for the military.


Bukele retains the unqualified backing of the Trump Administration; he has acceded to U.S. policies on immigration and narcotics trafficking, and positioned himself as a critic of China, which has been seeking inroads in the region. The U.S. Ambassador, Ronald Johnson, a longtime military officer and a C.I.A. agent, regularly tweets his approval of Bukele’s decrees, as well as dispensing unsolicited advice and warnings to Salvadorans. Last month, Bukele held a joint press conference with Johnson in which he revealed that, like Trump and “most of the world’s leaders,” he takes hydroxychloroquine as a preventive treatment against covid-19. (In fact, the only other leader who has boasted of taking the medication is Bolsonaro.)


A Washington insider with experience in the region told me that a Biden victory in November would be disastrous for Bukele: “Bukele seems to think that the pass he is getting now because of his coöperation on migration and deportations offers some kind of lasting protection as he takes apart democratic institutions. There is already skepticism on both sides of the aisle in Congress, and Democrats are increasingly alarmed that he’s bent on authoritarian rule. I’m concerned that he’ll cross a line that he can’t come back from.”


Carlos Dada, a leading Salvadoran journalist, also predicts calamitous consequences, but for different reasons. Bukele’s strict quarantine measures, he told me, were “more like a punishment than anything else.” People became desperate. “Three months after the first measures were taken, we remained in a lockdown controlled by the police and military officers and not by health officials. Out on the streets, where the police and army were deployed from late March onwards, if you couldn’t justify what you were doing outside your home, you were sent to a containment center. He shut people up—over fifteen thousand in all—many of them in places where they were all bunched together, without the most basic services, and the virus began to propagate from there.” An economic disaster also loomed, Dada said. “Sales-tax revenues have plummeted, foreign remittances have gone way down; unemployment is significantly up, and some businesses have collapsed because they can’t sustain themselves.” Most troubling of all, he said, an epidemic of hunger had begun to spread among poor Salvadorans, many of whom live day to day on earnings they make outside the formal economy. “All over El Salvador there is a sea of white flags showing that people need food assistance,” Dada said. “They don’t have enough to eat.”


Despite Bukele’s dismantling of democratic institutions and his polarizing discourse, the President of El Salvador has the highest public approval ratings of any head of state in Latin America. Dada said this can be partly explained by the fact that there is no alternative. “The army and the police have pledged allegiance to Bukele over their allegiance to the constitution, and the mainstream political parties have discredited themselves through corruption scandals.” Three of the country’s recent Presidents have been indicted for corruption; one is in prison, another died while awaiting sentencing, and the third fled to Nicaragua.


Dada said the Trump Administration also bore a large responsibility for Bukele’s misbehavior. “The role of the U.S. Embassy in backing his dismantling of El Salvador’s democratic institutions illustrates the shift in the agenda by the United States towards El Salvador,” he said. “Ever since the peace agreement that ended the civil war, Democrats and Republicans have invested their efforts in helping to support the country’s democratic consolidation and in the fight against corruption and the strengthening of its institutions. The Trump Administration has reduced the bilateral agenda to just two issues: immigration and drug trafficking. The message is clear: as long as Bukele fulfils those two goals, the U.S. will go along with everything else.”


In mid-June, El Salvador’s Supreme Court determined again that Bukele’s decrees were unconstitutional. After a round of truculent tweets, Bukele announced a lifting of quarantine measures, but thirteen hundred people are still detained in his “containment centers.” El Salvador has now recorded seven thousand coronavirus cases, with nearly two hundred deaths. These numbers are not any better, proportionally, than those of some of its closest neighbors in the region. Costa Rica achieved a better outcome without putting its citizens in prison.

Nicaragua is the Latin-American country where the official response to covid-19 has been the strangest. The First Couple—the former revolutionary Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice-President, Rosario Murillo—have become known for a combination of autocratic tendencies and bizarre whimsy. In 2018, they cracked down on pro-democracy protesters by unleashing paramilitary thugs, who killed hundreds of civilians. In March, Ortega and Murillo organized a carnival-like procession of their supporters in the capital city of Managua. Under the Marquezian banner of “Love in the Time of covid-19,” the marchers ridiculed the pandemic and proclaimed that peace and love would conquer all.

For months, Ortega did nothing to protect the country, but the official death toll remained suspiciously low. As of mid-May, the government acknowledged only twenty-five cases and ten deaths, leading the medical journal The Lancet to issue a critical report. “The Nicaraguan government has not revealed how many tests it has done. It is, therefore, impossible to know the truth of the number of cases,” its authors said.


As the pandemic began, Ortega vanished for a month, leading to widespread speculation about his health. On April 15th, he abruptly reappeared, with no explanation for his absence, and announced that covid-19 was “a sign from God” against U.S. militarism and hegemony. Soon afterward, reports emerged of unreported deaths in Managua’s hospitals, of falsified autopsies, and of victims disposed of in nocturnal “express burials.” Murillo dismissed the reports as “fake news.” After a group of health professionals published three open letters begging for a more effective and transparent official response to the pandemic, she derided them as shameless “extraterrestrials” with “diminished brains.” In a speech on May Day, Ortega suggested that staying at home would “destroy the country.”



When I asked the novelist and essayist Sergio Ramírez, a former Ortega Vice-President turned critic, whether he believed that the First Couple was underreporting infections, he told me that he did. “They are doing it deliberately,” he said. “I am not very sure why, because they live in their own world. But they see the virus as a source of political aggression against them.”



On May 27th, after months of denial, Nicaragua’s health authority reported seven hundred and fifty-nine cases and thirty-five deaths—figures that are widely understood to be impossibly low. (The official figures are now up to twenty-five hundred and nineteen cases and eighty-three dead.) According to the independent monitor Citizen’s Observatory, the real toll in Nicaragua is more than six thousand cases and nearly two thousand deaths. Last month, the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization predicted a “sharp increase” in the incidence of the disease, but it is hard to know how sharp: it is impossible even to draw models, because the regime has been so opaque.



On June 2nd, Murillo gave a speech memorializing twenty-two recently deceased Sandinista loyalists, who were widely understood to have died of the coronavirus. Rather than reveal the causes of their deaths, she said only that they had “journeyed to another plane of life.”

One of the keenest observers of Latin America’s populist trend is Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank for international affairs. “Populists like Ortega, Bukele, López Obrador, and Bolsonaro like to present themselves as representing the popular will,” Sabatini told me recently. “Such a conception of politics, shared by many of their followers, doesn’t admit for diversity of opinion or checks on authority. And as a result, politics become zero-sum. The policies may differ—Bukele’s gunpoint quarantine or AMLO’s profession of mystical protection—but the inflexibility and the danger is the same: no capacity to take on new or contradictory information or opinion. The people’s will and those who believe they embody it don’t allow for nuance or, heaven forbid, challenges.”




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