Late last year, millions of people took to the streets in Latin America, calling on their governments to adhere to powerful values: democracy, equality, and human rights.
Today, covid-19 has brought the fight for these values into stark relief.
Leaders throughout the Americas should act swiftly to address this public health emergency. But decisive measures must account for human rights and democratic governance—not just because these are important values, also because they are foundational to public trust and cooperation. Otherwise, the fight to control covid-19 will be ineffective, and it will further entrench undemocratic practices in the region.
Unfortunately, there are already examples of leaders implementing responses that undermine democracy and human rights, thus endangering the effectiveness of public health measures in Latin America.
Some of the actions that violate basic values and exacerbate the pandemic in Latin America originate from the Trump administration. The U.S. has ignored its legal obligations and ended asylum on the U.S.-Mexico border, leaving tens of thousands of asylum seekers stranded in crowded Mexican border dwellings. Counterproductive U.S. pressure and political polarization have stifled efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuela during the pandemic—along the way closing avenues to dialogue.
But many Latin American leaders have implemented problematic responses of their own. In El Salvador, the government moved quickly to contain the virus; but its strategy involved a military and police deployment that saw over 1,200 people detained and sent to overcrowded “quarantine centers”. Similarly, in Bolivia, over 3,000 citizens have been detained, jailed for hours, and fined excessively for violating curfews imposed by the interim Añez government.
This all makes it clear that civil society must fight against abuses of power committed under the pretext of public health. When looking at Latin America, there are several trends that need close monitoring.
The first is involvement of the military in covid-19 responses. In a region that’s still overcoming a legacy of dictatorships, the pandemic could once again make it normal to have soldiers indefinitely patrolling the streets. Any military deployment needs to have clear limits. Authorities must ensure that militaries don’t supersede civilian control or act with excessive force while national emergencies are in place.
A second area of concern is oversight of investments in healthcare systems. Additional health care funding is urgently needed, but it must be accompanied by anti-corruption and accountability mechanisms. In places like Honduras, the health sector has long been vulnerable to corruption, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in diverted funds and thousands of deaths. As governments shore up health systems, there’s a risk this could be used to enable corrupt deals, especially given the absence of watchdog institutions like the now-defunct Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, by its Spanish acronym).
Another area of concern is transparency. Many governments are not being sufficiently clear about the goals and timeframes of the measures they are implementing. Measures that restrict freedom of movement involve significant sacrifices, and the public needs a clear understanding of why these sacrifices are required. Disinformation, including efforts to downplay the severity of the virus in Brazil, Mexico, and Nicaragua, puts people at risk. Releasing clear, consistent, and accurate information will save lives.
Lastly, in a region plagued by inequality, governments must guarantee livelihoods and basic care to historically underserved populations. The last few weeks have brought troubling news such as attacks against indigenous and minority communities, and prison riots sparked by overcrowding. Additionally, much more needs to be done to protect the millions of workers in the informal economy from the economic damage this pandemic brings.
COVID-19 is an unprecedented challenge, and Latin American governments are not alone in scrambling to respond effectively. Leaders in the region must recognize that mitigating the pandemic’s impact is no excuse for undermining democracy and human rights. Rather, implementing policies that account for these values will strengthen public health measures.
Geoff Thale is the President of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. Mario Moreno is the Vice President for Communications at WOLA.