Latin America startled the world in 2019 when an eruption of massive protests and other profoundly disruptive events shook politics across the region. In Chile and Colombia—two of the most economically successful and politically stable countries in the region—citizens angry about poverty, marginalization, and exclusion held large-scale demonstrations. Similarly, protests in Ecuador resumed over new austerity measures imposed by the government. In Bolivia, a disputed presidential election, in which incumbent president Evo Morales tried for a controversial fourth term, descended into violent conflict and resulted in Morales’s departure from the country. Mexico experienced multiple tensions and disruptions, including the “glitter revolution” protests against violence against women, increasingly harsh political skirmishing between left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the traditional political and business elite, and continued violence stemming from escalating clashes among rival criminal organizations and between security forces and drug traffickers. In Brazil, political conflict mounted as its right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, ratcheted up his attacks on critics and opponents and pursued controversial policy measures, like reductions in protections of the Amazon, that sparked major protests.
Some of these conflicts were clearly rooted in or significantly related to the high levels of socioeconomic inequality that have plagued Latin America for generations. But most also drew on other fissures and fractures, whether related to systemic corruption, clashing sociocultural values, urban-rural divides, or long-standing ideological differences. In some countries—most glaringly in Venezuela but also in Argentina and Bolivia—one main axis of political polarization subsumes other cleavages. In many other cases, however, including in Chile, Mexico, and Peru, multiple divisions operate simultaneously. Yet the divisive and confrontational nature of the ensuing disputes—marked by the delegitimization of opponents, gravitation toward extremes, and high levels of distrust—have nevertheless polarized the affected countries.
This turbulent regional context was further roiled by the coronavirus pandemic throughout 2020. The pandemic hit Latin America harder than any other region in the world. By late October 2020, seven of the twelve deadliest outbreaks of the pandemic were in Latin America. Not only were the regional health effects devastating, so too were the economic ones. In 2020, Latin American economies suffered an 8 percent decline on average, greater than that of any other region. Many experts worry that Latin America faces a “lost decade” ahead, in which the region recovers very slowly from an economic shock wave that is reversing almost all of the impressive gains made over the past two decades.
The pandemic’s effects have fallen differentially across the line between haves and have-nots, amplifying underlying inequalities and undercutting the possibility that the pandemic might naturally create a greater sense of unity in divided polities. The health crisis has laid bare glaring gaps in governance capacity and triggered arguments over governmental actions related to both the health and economic crises. More generally, the pandemic has created enormous stress in the everyday lives of countless citizens, which almost inevitably turns up the temperature of political debates and confrontations.
Latin America thus enters 2021 shadowed by an ominous sense that democracy is under extraordinary strain. Political observers across the region fear the escalation of divisive politics to the point of political rupture. In some places, they worry about a new surge of illiberal populism that disregards or degrades democratic norms and processes for the sake of demagogic goals. In others, the concern is more about destructive political fragmentation in systems already marked by chronic conflict and dysfunction among an ever-shifting cast of politicians and parties. Moreover, the coronavirus is threatening to further debilitate the already shaky state capacity in many countries—a perennial regional weakness that drives dissatisfaction by yielding unresponsive governance.
To help shine a light on these troubled waters and map the recent trajectories of divisive politics in the region, we commissioned six experts to analyze recent developments in six key countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. We asked them to focus on four questions:
- What are the main sociopolitical divisions in the country?
- How has the pandemic affected those divisions?
- What are the greatest risks for democracy posed by the current level of divisive politics in the country?
- What are some steps concerned domestic or international actors should take to help alleviate these risks?
Taken together, the different country accounts present a sobering picture, though not an unrelievedly negative one. Divisions are deep, and the pandemic has intensified rather than lessened them—with some notable exceptions. The risks ahead are serious, and the remedial steps will be challenging. Although there are similarities among the cases, differences in specific sociopolitical patterns are numerous and important. To help illuminate the common patterns as well as the country particularities, the concluding essay synthesizes the main findings of the six studies, organized along the same four-part framework. We hope that the collection will enable engaged actors and observers throughout the region and beyond to better understand the troubling dynamics of rising political division and formulate effective responses.