Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
03 July 2020

Loyalty, voice or exit? Latin American countries after the pandemia

Commentary by Yanina Welp

In her contribution to the Democracy Centre’s commentary series on democratic experiences in the coronavirus pandemic, Yanina Welp, Research Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, examines to what extent the critical juncture represented by the pandemia may open opportunities for increased democratic public engagement or may lead to more citizen’s disengagement and power concentration in the executive?

Loyalty, voice or exit? Latin American countries after the pandemia

Latin American countries share in common their presidential systems and their commodity export dependence. The region has been characterized by frequent presidential breakdowns, which before the third wave of democratization were conducted by the military in the form of traditional coup d’etats, and since the restoration of democracies are characterized by an elite power struggle (in situations of divided government) and or popular demonstrations (frequently a combination of both).

Countries commodity export dependence[1] has negative impacts on their development because it produce high vulnerability regarding negative commodity global price shocks and price volatility. From 2013 commodity price levels have slowdown decelerating growth, with many countries going to a recession, deteriorating their fiscal situation, and leading to an increase of their external debt, weak or unexistent welfare states and poverty. Hand in hand with the  critical economic and social situation, the apparent general regional progress made towards consolidating democracy observed until a decade ago is now more and more challenged by new authoritarian discourses spreading through the sub-continent.

President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is an outstanding expression of this trend, while the regimes of Nicaragua and Venezuela have directly fallen down the category of authoritarian countries. Behind this growing elite antidemocratic discourses, there are inherent contradictions in a system that combines a formal commitment to equal rights with high levels of economic and effective political inequality, as well as significant dissatisfaction with the institutions of representative democracy. In such dynamic scenario of disengagement, political, economical and social crisis the pandemia arrived to Latin America. This overview seeks to answer the following question: will this new critical juncture open opportunities for increased democratic public engagement or will lead to more citizen’s disengagement and power concentration in the executive?

Is there a dilemma between the economy or the public health?

In Latin America the virus came relatively late. The subcontinent usually pays a lot of attention to what is happening in Europe, which this time could have played in favor of taking early measures. By the second week of March, deaths had soared in Spain and Italy. A few days after the establishment of mobility restrictions in these two countries, similar measures were taken in Latin America: on March 12, Argentina suspended flights from all countries in Europe, the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Iran, and a few days later borders were closed completely. Similar measures were taken in Panama and El Salvador, also in Ecuador, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.

Three countries took an alternative way: Brazil, Mexico and Nicaragua. In Brazil Bolsonaro in full dispute with his political opponents in the Congress appeared often in the streets with his supporters. In Mexico, by the end of March Andrés Manuel López Obrador minimized the crisis saying “he will tell the people when they have to stay home”. In Nicaragua, the government went even further calling for delirious marches, forcing health workers to attend “to receive the virus” (but the president and his wife, the vice president did not attend). The situation has changed as the number of infections expanded but the Ortega-Murillo presidency in Nicaragua continues in its nonsense policies and Brazil has no Minister of health because of Bolsonaro’s confrontations.

Even with remarkable differences between countries, health systems in Latin America are more precarious than those in Europe, and are already overburdened by the existence of endemic diseases (sika in Central America, dengue in Paraguay, Colombia, Argentina, among others). At the time of writing these lines, the situation is from uncertain to really bad regarding the covid-19: infections and deaths have soared in Brazil (1,402,041 infections and 59,594 deaths) and Mexico (226,089 infections and 27,769 deaths)[2], which are also the most populated countries and in which confinement policies have been erratic, conflicting, and late. There are countries where data is not reliable and the available information does not allow any optimism, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. In Ecuador, extremely critical moments were observed when, in the absence of an effective care and information policy, corpses were abandoned on the streets of the city of Guayaquil. Cuba seems to have implemented its exceptional health system with good results, while confinement could have given results in Argentina (strict confinement, but the pandemia is not under control). It is under control in Costa Rica, Paraguay and Uruguay (the last, following policies similar to those of Switzerland, which transfer advice to the population without prohibiting or prosecuting mobility). However, the economic crisis is generating enormous pressure everywhere, and specially on sectors of the population which are on the informal market and need their daily income to live. Each country would warrant a detailed analysis of its state of affairs. I will focus here on a general overview of the expected consequences of the pandemia on democratic systems.

Declining democracies?

The LAPOP’s Americas Barometer identifies, as a general trend, that supports for democracy in 2018/19 remains low when compared to the pre-2016 time period; support for executive coups (that is, the shutdown of the legislature) increased by 3.5 percentage points in 2018/19, remarkable in Peru were is tolerated by 58,9%; and satisfaction with democracy continued to decrease slightly in 2018/19. When moving to support democracy in Uruguay, Costa Rica and Argentina over 70% of respondents support it while in Peru, Guatemala, and Honduras the figure is below 50%. These data partially correlate with satisfaction with democracy. However, for instance, Peru ranks quite well on the index of liberal democracy despite satisfaction is low, and in Argentina support for democracy is high but satisfaction is also quite low[3].

How all these – perceptions, institutional functioning, the evolution of the pandemic in terms of public health, and the evolution of the economy – shapes prospective for democracy in Latin American countries? State of exception, alarm, or emergence have been declared in most of the countries concentrating power in presidents and giving prominence to the military in a region sensible to his dictatorial past. However, parliaments are working almost normally in countries such as Ecuador or Paraguay, and states of exception are declared within legal frameworks. What can be expected, then?

First, on the side of exit (in terms of Albert Hirschman, 1970): the temptation could be represented by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who has been challenging institutions and democratic values – even common sense–  constantly since his arrival to power. In Brazil and in other countries neopentecostal churches are also increasing their relevance defining a political agenda characterized by intolerance, just to be brief on the definition. But in Brazil as in Venezuela and Nicaragua, there is a growing tension between the non-democratic actors and the pro-democratic ones, so it could also open room for new forms of resistance and regime change or can just reinforce the consolidation of the authoritarianism. 

Second, on the side of loyalty: I would say that most of the demands presented in Chile are an expression of a grassroots agenda addressed to reinforce democracy. Another good example of loyalty seems to be the Argentinian election in 2019 which canalized institutionally a quite deep political divide in a context of a serious economical crisis. The states of exception have been declared under the legality. This is the case in Argentina, where the government has implemented policies by decree but in conversation with the governors and the opposition parties. The controversy is emerging, but this is part of a plural system and would not risk democracy[4].  

Third, on the side of voice: during 2019 in many Latin American countries people took the streets to demonstrate against the increase in the price of public services, corruption, inequality, and environmental issues, among others. It happened with particular intensity in countries such as Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia. Context matters and all these experiences can not be explained by the same factors neither engaged the same group of actors but they all share in common an attempt of sectors of the population of exercising voice. The case of Chile is particularly interesting given that the country has been considered an example of stability and economic growth until recently, despite there was a growing number of citizens dissatisfied with the institutions of representative democracy, showing growing distrust in parliament and political parties and low voter turnout. However, this did not lead to exit but to voice: from 2011 to 2019 the number of protests has been constantly increasing as an example of what Norris identifies as ‘critical citizens’.

However, a less optimistic view (“a a tsunami of sovereign debt distress is coming”) alerts to foreseeing a new wave of protests leading to eventual crisis of governability if countries already affected by severe economic crisis before the pandemia are condemned by their lack of financing. An active civil society is key to building democracy, but at the same time if social protests are not followed by fundamental changes in the socio-economic structures, then society merely enters in cycles leading to ever-increasing disenchantment with politics and democracy.


[1]     UNCTAD defines a country as dependent on commodities when these account for more than 60% of its total merchandise exports in value terms.

[2]     Source John Hopkins University, visited on July 1.

[3]     Dinorah Azpuru did an analysis of the risk of democratic backsliding in Latin America during the pandemia for the Albert Hirschman commentary series on democratic experiences in the age of pandemics.

[4]     See my report on the case of Argentina in Pex: COVID-19 In Argentina: An Authoritarian Turn Is Not An Option