Latin America Risk Report - 19 March 2020

Everyone wants more coronavirus analysis

This week I sent an article on Mexico and Brazil’s response to coronavirus as well as an analysis of the situation in Venezuela. Thanks to everyone who participated in the Q&A this week. Below are some additional corona-virus related thoughts and analysis.

In this edition:

  • Region - Jails as a crisis point

  • Region - US vs China on the virus

  • Colombia - Politics during the coronavirus response

Region - Jails as a crisis point

Prisons are becoming a center of gravity for the overlap of coronavirus and security issues in Latin America. Prison riots and escapes have already occurred in Brazil and Venezuela, leaving dozens dead. 

A few weeks ago I wrote about three jailbreaks that occurred in early 2020 and how they pointed to the way prison systems are a key security problem around the region. Those problems overlap with coronavirus in the following ways:

  1. Prisoners are in conditions that make social distancing nearly impossible, meaning that the virus will spread swiftly.

  2. Prisons in Latin America have awful conditions, meaning most prisoners will not receive proper medical care.

  3. Many prisons have significant gang populations that operate in an organized fashion within, increasing the chances of violent riots and organized escapes.

Over the weekend, I spoke with an NGO worker who visits prisons in the region. He pointed to a prison riot in Italy that left many prisoners dead and said that many Latin American countries should expect similar events in the coming weeks. Any large scale prison breaks or riots will strain security forces that are already under pressure to implement public health measures.

Region - US vs China on the virus

On Tuesday, Bill Bishop wrote, “Over the last 24 hours we have gotten even closer to the precipice. I can not think of a more dangerous time in the US-China relationship in the last 40 years, and the carnage from the coronavirus has barely begun in the US.”

Among the issues, China and the US are engaged in a propaganda battle over the origin of COVID-19.

As it deals with its own crises related to the virus, Latin American countries will serve as part of the propaganda battleground and some governments may be asked to choose sides in the US vs China battle. 

While the conventional wisdom is that the US is losing ground while China is gaining, a new Inter-American Dialogue report shows that 2019 was the lowest year on record for Chinese investment in Latin America. China’s activities in Latin America can be expected to drop even further during the 2020 coronavirus crisis. Further, whether or not Latin America blames China for COVID-19, China may have a new image challenge in the region as the drop in Chinese demand is the cause of much of the current economic pain in the commodity exporting countries of the region

Colombia - Politics during the coronavirus response

Above: President Duque meets with governors and mayors on 14 March 2020

Here in Bogota, we’re preparing for a potential four day “quarantine simulation” this weekend in which the Bogota municipal government will force most people to remain in their homes. Individuals may go to the store, but that’s about it. 

In Colombia, politicians are making an effort to one-up each other on who will be the most pro-active in combating the virus. We’d probably be safer if all countries had this problem; it’s certainly a better situation than Mexico or Brazil. However, Colombia this week demonstrates some of the challenges when politicians are in this pro-active mode. 

Acting early is definitely better than acting late. However, acting too early creates an unnecessary economic loss as well as a loss of social capital as populations wonder whether politicians overreacted. The current containment, suppression and mitigation efforts are going to be long term, lasting many months. Politicians that benefit by taking bold leadership action today may see political damage weeks later as the social distancing efforts begin to wear.

In the past days there has been tension between Colombian President Ivan Duque and various municipal and state officials including Bogota Mayor Claudia Lopez over who has the authority to issue public health mandates. There has also been tension between the Congress and Duque. 

This tension between national and local politicians and between the executive and legislative branches will play out in nearly every country in the hemisphere over the coming months. Even working under the assumption that most of these politicians have the best interests of their citizens in mind (and many of them do; don’t be so cynical), they still remain politicians who compete against each other on the national political stage and engage in typical institutional power struggles.

For that reason, the coronavirus response in democracies is going to be more messy than it is in authoritarian countries like China or Cuba. In a region that struggled with authoritarianism in the past and that faces flawed democracies today, we need to embrace a bit of that messiness and welcome it. Checks and balances means institutions will struggle against each other. We don’t want that to lead to gridlock, but we shouldn’t immediately bemoan every point of tension that occurs. It’s part of democracy. 

Corruption Corner

Honduras - Honduras’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Rosa Elena Bonilla, the wife of former President Pepe Lobo, on procedural grounds. Evidence brought by the MACCIH demonstrated that Bonilla had deposited US$600,000 in her personal bank account in the final days of her husband’s term in office. The overturning of the conviction is another blow to anti-corruption efforts in the country and reinforces the image that high level National Party politicians can get away with corruption.

Venezuela - Reuters published an article outlining the extensive evidence of how the Maduro regime bribed and threatened members of Guaido’s coalition as part of attempting to turn them against the de jure government in the January vote. 

Reading List

New Yorker - The Fall of Evo Morales

ICNL - Preserving Human Rights During a Pandemic

NYT - A Small Country, an Oil Giant, and Their Shared Fortune

Americas Quarterly - Latin America, With Few Bullets to Spare

Bloomberg - Coronavirus Reopens Fiscal Debate for Brazil and Latin America

AP - In Mexico, a cartel is taking over: Jalisco New Generation

AP - Bikes vs Virus: Bogota expands paths in novel strategy

AP - Mexico: Monarch butterflies drop 53% in wintering area

Washington Post - They say they’re firefighters. Police say they’re arsonists. The battle for truth reaches the Amazon.

Washington Post - El Salvador is trying suspects in the notorious El Mozote massacre. The judge is demanding crucial evidence: U.S. government records.

Reuters - Mexico, former swine flu hub, tests nerves with coronavirus strategy

Reuters - Coronavirus chases the slum dwellers of Latin America

The Dialogue - Conference Call: Coronavirus and its Consequences for Latin American & Caribbean Economies (19 Mar, 430p-530p EDT-US)

Good Judgment has placed their Superforecasters’ predictions about COVID-19 worldwide online. I’m one of the analysts participating in this exercise.

Sibylline is publishing an excellent global Covid update three days per week for free. You can sign up here

Thanks for reading

Also thanks to everyone who shared my articles this week. I send a free weekly newsletter every Thursday, but I will likely send additional free articles for the next few weeks on Coronavirus as I know there is significant interest among readers. I appreciate any comments and feedback you have. Please continue to recommend that your friends and colleagues sign up at