Latin America is facing the simultaneous onslaught of two potent viruses: one biological, the other ideological. Many Latin-American nations lack efficient health-care systems and preventive measures to fight the former: coronavirus. The latter virus, totalitarianism, is not new to the region, but equally menacing.
The economic consequences of the worldwide economic stoppage will be especially harmful to a region that depends, in many cases, on tourism, services, and primary-product exports. Nevertheless, the region can learn from democracies with a relatively low death rate to date from coronavirus: In Israel, South Korea, and Taiwan, the unity between the public and private sectors, clear and transparent information, social distancing, and other measures adopted by the populations and enforced by the government have so far prevented widespread deaths from the virus.
Latin American democracies concurrently face the resurgence of a familiar, yet lethal, virus. Across the region, the ideological disease of collectivist totalitarianism still infects the unprepared or those looking for simple solutions. With the regional epicenter of the ideological contagion in Cuba, the influence of totalitarian tendencies is felt throughout the region.
Venezuela and Nicaragua remain under the grip of despotic regimes. Bolivia, which successfully prevented Evo Morales from consolidating a tyrannical socialist regime, may now face a relapse because of bickering among pro-democracy factions. In Chile, for 30 years a shining light of democracy and free-market economics in the region, a violent anarcho-Communist insurrection has hijacked what was a citizen drive for social reforms. Rapid modernization processes, such as Chile’s, often include segments of a population that lag behind or lack instruments of inclusion. The sane way to heal this is through the expansion of the democratic compact, and the generation of new opportunities through universal education and more economic freedom. But reform is not the goal of the anarcho-Communists in Chile. It is destruction of democracy itself, in order to build a socialist revolution. The violence in the streets of Santiago and other cities is a premeditated effort by collectivists to destroy the free-market economic model because it was based on individual freedom, and because the Marxists could not abide a capitalist model that had consistently reduced extreme poverty. The radical agenda of the riots’ leaders, who publicly call for Chile to follow the path of Cuba and Venezuela, is a threat to the freedom, democracy, and pluralistic economy that country has developed.
Ironically, in Cuba, a country pauperized by a Marxist model for the past 61 years, there is a growing public cry demanding change. The dissent movement in Cuba is organic, emerging from diverse nuclei in the population. It often arises as a leaderless resistance, a natural response to the pervasive police-state repression of individual rights.
For over a year, even before coronavirus, protests grew. Millions of Cubans boycotted a regime-sponsored referendum, despite “voting” being enforced by the Communist Party’s mass organizations. The LGBT community carried out a large protest, and bloggers publicly gathered in Havana to demand an end to censorship. Protesting crowds forced the dreaded “Black Beret” repressive forces to retreat in Santiago de Cuba, while hundreds of protesters in the central city of Santa Clara marched in protest against the offices of the Communist Party, after a large informal public market in Santa Clara was closed down as part of the regime’s ruthless use of food rations to control the population. A protracted, year-long strike by independent transport workers broke the myth that concerted citizen resistance efforts can be stopped by the regime’s security forces.
The coronavirus pandemic may dampen public protests in some countries due to public-health limitations on large gatherings, but it may spur further protests elsewhere. Across Cuba, diverse citizen groups are daring to make public what they perceive as a lack of regime truthfulness on the true state of coronavirus in the island nation. There are well-founded fears that the regime will use the pretext of coronavirus containment measures to increase repression against the citizen movement even further, as it has in previous crises.
As the coronavirus continues to transform international relations, Latin America’s struggling democracies would do well to heed how quickly both biological and ideological viruses spread, and how virulent is their toll in human lives. Cuba’s and Venezuela’s parallel repression and hunger are cautionary tales. Likewise, the messages of harmful foreign actors should be rejected in the region. Behind the façade of economic investment and opportunity, the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China empowers the curses of cronyism, corruption, and centralized economic practices in a region that suffers from these already.
With few exceptions, free-market democracy has been making a comeback in the region in the past few years: Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, El Salvador, and others have left the failed socialist model behind. But the ideological struggle continues in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua, in the failed states of Cuba and Venezuela, and in the perplexing cases of Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, and some Caribbean island states.
The United States must be prepared to assist regional democracies to withstand these twin viruses. It must also help free Latin American governments diplomatically and politically isolate the Communist virus in Havana, Caracas, and Managua, while supporting their citizens in their struggle for freedom. In all cases of containment measures during biological or ideological pandemic, time is of the essence.