Few regions of the world have suffered as much from the COVID-19 pandemic – from death rates to unemployment rates – as Latin America and the Caribbean.
In 2021, it also put strong political pressure on the region, especially in countries with close ties to South Florida such as Colombia, Cuba and Haiti.
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Tim Padgett, Editor-in-Chief of WLRN Americas, reviewed the year in Latin America and the Caribbean with Eduardo Gamarra of Florida International University, an expert on the region and its politics.
Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity.
WLRN: Happy New Year, Eduardo.
GAMARRA: Happy New Year, Tim.
So we both picked our three best stories of the year in Latin America and the Caribbean. Your third choice is the worsening migrant and refugee crisis in the region – something we sadly remembered earlier this month when more than 50 migrants, mostly from Central America, were killed in a truck crash in Mexico on their way north.
READ MORE: Latin America and the Caribbean 2020: From the devastation of COVID-19 to the mistrust of Cuban artists.
I think it is important to appreciate the magnitude of this crisis at this time. For example, between six and eight million Venezuelans have left Venezuela following the collapse of the country’s economy and democracy. And they basically affected domestic politics everywhere they went.
In Colombia, it generated a significant backlash; in Peru and Ecuador; in Chile, a significant rise in xenophobia – as candidates [have] campaigned on the basis of returning these migrants.
And of course you can say the same about the migrant crisis in Central America – which is now a global phenomenon, like Haitians arriving by caravan from Central America, or refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The political impact has of course been felt here in the United States. And all of this is likely to get worse.
My number three pick is a bit happier: Much of Latin America has turned the region’s COVID vaccination tragedy into a triumph. As of March, Brazil had administered just three doses of the vaccine per 100 people, compared to 18 per 100 people in the United States. But at the start of this month, two-thirds of its population were fully immunized; it was the same for Ecuador. In Chile, 84%; Cuba 82 percent.
The shame is that in many countries, health officials have had to overcome the obstruction of vaccines from leaders like right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or left-wing Mexican President AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador – and also, Eduardo, does. that the United States and other developed countries didn’t give Latin America more doses earlier?
I think you are right, and this is something that several Latin American countries have pointed out. But then again, there hasn’t been a tradition of doing this kind of large-scale vaccine donation, and so I think the Biden administration has caught up.
Your story number two was linked to COVID as well, and this is the deep economic hole the pandemic has left for most countries.
The region as a whole was absolutely unprepared for such a pandemic. Latin America was already facing an economic slowdown as its export markets slowed. Most importantly, it is a part of the world with a very high number of people in the informal economy [who canât afford to go on economic lockdown]. And you have to understand that, compared to the United States, the ability of all these countries except a few to provide economic stimulus to keep people out of poverty. [during a pandemic] or by absolute hunger is not very high.
So trying to force shutdowns made it even worse – and the economic impact, of course, ended up being a drop in GDP of around eight percent on average.
My number two choice is Cuba. We have seen street protests elsewhere in the region, especially in Colombia. But the anti-government protests that erupted across Cuba in July – fueled by anger over the shortage of just about everything, especially human rights, not to mention a protest hymn, “Patria y Vida “, which won the Latin Grammy for Song of the Year – were unprecedented.
Yet we have also seen the predictable and iron-fisted repression of the Communist regime. So will the unrest result in real change in the island’s dilapidated economy or its political repression?
I don’t think so, largely because the international community today has no capacity to force regimes [like Cubaâs] to change their behavior, especially on the human rights side, not to mention the end of these regimes.
The trend towards authoritarian rule in the region became even more serious in 2021 – and it is no longer a problem of the left or the right, one example is Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.
It’s a good way to follow up with your number one story for the year in Latin America and the Caribbean: how democracy came under threat again in the region. How serious is the new trend towards authoritarian government?
I think it is very serious. Of course, we have the leftist regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua. But this is no longer a left or right issue – an example is President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador [where a Congress he controls summarily removed Supreme Court justices this year who oppose his agenda, including presidential re-election].
He presents this trend towards the concentration of power in the executive, in particular control over the judiciary and the way justice is served in the region. We have a similar situation in Brazil with President Bolsonaro.
The United States, especially with its recent democracy summit, is trying to say, “Look, we have to counter this authoritarian trend”, but it is a very big task.
Just consider the fact that in Bukele’s case, most Salvadorans seem to be happy with what he’s doing. Or watch the comedy [November] re-election of [authoritarian President] Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua – which has garnered extraordinary support from other countries in the region like Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia and a glaring lack of condemnation from countries like Argentina.
My number one story is Haiti: the still unsolved assassination of President Jovenel MoÃ¯se in July; a major earthquake in August; economic implosion – and the takeover of much of the country by violent and ransom street gangs. In fact, many Haitians currently regard gang alliance leader – and former cop – Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier as the most powerful man in the country.
Failed state doesn’t seem like a strong enough term to describe what happened in Haiti. What can the United States and the international community do at this point to stop the country’s free fall? And should the Biden administration therefore deport Haitians to the country under these circumstances?
No, it makes no sense to deport Haitians to a country in that state. There really is no government there at the moment. There are a lot of things the United States and the international community should be doing, but are not doing. They must first resolve the collapse of public security in Haiti before new elections can take place. But so far, there has been no real call to action. And barring a call to action, 2022 could bring something even worse.
So let’s hope for a better year 2022.
I hope so, Tim.