Protests, slumping economies and the clear erosion in some countries of democratic institutions plagued the region even before the pandemic hit. So what now?
BUENOS AIRES — It's tempting given everything that's going on right now, to think back to last year with a bit of nostalgia. But it's also important to remember that for Latin America, 2019 was truly an annus horribilis.
Economies slowed, the regional GDP grew by a meager 0.1% and countries witnessed a proliferation of social protests and mobilizations targeting both conservative and left-wing governments — all in a framework of a broader, political and electoral reconfiguration.
And yet, as bad as things were, this year — with the pandemic making its way across the globe — could end up being even worse. In spite of national differences, the coronavirus has deepened some existing trends and similarities between states, and the region may see an exacerbation of structural problems that will create bigger challenges once the pandemic subsides.
In a recent report on the region, the research body Fundación Alternativas, based in Madrid, points out some of the problematic traits. These include pre-existing inequalities affecting the region's political stability; rising public demands and expectations regarding social progress, wealth redistribution and public policies; and the worst economic performance of the past 60 years.
In spite of national differences, the coronavirus has deepened some existing trends and similarities between state.
The plummeting economy, in turn, has worsened structural problems such as a lack of productive diversity and excessive dependence on commodities (and their chief market, China), the foundation's 2020 Informe Iberoamérica report concluded. There is also a crisis of public representation and trust in institutions, elites and their ability to meet people's demands.
The fateful combination of factors is causing polarization and feeding ideological cracks, but also impeding the possibility of regional responses to an international scenario in the midst of a complicated transition. The rivalry between the United States and China is just one aspect of this process of change.
Latin America and the Caribbean may seem to play only a marginal role on the world stage. But the growing presence of outside actors has made it a battlefield of geopolitical confrontations that complicate its international standing.
Three additional and possibly related factors tend to further complicate the multilayered conflict: corruption among elites that gradually pervades their societies; the resurgence of the military as political actors — a process threatening the already weakened democratic institutions and paving the way for a range of authoritarian options; and the expansion of organized crime that traffics anything from drugs to people.
The challenge then is multi-faceted. States must contend with an economic crisis that is striking everyone but especially the poor, strengthen democracy and its institutions through public strategies as demanded by the public and develop more efficient regional coordination in response to global threats. This will aid the region's international insertion while maintaining autonomy and ensuring diversification.
It is a wretched moment, and one that requires complex, sophisticated social pacts and regional agreements.
*Serbin is a political analyst and president of CRIES, a network of regional think tanks.