Populists vs coronavirus - March 2020

AMLO and Bolsonaro are not taking the crisis as seriously as their neighbors

I’ll be focusing heavily on coronavirus in the coming weeks in my newsletters. While I’m watching all the swiftly changing details occurring in every country, when I can, my newsletters will attempt to move beyond the day-to-day events to look several weeks and months ahead in terms of the political, economic and public health implications of this crisis. Tomorrow I will open up a thread on my substack site for Q&A and discussion, so get your questions ready.

Most Latin American presidents are acting responsibly

Most of Latin America moved quickly and aggressively over the weekend to implement social distancing policies. Across the region, governments restricted the entry of foreigners. Large events have been cancelled. Schools are shutting down. National and local governments are implementing voluntary or mandatory quarantine measures that include closing restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other areas where people may gather.

Responsible governments have seen the results of coronavirus’s spread in Italy and understood that their healthcare systems are in far worse shape. A spike in coronavirus cases would be a public health disaster in the region.

In contrast, Mexico and Brazil….

On the left in the photos above is Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador meeting with indigenous communities in Guerrero and handing out raffle tickets. On the right is Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shaking hands with supporters who came out to protest in favor of the president and against the Congress. Both of those rallies happened over the weekend, as the rest of Latin America worked to shut down public events and improve social distancing.

Unlike most of the rest of the region, the leaders of Latin America’s two biggest countries continue to downplay the coronavirus threat. Bolsonaro called coronavirus a media fantasy during a trip to Miami where several of his aides appear to have caught coronavirus. AMLO, who has promoted a “hugs, not bullets” strategy on security, says Mexicans must keep hugging each other.

What can we expect moving forward from Brazil and Mexico?

The populist attitudes of the presidents and their actions so far give indications as to how the two countries will respond to coronavirus moving forward. As this crisis grows more serious (and Latin America is weeks if not months away from the peak), the lack of serious leadership in the region’s two largest countries is a threat.

In January, I looked at how Latin American governments were prepared for a pandemic threat. While Brazil and Mexico ranked among the most prepared according to the researchers who did the study, that ranking system did not take into account the idiosyncrasies of the new leadership in each country. For example, both countries were supposed to have among the best virus monitoring systems, but both appear to be systemically undercounting cases (even by the standards that everyone is undercounting cases) and the reason for that undercounting appears to be political.

The slow national response means Brazil and Mexico will be behind the curve on social distancing policies. Though both are moving forward on school closures, many other public spaces remain open. As the virus spreads in both countries, a week or two delay on social distancing policies means that the public health systems will be hit harder than necessary.

Municipal and state governments will attempt to fill in where the federal government is failing to provide leadership. Yet, the federal government has specific resources including the ability to order the military to assist that local and state governments do not. Tensions will increase as local governments deal with reality while the president worries about his image.

There will be moments of clarity in which the populist leaders appear to recognize the threat and take action. Those moments will sometimes follow a high profile death or a major economic hit that they cannot ignore. Unfortunately, those moments aren’t permanent and will be followed up by moments of absurdity, as with this weekend, in which the leaders appear totally separated from the reality of the crisis. Both leaders will look to distract from the crisis with other issues (AMLO wants nothing distracting from his raffle). The flip-flop from action to denial and back will occur multiple times in the weeks to come.

Both leaders will use the crisis to lash out at critics and attempt to push their agenda forward on unrelated issues. Lopez Obrador, thanks to higher popularity and control of the Congress by his party, has had better luck bending the political system to his will than Bolsonaro. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is in a fight with his own Congress that will only become more difficult as rival politicians blame the president for his failed leadership.

Both countries have had their stock markets and currencies drop and both will likely face a shrinking economy for at least two quarters of this year if not longer. Lopez Obrador, whose approval rating has already fallen due to a lack of results on security, now faces a combination of health crisis and economic decline. Bolsonaro’s political fortunes are tied to an economic revival that is not going to come, meaning he will face losses in the municipal elections later this year.

Populists create an aura of centralized decision making that allows them to take credit when things go correctly. However, that also leaves them on the hook when things go wrong. Populations are going to get frustrated by the failures of these governments. Political opponents are going to use the images above to remind voters how these presidents played politics while their countries’ faced a global health crisis.

Thanks for reading

I was about halfway through my draft yesterday when I saw The Guardian also covered this comparison between Brazil’s and Mexico’s leaders, so click there for a different take. 

I’ll be sending more free analysis over the coming weeks about Covid-19 in Latin America because this topic is of such interest to readers. If you would like to support this newsletter as it covers coronavirus and other Latin American political, economic and security issues over the coming months, please consider subscribing.