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Handout picture released by the Venezuelan Presidency showing President Nicolas Maduro speaking during a televised message, at Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas on July 19, 2020.JHONN ZERPA/AFP/Getty Images

Postponed elections. Sidelined courts. A persecuted opposition.

As the coronavirus pandemic tears through Latin America and the Caribbean, killing more than 180,000 and destroying the livelihoods of tens of millions in the region, it is also undermining democratic norms that were already under strain.

Leaders ranging from the centre-right to the far-left have used the crisis as justification to extend their time in office, weaken oversight of government actions and silence critics – actions that under different circumstances would be described as authoritarian and anti-democratic but are now being billed as lifesaving measures to curb the spread of the disease.

The gradual undermining of democratic rules during an economic crisis and a public-health catastrophe could leave Latin America primed for slower growth and an increase in corruption and human-rights abuses, experts warned. This is particularly true in places where political rights and accountability were already in steep decline.

“It’s not a matter of left or right; it’s a general decline of democracy across the region,” said Alessandra Pinna, a Latin America researcher at Freedom House, an independent Washington-based research organization that measures global political liberties.

There are now five Latin American and Caribbean countries with recent democratic histories – Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guyana, Bolivia and Haiti – where governments weren’t chosen in free and fair elections or have overstayed their time in office. That is the highest number since the late 1980s, when the Cold War receded and several countries in the grip of civil war or military dictatorships transitioned to peace and democracy.

Most of those leaders were already bending the rules of democracy to stay in power before the pandemic, but seized on emergency conditions created by the spread of the virus to strengthen their position.

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela has detained or conducted home raids against dozens of journalists, social activists and opposition leaders for questioning the government’s dubious coronavirus figures.

In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega released thousands of inmates because of the threat posed by the virus but kept political prisoners behind bars, while in Guyana, a lockdown thwarted protests against the government’s attempt to stay in power despite having lost an election.

In Bolivia, a caretaker government has used the pandemic to postpone elections, tap into emergency aid to bolster its electoral campaign and threaten to ban the main opposition candidate from running.

And in the island country of St. Kitts and Nevis, the government imposed a strict lockdown on its 50,000 people during the campaign for general elections in June, hampering opposition efforts to meet voters while also keeping international election observers from travelling to the country.

It was the first time in recent history that a host country withdrew its invitation to the Organization of American States, a regional group that promotes democracy, to observe elections.

The loss of public trust in governments in Latin America is not new, but the erosion of democratic norms in the pandemic arrived at a time when the region’s economic growth and social progress were already unravelling, leaving many uncertain about the ability of democratic leaders to solve entrenched problems such as inequality, crime and corruption.

By 2018, only one in four people in Latin America said they were satisfied with democracy – the lowest number since Latinobarometro, a regional polling company, began asking that question 25 years ago.

Discontent with the political establishment led to a wave of populist victories in recent years, including those of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, who is on the far-right, and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, who is on the left. It also led to mass street protests in several Latin American countries last year.

The pandemic, hitting during this time of political upheaval, has plunged the region into the deepest recession in its history, exacerbating weaknesses in health and welfare systems and highlighting the ways in which many leaders are unable to meet public demands.

“All the things that Latin Americans have already been clamoring for – greater equality, better services – have been dramatically worsened by the pandemic,” said Cynthia Arnson, Latin America program director at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. “The economic pain is dramatic, and it’s putting additional strain on the already weak institutions.”

It has also put a strain on the region’s struggling health care systems. Latin America has become a global hot spot for the virus, with Brazil, Mexico and Peru among the 10 countries with the highest numbers of deaths. And according to the United Nations, about 16 million people in Latin America are expected to fall into extreme poverty this year, reversing nearly all of the gains made by the region this century.

Adding to those challenges, democracy in Latin America has also lost a champion in the United States, which had played an important role in promoting democracy after the end of the Cold War by financing good governance programs and calling out authoritarian abuses.

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has mostly focused regional policy on opposing left-wing autocrats in Venezuela and Cuba and curbing immigration, making aid to Central American countries, among the region’s poorest, contingent on co-operating with the administration on immigration.

The Trump administration also refrained from commenting when Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, ignored Supreme Court rulings and used the military to crack down on quarantine violators during the pandemic.

U.S. support for democracy initiatives in Latin America fell by almost half last year to US$326-million, according to preliminary figures compiled by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“In the last few years we have not only abandoned our role as a democratizing force in Latin America and the world, but we have promoted negative forces,” said Orlando Perez, a political scientist at the University of North Texas. “Our policy is now: ‘You’re on your own – America first.’ "

In the few democratic strongholds in Latin America, such as Uruguay and Costa Rica, leaders responded to the pandemic with efficiency and transparency, bolstering public trust in the government. In the Dominican Republic and Suriname, incumbent presidents recently bowed out of power after losing elections that were held despite the pandemic.

In many instances, judges and civil servants have resisted the attacks on democratic institutions during the pandemic, said Javier Corrales, a professor of Latin American studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “The defenders of liberal democracy in Latin America are not defeated,” Prof. Corrales said. “It’s not an open terrain for would-be authoritarians.”

Yet in most Latin American countries, the coronavirus accelerated an existing democratic decline by exposing the weakness and corruption of governments in the face of the catastrophe.

“When confronted with an existential threat, countries that did not already have deep democratic systems are choosing tactics that help leaders consolidate their power,” said John Polga-Hecimovich, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.

The political tensions gripping the region during the pandemic could be just the beginning of a longer wave of unrest and authoritarianism, said Thomas Carothers, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It will drag the region down into poorer economic performance,” he said. “It also means poorer treatment of human beings, their dignity and rights.”

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