The calm before the storm, the flat calm that preludes to the earthquake, the long quarantine in which anger and frustration mount: this is Latin America swept by Covid. The continent saw the outbreak spreading in Europe and had time to prepare for the impact. However, the pandemic has overcome every barrier and has spread everywhere. Not only for countries who exposed themselves to disaster with their governments not taking any actions towards interventions and mitigation, like Brazil and Mexico: they are now paying dearly for it. But even for the most timely ones, those who seemed to have reacted well by carrying out more tests than anyone else, like Chile and Peru, and other countries that didn’t hesitate in declaring an immediate lockdown such as Argentina, were unable to dodge the storm. This is due to many reasons. The first because of political incapacity as is the case in Chile. The second because a history of institutional disorganization cannot magically disappear during a pandemic like is the case for Peru. For both reasons in the third case, Argentina, after the quarantine has given the perfect alibi to monopolize power. All the other cases, with different nuances and except for the Uruguay, are a mix of similar ingredients. The exceptions are Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua: their data on the pandemic are credible for those who believe in them; but how to verify them? For them Covid is a Godsend: afflicted by the emergency, the world doesn't pull the thread their abuses, and they are free to tighten even more the noose on the neck of dissent.
So what? The quarantine extends day by day, the economy is in freefall everywhere, unemployment reaches new heights, family violence mounts, childish discomfort rises, social anger takes off. The region is a pressure cooker ready to blow its unpredictable power against everything and everyone. Governing a Latin American country is not an easy job these days. It is like driving a car without brakes on a rollercoaster. Everybody for oneself.
As a matter of fact, foreseeing the political future of Latin America is a difficult exercise. Some things, however, are already very likely. It is likely that once the pandemic is over, political forces in Brazil will find the necessary consensus to start an impeachment procedure against Bolsonaro, guilty of having snubbed the virus by showing off incompetence and of having hurled himself against the other powers of the State, something that has never been prudent in Brazil. It is likely that the "fourth transformation" promised by López Obrador in Mexico will end up in the basket of the great failed resolutions of which Latin American history is full. This fate that was clear even before the pandemic: it will remain a mirror for populist larks. It is likely that Argentine Peronism will once again be what it has always been, and that Alberto Fernández's moderate and democratic Peronism will reveal itself for what it is: an oxymoron, the usual trick to fool the usual fools. The party will become a state, the state will reward friends and punish enemies, the government will invoke "sovereignty" and obtain another default, a new time of international isolation, another fall on the inclined plane of decadence.
But clouds will thicken everywhere: fuelled by the pandemic, social tensions and political polarization will explode again in Chile and Bolivia, in Ecuador and Colombia. How many governments will come out of it? How many will fall like skittles, swept away by the tide of expectations and ungovernable resentments? Let us prepare ourselves for the rise of new caudillos, of fishing professionals in the murky waters ready to ride the wave, pointing out scapegoats, external enemies and internal enemies, offering demagogic placebos and redemptive utopias. And finally, how many governments, having experienced the thrill of governing a frightened and reclusive population, with half-serviced parliaments and silent judges, will be comfortable with it and try to pull straight down that road? In Latin America, the soul of democracy if not its external form will be in serious danger.
All black, then? An announced tragedy? Not necessarily: nothing like historical trauma holds surprises. Traumas are traps, but they are also opportunities. Today's failures could become promotions in tomorrow's history books. The pandemic is a cataclysm, it is true, but it is also a thermometer measuring the quality of the political classes, the solidity of democratic institutions, and the maturity of civil society. Some countries have few antibodies to deal with it, but others may find they are more resistant than they appear today. If Brazil impeaches Bolsonaro without infringing constitutional procedures, we will applaud its democracy and this will create the conditions for coveted political reforms. If Chile comes out of the swamp with a new constitutional pact ratified by the people, it will have shown balance and responsibility and will have taken a big step out of its growth crisis. If Peru and Colombia avoid polarization and bet on cooperation, if elections extinguish the crawling temptation of civil war in Bolivia, if Mexico stops mimicking the populism of the past and comes to terms with reality, if Argentina leaves behind the self-destructive Kirchnerist drunkenness, 2020 will go down in history as the year of the turning point, and the pandemic as the hard test that made the wingless continent take flight.
Is that possible? In some cases yes, even likely; in other cases impossible; and in most cases somewhere in between: the history of Latin American countries does not walk all at once in the same direction. It has never been so, it will not be so this time either: there are countries that have solid democracies and countries that have them made of cardboard, efficient states and useless states, organised societies and passive societies in perpetual expectation of state favour: as always, the future will depend on what everyone has built in the past.