Latin America is a region of permanent contrasts, despite its infinite things in common. Its economies, societies, and political realities differ in a region where liberal democracies and authoritarian and criminal regimes coexist. With a vast geography and with so many realities that concur simultaneously, the diverse impact of COVID-19 pandemic is not an exception.

Mismanagement, improvisations, and populism

The pandemic revealed many practices by governments that took advantage of the situation to significantly restrict the freedoms of individuals under the argument of security and protection. In many cases, the lockdowns and state of emergency ended up lasting for months, sometimes without appropriate explanation, causing a direct impact on the economies of the countries and on the financial survival of the people. The improvisations, populism, and dubious attempts to handle the crisis, while the rest of world was also figuring out how to manage the pandemic, many times led to absurd measures.

In November 2020, the Liberal Network of Latin America (Red Liberal de América Latina – RELIAL, in Spanish) warned about the implications of the pandemic not only on the health in the region, but also in terms of economic, social, and institutional indicators. These impacts also necessitated reflection on the reality of Latin American societies that were torn between urgent assistance as a result of the extensive confinements and the need to reactivate the economy as COVID-19 was being brought under control and vaccines began to be applied. A region with rampant poverty, which during the pandemic increased by 22 million people to reach 209 million poor in 2020 – representing 33.7% of Latin America’s population, could not afford to sacrifice the economy while people were urgently looking for means to survive.

Although belatedly, with exception of Uruguay with its “freedom and responsibility” approach in addressing the crisis, many nations understood that there was no dilemma between economy and health, since both were necessary. It became clear that we should seek balance between them and never allow for sacrificing one over another. More poverty and more institutional and democratic deterioration are the consequences of not having understood that timely, leading to precarious medical services, social tensions, setbacks in education due to the difficulty in accessing quality public services, the delay of electoral processes and difficult political dynamics. The region paid a hefty price.

Mass inoculation as a new challenge

Today, having left the lethal peak of the pandemic behind, the region faces the challenge of mass vaccination. While the countries of the region are coping with the consequences of the pandemic, progressively eliminating restrictions, and implementing measures to restart the economies, there is a need to achieve collective immunity of the population in order to gradually return to normality.

Chile and Uruguay are leading in the region when it comes to vaccination rates: according to verifiable data, about 80% of first and more than 70% of second doses applied. On the other side of the spectrum are good part of the Caribbean nations, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela, with less than 30% of first doses applied and less than 20% of second ones, although without certainty of the data due to the opacity in the handling of official information. The situation in Haiti is precarious, with officially less than 1% vaccinated population.

Mechanisms, such as the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), did not produce the expected results neither in the world nor in Latin America, facing significant delays in the distribution of vaccines due to the preference of nations to negotiate bilaterally the purchase of doses. That reduced the availability of vaccines for the global fund. The region, which saw more than 92 million cases and more than 2.2 million deaths, faced the difficulty in purchasing vaccines on the global market. The countries with the best institutional framework and resources were able to manage an early purchase of Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen, and Astra-Zeneca vaccines. The countries facing severe crisis had to turn the doses of Chinese Sinovac and Sinopharm, as well as Russian Sputnik, outside of the internationally promised mechanism.

In addition, there were cases of bilateral solidarity. Countries like the United States have made important contributions to the COVAX program for the whole world (more than 80 million), but also provided considerable donations bilaterally to the region, offering over 40 million doses, primarily to Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. Other smaller nations have also received smaller-scale donations among neighbors.

Despite the enormous difficulties, the existing deficiencies, and lacking international solidarity, the countries of the region have cooperated among each other and made great efforts leading to over 40% of its population being vaccinated.

Pandemic as a pretext for authoritarian oppression

The health hazard across the region is not the only threat. The major threat is the presence of the authoritarian and criminal regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Each of them has had the most opaque and murky handling of the pandemic and, of course, of vaccination. These regimes have used COVID-19 to oppress and persecute their opponents above and beyond, with the excuse of managing the health crisis.

In Venezuela, with regime that generated the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis in the history of the continent causing six million to leave the nation, 94.5% of its citizens live in poverty and 76.6% in extreme poverty, according to the most recent National Survey of Living Conditions (ENCOVI). Throughout 2020 and 2021, the real problem for Venezuelans was to survive and not die of hunger or misery. In this context, COVID-19, present and very dangerous, has become an invisible evil in a country where people are looking for how to continue living.

As history shows, in authoritarian regimes the first victim is always the truth. That happened in Venezuela, just as it did in Cuba and Nicaragua. There is no credible information about what is happening with regards to the pandemic, nor is it clear whether the announced numbers of infections and deaths are real. The real number of vaccinated with first and second doses is not known either. All this is intentional as it is the way for the regime to keep the population in suspense, on the edge of survival, and without the ability to question anything. Venezuelans know that the virus is there and exists, but it is more important to see how to get some food that will fill their children’s plate as every day passes by.

The discretionary management of the pandemic and vaccination has also been a political instrument of the Venezuelan regime to condemn the society to its social control mechanism, motivating many Venezuelans to go to the black market looking for vaccines. Few have access to those vaccines that are the result of official corruption – a rampant consequence of socialism and communism.

As if that was not enough, the regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela intend to experiment with their societies through the use of the supposed Cuban vaccines Abdala and Soberana 02. Instead of offering any type of valid [international] test or approval that guarantees their effectiveness, the regimes provide heavy propaganda aiming to tell the world that they have developed their own vaccine, without knowing what effects they might cause. Millions of doses of these dubious vaccines have been distributed and will be applied even to children, in what could turn to be a new crime among the many that these kind of regimes have committed. They could easily end up being accused for crimes against humanity.

These kind of hazardous experiments of the oppressive regimes have not deterred the brave Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans to continue fighting for their freedom and democracy. Amid the pandemic and restrictions, they have stayed on the streets demanding a free future and asking for the world to support them. Their realities impact the entire region, while many times other countries turn blind eyes to what is happening, believing that either nothing should be done or that it is better to ignore the crisis. There is a growing sense that there is no will from the international community to act against oppressive regimes or that the international actions are insufficient to stop them.

The pandemic has only aggravated the humanitarian situation and the violation of human rights in these three nations. The already existing harsh reality deteriorated by hundreds of new political prisoners, tortured, persecuted, and politically disabled. These countries run the risk of further worsening the very precarious living condition of its peoples because of the systematic policy of social control and misery that their regimes have intentionally introduced.

Children have fallen victims of the pandemic, too. Equally bitter consequences the COVID-19 had on education in the region that already faces enormous challenges to achieve [virtual] education success. The situation is better in the countries with stronger institutions, such as Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, while yet again in countries experiencing the consequences of governing socialism, the lack of internet including vital services, such as water and electricity, has made the conditions going from bad to worse.

These reflections reveal that the enormous challenges and weaknesses that Latin America had been traditionally facing became much more visible due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these conditions and the restrictions imposed by most governments, only few countries opted for freedom in offering solutions, achieving noticeably better results.

Between set-back and opportunities

Unfortunately, the pandemic has caused populism to be intensified and the temptations for power-grab to be expanded. Criminal authoritarian regimes increased the persecution and oppressive practices, causing many more of its people to suffer and challenging the international democratic community to attempt acting differently. At the same time, some nations also experienced democratic electoral processes brining about important changes towards political models related to freedom, with, for example, direct results visible today in improved vaccination process. Such were the examples of the Dominican Republic, with the first presidential campaign organized during the pandemic in the region, and Ecuador.

Poverty, institutional and democratic weakness, and uncertainty remain constant elements of the Latin American reality, but equally so are solidarity and cooperation with regards to seeking a better future for the region.

Latin America is a region of contrasts, but, when the when the approach to crisis-solutuon is driven by seeking freedom and embracing responsiblity, it can also be a region of opportunities.

That is a great lesson from COVID-19.

Blogpost by: Pedro Urruchurtu is a political scientist and activist, professor and Coordinator of International Affairs of Vente Venezuela. He is Vice President of the Liberal Network of Latin America (Red Liberal de América Latina – RELIAL) and former Vice President and former Latin America Programme Manager of the International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY).

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