Latin America has been one of the regions most affected by the pandemic, both from a health point of view and from a socio-economic point of view.
Its impact on the region, on the one hand, highlighted inequalities and deficiencies in social systems and, on the other hand, had a negative impact on hopes for a better future. The expectation of a state of well-being was once again postponed.
The destruction of jobs and the reduction of incomes have made 2020 a frantic race for survival and to meet the basic needs of families and communities.
Domestic workers, young people, the self-employed and low-skilled workers are among the hardest hit, according to a recent ILO analysis.
In Manaus, the hospitalization of a grandfather by Covid-19 wiped out the family’s small reserves, and without the neighborhood collection, it would not have been possible to buy him the oxygen he needed for to survive.
Stories of families having to go from two meals a day to one are repeated throughout the region. An estimated 2.7 million businesses have closed, resulting in the loss of 8 million jobs.
Governments in the region have fought hard. Transfers and subsidies, as well as health spending, among others, mitigated the impact. “Mitigated” is unfortunately the most appropriate term, although it does have its merit.
According to estimates by Cepal (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), without transfers or fiscal stimulus, the number of poor would have reached 230 million, instead of the current 209 million.
In this way, it has prevented an estimated 11 million people, or the equivalent of the entire Bolivian population, from falling into poverty.
The same goes for extreme poverty or misery. Without the efforts of the government, we would have reached 98 million, not the current 78 million. In other words, 20 million people have been prevented from sliding into poverty – roughly four times the population of Costa Rica.
The pandemic has come to change our lives in the midst of an already difficult economic situation.
Since 2014, after the commodities boom, the growth of most Latin American economies has started to slow.
Many states were under fiscal tightening and several of the new right-wing governments showed no willingness to increase coverage and transfer programs.
One of the most notorious cases was that of Bolsa Escola, Brazil, where the government of Jair Bolsonaro limited the number of beneficiaries.
All this has a historical and structural context which in itself has limited the possibilities of countries to develop social protection regimes guaranteeing citizens certain social, economic and cultural rights.
The vast informal space, without guarantees or access to social security, mainly affects young people.
And in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay or Bolivia, where well-being depends primarily on families and communities, workers who aspire to generate income are limited by social distance.
The project of building a population with valid social rights seems to be disappearing, and dreams of social protection cruelly elude the majorities, despite the dignity and strength with which they continue their march.
New electoral cycles: unknowns and opportunities
When a new electoral cycle begins to cross the countries of the region, the question of whether Latin American democracies will be able to overcome the challenges is on the agenda.
Judging by the recent results in Bolivia and Ecuador, the “social” discourse has been heard and voters seem willing to support candidates who support this type of proposal.
The municipal elections in Brazil left a different balance: voters did not support President Bolsonaro’s candidates, but they did support a center-right who advocated greater pragmatism. It remains to be seen what will happen in April in Peru and in November in Chile.
Either way, one of the most comforting aspects is that electoral systems respect the popular will.
The cases of Venezuela and Nicaragua deserve a separate analysis, but what is happening in Ecuador, and what has been seen in Bolivia, Chile and Brazil, is the institutional capacity of electoral bodies to resolve complaints, conflicts and electoral demands.
In the post-pandemic scenario, a positive impact of vaccination and other health measures is projected.
But the big lesson that the evil of one is the evil of all leads us to ask ourselves: is it time to reopen the debate on the need for a state of well-being, albeit in a basic and progressive way?
It will obviously be the challenge of progressive tendencies, including social liberalism, which can take shape in a second “turn to the left”, but it also calls into question what in Chile is called a “social right”.
Unmissable challenges for the future agenda
There are many obstacles to achieving this goal. Two in particular.
The first is that the realm of redistribution policies – with its progressive tax systems and new tax pacts – is plagued by inefficiency and corruption in government.
The construction of alternatives requires an enormous effort to regain the credibility of the “public”, to eliminate corruption and, even more difficult, to face the organized crime which feeds it. You cannot postpone one to get the other.
The second obstacle is sustainable development.
Even if employment levels recover and a welfare state begins to build, the need for a transition to a green economy that reverses the vices of developmentism based on the depredation of natural resources and the fossil industry cannot be ignored.
It is time to integrate the terms “social” and “environment” into public policies if we want to move forward in a sustainable manner. It is the work of those who hold the reins of the political destiny of the region.
Translation by Maria Isabel Santos Lima