Latin America, One Year On. Interview with Olivier Dabène

Latin America One year on. Olivier Dabene. Copyright: Shutterstock

L’Année politique is a publication by CERI-Sciences Po’s Political Observatory of Latin America and the Caribbean (OPALC) published within the Etudes du CERI series. The study extends the work presented on the Observatory’s website by offering tools for understanding a continent that is in the grip of deep transformations. Interview with the editor of the Etude, Olivier Dabène.

At the beginning of September 2020, Latin America registered the highest number of victims of COVID-19 yet the region only represents 8% of the global population. The countries that constitute the region are all developing ones, with weak state capacity. Is there a correlation?

Olivier Dabène: In part, yes. A state’s capacity impacts the way that measures taken are applied. Still, the correlation remains weak. Some countries whose state capacity is good suffered a total health disaster. Take Chile, for instance.

We need to consider three other variables: 1) the unsuitability of the measures recommended by the WHO given local situations—as a typical example, washing hands where there is no running water, lock down where families survive thanks to the informal economy; 2) the political balance of power that determines presidents’ capacity to impose measures throughout the entire country—do they have a majority in Congress? Can they count on the support of governors [in the case of federal states]?); and 3) leadership—in Latin America, as elsewhere in the world, some presidents have not taken the full measure of the challenges caused by the pandemic. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is the caricature of this phenomenon.

How did the various Latin American states react in the face of the pandemic? How have they solved the dilemma of having to save lives or save the economy? And how can you explain the disparities between countries?

Olivier Dabène: Disparities come first and foremost from the differences between states’ public health systems. The reduction of public investment into the health sector has made countries vulnerable everywhere, but the more “advanced” countries such as Uruguay and Costa Rica seem to have coped better. The economic situation of the various countries has also played an important role. Some countries such as Peru and Chile have accumulated reserves that have allowed them to channel important resources toward their most vulnerable communities. On the whole, however, Latin America ends the year with an exceptional economic decline: - 7.7% according to the latest estimates of CEPAL (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean ).

You have recently1 mentioned that in Latin America the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as an “indicator and a spark” of long-term tendencies and of a context that may lead to changes. Can you develop this idea?

The crisis revealed weaknesses in the public health sector, and in general in public policies related to social transfers. It has also revealed and exacerbated the profound inequalities that continue to characterise Latin American societies. But the crisis has also triggered survival reactions, with the emergence of mutual aid systems such as ollas (soup kitchens). Some local authorities (municipalities of large cities such as São Paulo and Bogotá, and states in federations) have also taken the initiative.

Will the year 2020 be qualified as a “critical juncture” that led to lasting adjustments? This is one of the questions that our report deals with. At this time, the response cannot be a strong one, but a bit like how the earthquake in Mexico in 1985 sowed the seeds of democratisation, COVID-19 may leave traces relating to the role of civil society and its relation to governance. Let’s not forget that the pandemic occurred in the wake of the poorly named “Latin American spring”, which had given rise to major social protests in 2019.

Bogota, Coronavirus. Etude Olivier Dabene. Copyright Shutterstock

Bogota, Colombia, 19 June 2020. Copyright: Shutterstock

Last April, you mentioned “possible reconfigurations and new sociabilities in the post-COVID-19 Brazilian political arena”.2 What about civil liberties and more generally democracy in Brazil and in other Latin American states? What are the consequences of the health crisis on democracy?

As Frédéric Louault shows in his contribution to the Etude du CERI, attacks on democracy in Brazil are numerous and profound. But these attacks are not necessarily correlated to the pandemic. Of course, any situation can cause a drift toward authoritarianism, but in Brazil, President Bolsonaro has systematically denied the importance of the pandemic. Therefore, he has not exceedingly seized the opportunity to reinforce his power to the detriment of legislative or judiciary control bodies. The current drift toward authoritarianism in Brazil would probably have occurred even without COVID-19, following a neo-populist dynamic comparable to what was observed in the United States under Donald Trump’s presidency.

According to you, a majority of Latin American states consider health a right. The region is therefore closer to Europe than to the United States in this perspective. In many countries, this right to health is inscribed into the Constitution. What about its real effectiveness?

Health is like many principles that are written into the Constitutions of Latin American countries: they never come to fruition.

The contribution by Miguel Lago published in the Etude shows the limits of public expenditures in terms of public health, which remain way below the average of member countries of the OECD (3% against 6.6%). Other data commented on by Miguel Lago confirm these deficiencies, in particular expenditures concerning personnel and equipment.
Naturally, behind the global figures, there are profound inequalities: between categories of the population and between regions within the different countries. The most privileged communities have access to high quality private health, for example. So in principle, health is a right, but in reality, it is also a privilege...

Interview by Corinne Deloy, CERI

Amérique latine. L’année politique 2020,

Les Etudes du CERI, n° 252-253,
Sous la direction d’Olivier Dabène
January 2021

Access the Etude in French
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Cover image copyright: Shutterstock

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