Latin America and the Center-Right Reborn

Europe’s response to the coronavirus is raising alarms in Latin America.

The global health crisis has led to economic shutdowns in various parts of the world. Demand for commodities has decreased as developed countries have decreased consumption. In Latin America, this would result in economic shocks to the working class and a decrease in exports and hurt economies of all scale.

Every country has had a different response to the virus. The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University notes the mortality rate in Latin America. In Mexico, the mortality rate is 10.2%, whereas in Brazil— it is 7% and 4.9% in Argentina. It is much lower in Chile, Uruguay, and Peru. Chile’s mortality rate is 1% followed by 2.7% in Uruguay and 2.9% in Peru. This disparity is the result of varied action in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Argentina swiftly adopted a travel ban and implemented a nationwide lockdown. Further, on March 15th, the government passed a relief package just twelve days after the first case was detected. Chile took similar action on March 16.

The healthcare systems of these countries should greatly affect their respective governments’ responses to the virus. According to the Global Health Security Index 2019, Argentina and Brazil are the most developed countries in Latin America in terms of their healthcare systems. However, their management of the pandemic has been worse than any other country in the region aside from Mexico and Venezuela.

Another factor that should be considered when assessing the response of these governments is the degree of power concentration. According to the Regional Authority Index, Chile is the least decentralized country in the region while Argentina is the most. Based on this, one could argue that decentralized governments responded better to the virus.

However, the most significant factor resulting in these disparities is the leader of each country. Leadership matters. Center-right presidents in Chile, Peru, and Uruguay have shown that crisis management is more about accomplishments rather than verbal commitments and about putting democracy before demagogy. Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico have been doing the opposite of the latter.

Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, has dealt with a number of challenges during his regime. However, the pandemic enabled Piñera’s government to demonstrate what sound policy and capable leadership can do. Since the first positive case, Piñera adopted evidence-based measures by equipping the healthcare systems with the required resources. As a result, Chile’s mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world. Due to its efforts, Piñera’s approval rate has reached its highest level since the social turmoil last October.

Peru’s president, Martín Vizcarra, has also faced his share of challenges. Although Peru has experienced significant economic growth since the 2000s, corruption is still a prevalent issue. However, Vizcarra’s decisive actions, such as implementing a lockdown and curfew, have been effective. He has successfully managed the pandemic and his approval rate is just over 80%.

For Uruguay, things have been a little different. Its president, Lacalle Pou, chose a preventive strategy. His strategy has led Uruguay to have a low mortality rate while it simultaneously increased his approval rate to 55%.

These center-right presidents could build upon the momentum of successfully managing the pandemic.

All of these leaders have actively supported democratic principles such as a free market, public security, fiscal responsibility, and regional integration. In their view, these elements are vital to consolidating Latin America’s development. They’ve also condemned Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela. In 2014, Piñera was the first in the region to question Maduro’s decision to incarcerate political opponents. Additionally, Vizcarra has repeatedly supported Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader. Lacalle Pou’s posture has been the same. Moreover, he openly supported the re-election of Luis Almagro, the General Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), who has also criticized Maduro’s regime.

The Alianza del Pacífico (Pacific Alliance) and the Mercosur Union are the main trading blocs in Latin America that are based on the free market, international trade, and have strong relations with Asia, Oceania, and the United States. Uruguay is a member of Mercosur. The block was formed in 1994 and it is based on shared custom duties, and South-South cooperation. Both Piñera and Vizcarra should strengthen their positions in the alliance. The former holds its pro tempore presidency until next year and the latter has had historically strong ties with Asia, the bloc’s main trading partner.

In this context, Lacalle Pou could take a more prominent leadership role. Even though the Mercosur signed a free trade agreement with the European Union, it is very unlikely that it will succeed. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been erratic and unpredictable at every level and Argentina, another key actor, is challenged by budget deficits and the Peronist populist government.

In the context of the current global health crisis, center-right presidents in Latin America have proven to be more effective than their populist counterparts. Piñera, Vizcarra, and Lacalle Pou have made outstanding progress in terms of democracy and regional integration, which their populist colleagues have not. If they continue on this path, they could leave a legacy not only for their respective countries but for all of Latin America.