Taking the pulse of the COVID-19 response in Latin America and the Caribbean

August 11, 2020


Latinobarometro is an annual public opinion survey involving around 20,000 interviews in 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries. Over the last twenty years Latinobarometro surveys have generated a veritable trove of data that can be used to gain insights into a broad spectrum of issues. We have undertaken an in-depth analysis of this data to better understand attitudes towards politics in the region and how these attitudes relate to perceptions in other spheres of life, especially the economic sphere.

Decreasing confidence in democratic institutions

Satistaction with the functioning of the political system in Latin America and the Caribbean reached an all-time low in 2018, with three in four people expressing a negative judgment about political life in their country. There is evidence that this generalized dissatisfaction has already started to affect support for democracy in most countries in the region.

For the first time in 2018, the percentage of people expressing full support for democracy as a form of government went below 50 percent, while the proportion of people who would describe themselves as indifferent between authoritarian and democratic regimes has reached its highest-ever point at 28 percent (double the lowest-ever level of 14 percent in 1997).

Over the years, women and young people have been consistently less likely to express satisfaction with the functioning of the political system and less likely to express unconditional support for democracy than the rest of the population.

The COVID-19 crisis presents both risks and opportunities for the future of democratic governance in Latin America and the Caribbean. On the one hand, the notion that less-than-democratic regimes are better at crisis response may fall on fertile ground. On the other hand, COVID-19 opens unprecedented spaces to reimagine politics and restore confidence in democratic institutions. A fresh narrative on democracy is needed to navigate this complex juncture.

The importance of transparency and distributional fairness

Perceived economic performance and perceived corruption appear to be major drivers of satisfaction with political system performance, based on the data reviewed by the study. These two factors combined explain close to 80 percent of the variation in satisfaction with the functioning of the political system across countries for the year 2018.

However, there has not always been such a strong correlation between perceived economic performance and perceived corruption in satisfaction with political system performance. This link only starts to consolidate after 2008, possibly because of shifts in perceptions and expectations caused by the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

The Latin America and Caribbean region went into the COVID-19 crisis with very negative perceptions about economic performance and economic inequality. Only 16 percent of survey respondents in 2018 would describe themselves as satisfied with the functioning of the economy and a whopping 80 percent of respondents considered income distribution in the region to be unfair.

The economic suffering that will accompany the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to take a significant toll on already strained state-society relations. However, governments can shore up trust, at least in part, by adopting appropriate anti-corruption measures. High levels of transparency in the public administration will be critical not only to ensure that COVID-19 responses remain corruption-free but also, and equally importantly, to ensure that they are perceived as such. Post-crisis, the recovery of GDP levels, or even the reduction of unemployment, probably will not be sufficient  to change negative views about the state of public affairs. Issues of distributional justice and perceptions about the overall fairness of the post-COVID economy will matter a lot too.

The role of the middle class

An analysis of social, economic, and political processes related to the middle class is essential to an in-depth understanding of governance dynamics in Latin America and the Caribbean. It should be noted, however, that there are significant differences in perceptions between people who self-identify as “lower-middle” class and people who self-identify as “upper-middle” class in the region. A nuanced conceptualization of the notion of “middle class” is needed to account for these differences.

Support for democracy as a form of government in the countries surveyed by Latinobarometro is highest among people who would describe themselves as belonging to the “lower-middle” class or the “middle” class. Remarkably, these groups express higher-than-average support for democracy as a form of government, despite lower-than-average satisfaction with the actual functioning of democracy and with the state of the economy in their countries.

At the same time, a large portion of those who identify as belonging to the lower-middle-class live in situations of serious economic vulnerability. Considering levels of dissatisfaction with the functioning of the political system and propensity to engage in demonstrations, this group appears to be among the most predisposed to mobilize outside of formal political institutions.

COVID-19 related fiscal policies that are too narrowly focused are not only likely to have negative economic consequences, but also will further undermine support for democratic governance and exacerbate social conflict. Limited fiscal space remains a major challenge, but it will be important to design social protection programmes that are inclusive and consider the circumstances of the vulnerable middle class.

The pandemic threatens to set the world back decades in terms of sustainable human development. At the same time, it has the potential to become a watershed moment in terms of addressing a range of long-standing economic, social, and environmental issues. When we look at the on-going and forthcoming challenges from a citizen’s perspective, inclusive and effective governance will be indispensable to building a “new normal” that is not only “new”, but also “better”. It is vital that we do not lose sight of this.