Latin America is the region hardest hit by the joint human and economic devastation of the coronavirus, according to the World Bank. Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, is one of the world’s best-known pandemic deniers. But while its heartbreaking response to the pandemic explains much of Brazil’s suffering, it doesn’t fully represent history. Other Latin American countries are even worse off.
Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Mexico occupy the first places in a global table of excess deaths since the start of the pandemic compiled by the Financial Times. The response from its presidents has not always been ideal, especially in the case of Nicaragua, but the issues far transcend the leadership.
What the pandemic has revealed in Latin America is a long-standing disease: a lack of effective state capacity. Too often, when governments push the levers that should make health, justice or social protection systems work, little happens.
Peru and Argentina decreed extended lockdowns last year and offered generous help to those who couldn’t work. Inspection of the measure was irregular; economies have been badly hit, but Covid-19 indices have risen sharply.
Even in Chile, which has long been a regional paradigm, the government is battling a second wave of infections, despite one of the fastest vaccination programs in the world. Blame is placed on the premature relaxation of restrictions, in addition to less effective Chinese vaccines.
Better quality public services that are more accessible to citizens’ pockets would be part of the solution, but there are also questions to be answered about the efficiency of public spending. During the “pink tide” of socialist governments in the region at the turn of the century, social spending rose sharply, but the quality of public services did not improve as a result.
Much of the money generated by the commodity boom was spent on aid that lifted millions out of poverty, but proved difficult to sustain when debt got out of hand and commodity prices fell.
Very little has been invested in infrastructure. Average annual spending on infrastructure in Latin America was just 2.8 percent of GDP between 2008 and 2017, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, just half of what East Asian countries spent.
Despite 14 years of reign of the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) during this century, almost half of Brazilians still do not have adequate basic sanitation. Argentina spends roughly the same share of its national income on education as France, but with very different results.
Amid the devastation the pandemic has wreaked on the lives and livelihoods of Latin Americans, international institutions are offering a clear recipe: Latin America must rebuild itself better. The region must invest heavily in infrastructure, improve the quality of education and health, undertake tax reforms to reduce inequalities and pursue greener development.
Much of this advice has been offered for decades. The political class does not seem to be listening. At the start of a major regional electoral cycle, there are still populist candidates who come up with recipes that have already failed. Pedro Castillo, the far-left activist who won the first round of the Peruvian presidential election last weekend, wants to promote large-scale nationalizations.
Thus, Latin America risks falling back on family political skills that have already cost it dearly: unbridled populism on the left and on the right, with nuances of authoritarianism and marred by corruption.
If the region is not to remain permanently behind the rest of the developing world, it must begin by renewing the political class, launching a new generation of leaders who understand how to build a national consensus around inclusive and sustainable growth in societies. more equitable through savings. At the moment, that seems like a distant prospect.