More management and less polarization. These are the lessons Latin American governments must learn from the coronavirus crisis, says Argentina’s Maria Victoria Murillo, 53, director of the Institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University in New York.
A professor of political science, Murillo cites Brazil as the “obvious example” of a country in which polarization has seriously undermined the development and implementation of public policies.
“When different actors say opposite things, the population does not trust anyone, do not know what to do, and there is no compliance with lockouts,” he said, in an interview by videoconference. , in Folha.
Murillo also says the pandemic could lead to political fragmentation, with the emergence of “outsiders” on the continent. “People will want someone to take control in the midst of the crisis,” says the researcher. “There is a lot of electoral volatility, a lot of parties, people don’t seem to unite around an option. In Brazil now, you see a lot more fragmentation.”
What structural problems in Latin America have been catalyzed by the pandemic? The pandemic has shown that inequality is not only linked to income, but to access to health, to education. We already knew that, but it has become more glaring with distance education and with people dying without access to oxygen. Another thing that strikes the most is the weakness of Latin American states. The pandemic has shown the inability to protect the population. Another long-standing problem that has become very evident is the incredible size of our informal economy. It was a sector severely affected by the pandemic. It will only get worse, I don’t see a solution. The crisis in the legitimacy of democratic institutions may also have worsened. The distrust of the population is very strong, the administration of the pandemic is suspected of corruption, there are vaccination problems.
Which governments have been better and which have been worse in the fight against the pandemic? The governments that we used as an example at the beginning did not achieve the desired result. Peru was very quick to respond, devoted a lot of resources, was very strict in quarantine, and yet it was one of the worst cases. The State is very weak, it did not have the capacity to distribute resources, the informal sector is very important, the population did not have access to running water.
But there are countries that seem to have gotten worse, where the solution has been completely polarized. Brazil is the obvious example. When different actors say opposite things, the population does not trust anyone, does not know what to do and there is no respect for lockdowns. Moreover, it puts the world in danger due to the emergence of new viral mutations.
In this scenario, what lessons can Latin American governments draw from the crisis? The damage that polarization causes in the development of public policies. The population does not trust contrasting speeches, does not know what to believe. We have learned that polarization is very damaging to the collective good – and to public health in particular. The second thing we learned is that management and preparation are crucial. Latin America has experienced many crises, but each time it seems taken by surprise.
The third lesson that the pandemic has provided is the importance of empathy for the economic and political elites with the population, who are suffering from the pandemic in different ways.
What is the impact of Covid-19 for democracies that were already facing protests and political instability? The region was already facing a crisis of democratic representation, with demonstrations in the Andean countries, the closure of the Peruvian Congress, an impeachment attempt in Paraguay, a coup d’état in Bolivia. The initial impact of the pandemic was to suspend this mobilization. In most countries people have followed the president, [havia um sentimento de que] it was a war and we were all together. But the performance was not good, the pandemic lasted a long time, and the economic consequences were very significant, so we saw a decline in support for presidents.
One of the reactions is an increase in fragmentation and dissatisfaction with the political class, which can lead to instabilities and emergence opportunities for foreigners. People will want someone to take control in the midst of the crisis. There is a lot of electoral volatility, a lot of parties, people don’t seem to unite around an option. In Brazil you are now seeing a lot more fragmentation.
For the next elections in Brazil, many candidates are presented, especially in the area of the center-right. Jair Bolsonaro has a political management problem. He thinks he’s a Donald Trump of the tropics, but Trump was able to build a very strong coalition to take the Republican Party. I don’t see Bolsonaro with this type of close relationship, taking central sides. So I think there are so many more [candidatos] ready to challenge you.
Research shows that after the pandemic Bolsonaro’s rejection increased, but he appears to have a hard core of supporters hovering around 30% of the population. What could cause these people to abandon you? It is very common that a third of people really worship, be loyal to the leader. What hurts a populist leader is the use of public policies that give the impression that he has lost his authenticity. People follow him not because of a particular policy, but because they trust that he will protect their interests, that they will represent them. Any sign that this is not the case is harmful. In general, populist leaders are very cautious about this.
As a populist, is it possible for Bolsonaro to take advantage of this moment of crisis to move forward with an authoritarian agenda? For example, he issued decrees that make it easier to buy weapons, and some people have suggested that his goal would be to arm the partisans. I do not like guns, but that is not in itself authoritarian action. If he went beyond the bounds of executive authority or sent the military to Congress, that would be authoritarian. The most important condition for a populist leader to erode democracy is to have a lot of popular support.
Because he is not popular enough and has many challenges, governors, the Supreme Court and Congress are urged to take on Bolsonaro. It doesn’t seem like he has much power. The only risk is that he feels isolated and turns to the army, which decides to stop democracy.
Why does Latin America continue to flirt with military intervention? In 2019, Evo Morales resigned in Bolivia after coming under pressure from the military. Bolsonaro has a government full of military personnel and extols dictatorship whenever he has the chance. This temptation has been weaker in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, in part because in these countries transitional justice has made further progress. Society has a clear idea of the cost of military repression. There is an increase in dependence on the military in many countries, mainly Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico. Using the army to fight crime has the consequence of opening it up to corruption and the influence of criminal organizations.
You have just published the book “La Ley y La Trampa en América Latina” (The Law and the Trap in Latin America), in which you argue that institutional weakness is not a mistake, but a political strategy. How it works? For example, Brazil started adopting environmental protection policies in the 90s. On paper, it was very strong, but it did not have much application. When the PT comes to power, there is a stronger coalition and increased use of the rules. Now, with Bolsonaro, the same institutions have been drained of their resources and employees, enforcement has become more irregular, and the state is indifferent. Criminal laws in Brazil are applied depending on whether you are rich, poor, black, white. The perception of the rules varies according to the sector of the population. It would be easier today if someone wanted to change them, because people don’t see them as legitimate.
Now, with the end of Lava Jato, how do you see the legacy of Operation for Democracy and Institutions? It was a missed opportunity. In the beginning, there was a great expectation that everyone would be equal under the law, as the rich and powerful were affected as well. But it was applied in a politicized manner, used to prosecute Lula, with the judge and prosecutors, as we now know, breaking the law. People who expected the judiciary to treat everyone equally found that this was not the case. So it is much more difficult that in the future they again rely on justice.
Maria Victoria Murillo, 53
Director of the Institute for Latin American Studies and Professor in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University (United States), she holds a PhD in Political Science from Harvard University (United States). ). She is also the author of “La Ley y La Trampa en América Latina” and “Unions, Coaliciones Partidarias y Reformas de Mercado en América Latina”.