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A Tale of Two Populist Reactions to COVID-19 in Latin America

Espousing different political leanings (from right- to left-wing) and exhibiting varying degrees of intensity (whether rarely or frequently employing divisive rhetoric), at least five of Latin America’s current presidents can be seen as embodying the populist ideology.
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There is renewed debate around the term “populism” as of late, yet it should be noted that political scientists often find common ground in Cas Mudde’s definition. According to him, populism is best understood “as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” Thus, populist leaders tend to exploit this dichotomy as a means to increase their appeal. While populism became a staple of daily political discussion in the Western media after the 2016 US presidential election that saw right-wing populist Donald Trump take the White House, other regions have a long and sordid history of populist leadership, with Latin America being a prime example.

You can listen to this analysis on FeniksPod:

Espousing different political leanings (from right- to left-wing) and exhibiting varying degrees of intensity (whether rarely or frequently employing divisive rhetoric), at least five of Latin America’s current presidents can be seen as embodying the populist ideology: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico, Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

This analysis will not attempt to enumerate the similarities and differences among these leaders, but instead explore how two of them, namely Bolsonaro and Obrador, have addressed the current health crisis. The aim of this article is to shed light on how both (right-wing) Bolosonaro and (left-wing) Obrador have made decisions in these times of crisis, specifically within their respective countries that share some degree of institutional and economic development. Bolsonaro exploited a political crisis that led to the impeachment of former Brazilian president Dilma Roussef and the imprisonment of his predecessor, Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva; and while the path to presidency for Obrador was less chaotic, it was still similarly the product of a highly corrupt political system that has failed to fully embrace the principles of modern democracy.

On February 24th, Brazil was the first country in the region to report an active case of Covid-19. As of today, the country has 4,041,638 cases and 124,614 deaths for a population of 209 million. Mexico confirmed its first case of Covid-19 three days after Brazil, on February 27th. As of today, Mexico has 616,894 cases and 66,329 deaths for a population of 126 million. Although the scenario in Brazil seems worse than in Mexico, both countries fall within the top seven leading countries in terms of their number of cases, and in the top four in their number of deaths. In what seemed to be parallel reactions early on in the crisis, both Bolsonaro and Obrador played down the seriousness of the pandemic, adopting astonishingly similar rhetoric. For instance, Orbador said, “Look, about the coronavirus, that thing about not hugging others; we must hug each other, nothing is going to happen.” Similarly, when asked about the chances of Brazil having as many cases as the US, Bolsonaro said, “the Brazilian should be studied. Because he/she does not get anything. You can see a guy diving into sewage waters, swimming… And nothing happens to him.”

In a similar show of denialism, Bolsonaro and Obrador have both avoided wearing masks in public. Bolsonaro has even gone so far as to veto parts of a new law mandating the use of face masks while spouting homophobic platitudes that wearing masks is “a gay thing”. Only few days after these statements, Bolsonaro tested positive for Covid-19. While Obrador did not go to such extents to prevent the public from halting the spread of the disease, he has still refused to wear a mask, declaring that he will only do so “when corruption is over” in Mexico.

Both countries have managed the crisis in different ways. In Mexico, the designated public health spokesperson, Dr. Hugo López Gatell, has made efforts to develop a strategy based on scientific evidence. However, his efforts are frequently contradicted by the irresponsible actions of Obrador. In Brazil, Bolsonaro fired his health minister after disagreeing with him on how to address the health crisis. The situation in Mexico seems to be improving slowly but steadily, yet in Brazil, the number of cases has climbed to third place globally, and only the US has had more deaths. Despite these results and both Bolsonaro and Obrador’s irresponsible management of the pandemic, both remain popular in their respective countries. In a recent survey, 37% of Brazilians approved of Bolsonaro’s government, marking the first time since April that his popularity has risen. Similarly, Obrador’s approval rate is still above 50% with some surveys putting him closer to 59%. Such rates might be a sign that Latin Americans are used to populist leaders and rhetoric, even when they fail to rise to the occasion in moments of crisis.

*Juan S. Gomez Cruces is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Georgia State University and a research assistant with the Carter Centre in Atlanta, Georgia. Twitter: @JuanGoCr