In Latin America, the coronavirus pandemic has triggered an intense wave of civil society activity. By July 2020, the pandemic had spread alarmingly across the region and threatened to leave deeper poverty and inequality in its wake.1 Governments’ responses to the crisis have differed dramatically; crucially, this variation has determined the type of civic activism that has appeared in each Latin American country.
The experiences of Brazil and Argentina are instructive. The Brazilian central government has refused to take the pandemic seriously, giving rise to myriad mobilizations and deepening the country’s political polarization. The Argentinian government, meanwhile, adopted serious measures that involved civil society in more cooperative forms of engagement. The civil society dimension of the pandemic has been crucial in Latin America, while its implications have varied across the region.
Civic Responses Amid Instability and Inequality
The coronavirus crisis arrived in Latin America at a time when the region was already in turmoil. Chronic inequalities and dissatisfaction with democracy had fueled massive street protests in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela in the months before the pandemic.2 Initially, fear of the virus and the implementation of physical distancing measures led to a sharp decrease in protest mobilization. In many countries, the pandemic gave political authorities a respite from protest pressures.
In Chile, this allowed the weak and delegitimized government to continue in power and postpone a referendum on a new national constitution, which had been a key demand of protesters.3 In Bolivia, the interim authoritarian government used the pandemic to justify postponing a presidential election and clamping down on the democratic opposition, thus keeping itself in power.4 In Uruguay, a new right-wing coalition narrowed the right to strike—a move criticized by the International Labor Organization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who argued that it violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.5
The calm did not last long, however. On top of previous grievances, popular frustration with government responses to the pandemic grew. Although governments did adopt emergency relief plans, funds arrived late and were generally insufficient for the many people who work in the informal sector and live in overcrowded slums. And without a social security net, Latin America’s informal economy continued out of necessity despite lockdown measures and increases in coronavirus cases and deaths.
Civic actors began to mobilize quickly. Protests spread, most commonly focused on the economic fallout from coronavirus-related restrictions, with demands for a reopening of the economy and better government support to mitigate the crisis.6 Additionally, health workers across the region held demonstrations to call for better working conditions and proper protective equipment. In some cases, protesters adapted their methods to physical distancing rules. In Colombia, people hung pieces of red cloth in doors and windows to signify dissatisfaction with the brutal economic impact of physical distancing policies and the lack of government help. In Peru, activists glued pictures of coronavirus victims to the backs of chairs in a cathedral to honor the dead and raise awareness of government policies.
At the same time, civil society actors took to social media more intensively than before and with new methods. Mexican activists and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) marked Mother’s Day with a virtual march for missing children.7 New coalitions of media activists and NGOs launched campaigns on a wide array of social media platforms and apps to fight disinformation about the coronavirus.8
Each government responded differently to the crisis. Some governments took little action: those of Brazil and Mexico played down the impacts of the pandemic,9 while those of Bolivia and Chile opted for conservative, pro-market approaches and refused to implement strong social policy responses.10 In these countries, civil society had to compensate for the lack of state action and press hard for authorities to take the situation seriously.
Other governments did act, eliciting a very different response from civil society. In Argentina, the government took concerted social and health action. In Paraguay and Uruguay, small populations helped the authorities control the spread of the virus. In Argentina, civil society was proactive and constructive; in Uruguay, it was institutionally rooted; and in Paraguay, there were largely ineffectual mobilizations.
Brazil: Civil Society Dealing With a Negationist Government
In May 2020, Brazil had the fastest-growing coronavirus infection rate in the world. At the same time, it was one of the countries that tested the least for the virus, meaning that the official numbers of infected and dead, however dramatic, likely underestimated a much worse reality.11
Brazil’s health and economic crisis intersected with a deepening political crisis.12 President Jair Bolsonaro systematically downplayed the dangers of the coronavirus. Even as the number of deaths soared, he made a point of continuing to dine at restaurants and participate in street photo ops and pro-government rallies. Bolsonaro’s negationist approach sharpened political tensions and divides even among the government’s supporters. In April, the health minister was fired amid public disagreements with the president on how to fight the pandemic.
In this context, civil society organizations (CSOs) had to both step up to fill the void left by Bolsonaro’s government and combat government-sponsored disinformation campaigns about the pandemic.13 One group of actors quickly launched emergency response initiatives to help the poorest sectors of the population. Local organizations and social movements joined businesses to gather and distribute food, carry out cleaning, and provide medical supplies. NGOs created directories of initiatives to help donors find initiatives to support. One directory listed over 800 initiatives countrywide by May.14
Other grassroots initiatives have sought to provide psychological support to people with difficulties in dealing with isolation, especially when coupled with issues such as domestic violence.15 Others have provided better health services in neighborhoods in need. In the Paraisópolis slum on the outskirts of São Paulo, the community gathered donations to pay for a medical team, ambulances, and tests. In another type of initiative, groups in poor urban communities worked to produce accurate information about the coronavirus. One community newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, Voz da Comunidade (Community Voice), created a smartphone app to debunk disinformation and disseminate reliable information.16
Civil society actors have also pushed the state to respond to the pandemic. At the national level, NGOs, trade unions, and social movements formed a broad coalition to work toward better crisis legislation. This coalition successfully advocated an emergency relief fund in the National Congress of Brazil. In parallel, protests have been organized to denounce the government’s ineffective or lacking coronavirus policies, with pot banging, street protests, and activism on social media.17 At the local level, civil society actors have similarly protested and pressured municipal governments to invest more in public health services. Human rights and indigenous organizations have denounced the Brazilian government at the United Nations and the Organization of American States for its genocidal politics against indigenous peoples during the pandemic.
Many CSOs have adapted their work to the pandemic. They have focused more on distributing food and supplies—and doing so safely. Images of 425 so-called street presidents—volunteers standing six feet apart in a football field in Paraisópolis—have become iconic.18 In addition, civil society actors have creatively combined online and offline activism. Although the former is not new, the pandemic has led to a surge in podcasts and new forms of protest, such as virtual marches. Media activists have launched campaigns that use both traditional radio and newer forms of awareness raising, such as Twitter hashtags.19
Some civil society groups have sought to connect the pandemic with their other agendas. Street protesters have linked police brutality and racism to the vulnerability of Black people to the coronavirus. A strike by food delivery workers made a connection between labor rights and health risks.20 Further, new coalitions of CSOs have emerged to push for the impeachment of Bolsonaro, linking the need to defend the country’s democracy with the disastrous federal policies toward the pandemic.
Despite the new activism, civil society groups face severe problems with funding due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.21 Another challenge comes from the divisions between progressive and conservative sectors of civil society. Brazil’s political polarization has contaminated discussion of the pandemic and made even harder the task of raising awareness about the health crisis. Bolsonaro’s supporters have taken to the streets to defend him, denounce restrictive measures to contain the virus, and disseminate false news about the disease and its treatment.22 Activism after the pandemic will be tied even more tightly to Brazil’s political crisis.
Argentina: Civil Society in the Governing Coalition
The coronavirus arrived in Argentina when the new, center-left government of President Alberto Fernández had only just taken power. Fernández had to reverse changes made by the previous, center-right government, such as reopening the Ministries of Health, Education, and Science, all of which had been closed in 2018 after spending cuts.23 Despite the pressure that the pandemic added to an already difficult situation, up to July 2020 the government managed to control the outbreak and avoid the collapse of the country’s healthcare system.24
Crucially, the new Argentine government counted on active support from many social movements.25 Within the Ministry of Social Development, social groups such as the piquetero (picketer) movement launched several important initiatives to support informal workers and the poor who had lost their jobs. Beginning in March, the government applied a policy of universal citizenship income, which was paid each month to poor, unemployed, and informal workers.26
The government fostered coordination between scientists and popular movements through its Peronist political leadership.27 This cooperation led to the deactivation of most progressive protests and the construction of government–civil society synergies to tackle the pandemic. However, the conservative and neoliberal civic networks of the Together for Change coalition worked to boycott the shutdown and any government decision that would imply an increased intervention in the economy to provide a socially minded response to the pandemic.28 In brief, the new government worked with a set of social movements and did relatively well in containing the pandemic and resisting conservative civic pressures.
The labor movement was divided in its responses to the pandemic. The conservative General Confederation of Workers negotiated a 25 percent decrease of salaries in exchange for job security during the shutdown.29 In contrast, progressive grassroots and factory-level unions activated pickets, held occupations, and organized strikes to stop factories from shutting down, demand protective equipment to avoid contagion at work, and request salary surpluses for essential jobs.30 In most cases, the protesters achieved their goals. This active social and labor rights agenda also prioritized investment in scientific and medical research as well as the regulation of prices for medicines, food, cleaning products, and public utilities.31
Antishutdown and antiscientist activism did not gain nearly as much traction in Argentina as in Brazil. Still, some right-wing protesters claimed that the shutdown restricted liberties in what they called an infectadura (infecto-dictatorship) and that the economic regulations were leading Argentina toward a communist regime.32 In many cases, right-wing political actors questioned the seriousness of the health crisis. These groups protested along traditional, nationalist lines with Argentine flags and were made up of predominantly conservative, white, wealthy, and upper-middle-class citizens.33 Although these protests were small, they did not respect physical distancing protocols.34
Social organizations, such as the Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy (CTEP) and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, moved up a gear in their activism, arguing that the pandemic had made long-term economic and political reform more necessary. The CTEP proposed a so-called Creole Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of social welfare and the urbanization of the Buenos Aires shantytowns, where over 3.5 million people live in poverty.35 While activism has expanded in the crisis, some groups are concerned that other issues, like the legalization of abortion, are being forgotten.
Government responses to the pandemic have varied widely across Latin America and shaped very different responses from civil society in each country. The comparison between Brazil and Argentina shows this in stark terms. In Brazil, progressive civic activists have had to adopt defensive and critical strategies faced with negationist government inaction. A political crisis has spread to civil society; in turn, civil society divisions have fed into the political crisis. In Argentina, civil society actors have approached the pandemic as an opportunity to play a more influential and constructive policy role in concert with the governing coalition.
Across Latin America, it will be hard to maintain rigid coronavirus restrictions, as people depend on the informal economy and public funds are not enough to help them through the crisis. This creates a vicious cycle. The less physical distancing policies are respected, the harder it is for countries to open up again without risking the collapse of their healthcare systems. In both Brazil and Argentina, there is likely to be heightened tension between conservative and progressive sectors, with progressive activists pushing for ambitious social and economic reforms, while conservative actors will mobilize against further state intervention and social programs. In these two cases and other Latin American countries, the key question is whether conflictual or cooperative dynamics will prove stronger in the longer term.
1 Alicia Bárcena, “The Social Challenge in Times of COVID-19,” Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, May 12, 2020, https://www.cepal.org/sites/default/files/presentation/files/social_challenge_in_timescovid19_en.pdf.
2 “Global Protest Tracker,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/interactive/protest-tracker.
3 For an analysis of the 2019 Chilean protests, see Nicolás Somma et al., “No Water in the Oasis: The Chilean Spring of 2019-2020,” Social Movement Studies (2020).
4 “Bolivia: solicitada por los asilados en la embajada de México en La Paz,” Tiempo Argentino, July 19, 2020, https://www.tiempoar.com.ar/nota/bolivia-solicitada-por-los-asilados-en-la-embajada-de-mexico-en-la-paz; “Bolivia: protestas masivas y golpistas alarmados,” Tiempo Argentino, July 19, 2020, https://www.tiempoar.com.ar/nota/bolivia-protestas-masivas-y-golpistas-alarmados.
5 “La OIT pide que se "revisen" los artículos de la LUC sobre piquetes,” El Observador, May 23, 2020, https://www.elobservador.com.uy/nota/la-oit-pide-que-se-revisen-los-articulos-de-la-luc-sobre-piquetes--202052217560; “En la prensa | Uruguay: continúa debate por ley de urgente consideración,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, June 12, 2020, https://acnudh.org/en-la-prensa-uruguay-continua-debate-por-ley-de-urgente-consideracion/.
6 See the data on pandemic-related protests in Latin America gathered by the COVID-19 Disorder Tracker of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, available at https://acleddata.com/analysis/COVID-19-disorder-tracker/.
7 Thomas Aureliani, “La marcha digital de las madres de los desaparecidos en México,” Datactive, University of Amsterdam, May 25, 2020, https://data-activism.net/2020/05/bigdatasur-covid-la-marcha-digital-de-las-madres-de-los-desaparecidos-en-mexico/.
8 See, for instance, the campaign #TómateloEnSerioMX, led by a coalition of Mexican CSOs (https://verificado.com.mx/tomateloenseriomx/), and the campaign #coronanasperiferias in Brazil (http://periferiaemmovimento.com.br/comunicadores-perifericos-se-unem-em-coalizao-nacional-pra-enfrentar-pandemia/).
9 Julieta Nassau and Dolores Caviglia, “Negacionistas: los líderes que eligieron subestimar el coronavirus y ahora se enfrentan a sus estragos,” La Nación, April 15, 2020, https://www.lanacion.com.ar/el-mundo/negacionistas-lideres-subestimaron-virus-apelaron-teorias-conspirativas-nid2352515.
10 Javier Ozollo, “Argentina y Chile frente al coronavirus, diferencias de forma y de fondo,” Página 12, May 21, 2020, https://www.pagina12.com.ar/267109-argentina-y-chile-frente-al-coronavirus-diferencias-de-forma; “Bolivia: masiva marcha contra el gobierno de facto en pleno colapso del sistema sanitario,” Tiempo Argentina, July 14, 2020, https://www.tiempoar.com.ar/nota/bolivia-masiva-marcha-contra-el-gobierno-de-facto-en-pleno-colapso-del-sistema-sanitario.
11 Gabriela Sá Pessoa, “Mesmo inflando dados, Brasil é um dos países que menos testa para covid-19” [Even inflating data, Brazil is one of the least tested countries for covid-19], UOL, July 3, 2020, https://noticias.uol.com.br/saude/ultimas-noticias/redacao/2020/07/03/mesmo-com-testes-rapidos-brasil-testa-menos-que-paises-menos-afetados.htm.
12 Marisa von Bülow and Mariana Llanos, “Los riesgos y límites de un Presidente polarizador,” El País, March 24, 2020, https://elpais.com/elpais/2020/03/23/opinion/1584976654_405615.html.
13 For a more detailed analysis that focuses on civil society responses in urban peripheries, see Rebecca Abers and Marisa von Bülow, “The Struggle of Civil Society Groups in Brazil’s Urban Peripheries (March – June 2020),” research report #01, Repository of Civil Society Initiatives Against the Pandemic, Brasília, June 30, 2020, available at https://resocie.org/relatorios-de-pesquisa-do-repositorio/.
14 “Plataforma das práticas colaborativas de combate à covid-19 e das redes de solidariedade” [Platform for collaborative practices to combat covid-19 and solidarity networks], Mapa Colaborativo, https://mapacolaborativo.org.br/.
15 Repository of Civil Society Initiatives Against the Pandemic, www.resocie.org.
16 “Coronavirus,” Voz das Comunidades, https://www.vozdascomunidades.com.br/coronavirus/.
17 von Bülow and Llanos, “Los riesgos.”
18 See the picture in “Paraisópolis tenta proteger seus moradores contra coronavírus” [Paraisópolis tries to protect its residents against coronavirus], Folha de S. Paulo, March 26, 2020, https://fotografia.folha.uol.com.br/galerias/1662282611092175-paraisopolis-tenta-proteger-seus-moradores-contra-coronavirus.
19 See examples of digital activism in “Ativismo Digital Contra o Corona” [Digital Activism Against Corona], ReSocie, https://resocie.org/inicial/projetos-e-eventos/repositorio-pandemia/ativismo-digital-contra-o-corona/.
20 Gabriel Francisco Ribeiro, “É greve: entregadores param hoje e fazem desafio à economia dos aplicativos” [It’s a strike: delivery people stop today and challenge the application economy], Tilt, July 1, 2020, https://www.uol.com.br/tilt/noticias/redacao/2020/07/01/e-greve-entregadores-param-hoje-e-fazem-desafio-a-economia-dos-aplicativos.htm.
21 Abers and von Bülow, “The Struggle of Civil Society Groups.”
22 Alex Rodrigues, “Polícia Civil investiga vídeo falso de caixões enterrados com pedras” [Civil Police investigate fake video of coffins buried with stones], Agência Brasil, May 5, 2020, https://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/geral/noticia/2020-05/policia-civil-investiga-video-falso-de-caixoes-enterrados-com-pedras.
23 “El Gobierno formalizó la elminación de varios ministerios,” Página 12, September 3, 2018, https://www.pagina12.com.ar/139734-gabinete-ajustado.
24 “Coronavirus en Argentina: los datos claves del anuncio de Alberto Fernández,” Página 12, July 17, 2020, https://www.pagina12.com.ar/279158-coronavirus-en-argentina-los-datos-claves-del-anuncio-de-alb.
25 Francisco Longa and Melina Vázquez, “El peronismo hizo con las tres ramas del movimiento un ring para impulsar la lucha social,” Nación Trabajadora, http://lanaciontrabajadora.com.ar/gobierno-alberto/.
26 “Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia,” National Social Security Administration of Argentina, https://www.anses.gob.ar/ingreso-familiar-de-emergencia.
27 Jonathan Raed, “De la organización social al Estado: tres mujeres de barrios populares que llegaron a la función pública,” TiempoArgentino, June 3, 2020, https://www.tiempoar.com.ar/nota/de-la-organizacion-social-al-estado-tres-mujeres-de-barrios-populares-que-llegaron-a-la-funcion-publica; Tali Goldman, “La militante que viene a mejorar la vida de los barrios populares,” TiempoArgentino, July 19, 2020, https://www.tiempoar.com.ar/nota/la-militante-que-viene-a-mejorar-la-vida-de-los-barrios-populares; “Inédita convocatoria a investigadores del Conicet para gobernar,” Página 12, February 26, 2020, https://www.pagina12.com.ar/249571-inedita-convocatoria-a-investigadores-del-conicet-para-gober.
28 “La estrategia anticuarentena de Bullrich complica a Larreta y los intendentes del PRO,” La Política Online, May 31, 2020, https://www.lapoliticaonline.com/nota/126964-la-estrategia-anticuarentena-de-bullrich-complica-a-larreta-y-los-intendentes-del-pro/.
29 Elizabeth Peger, “El Gobierno pactó con UIA y CGT una baja salarial de 25% para trabajadores suspendidos,” El Cronista, April 27, 2020, https://www.cronista.com/economiapolitica/El-Gobierno-pacto-con-UIA-y-CGT-una-baja-salarial-de-25-para-trabajadores-suspendidos-20200427-0053.html.
30 “Repudiamos la represión contra trabajadoras y trabajadores en Mendoza,” Argentine Workers’ Central Union, July 5, 2020, http://ctanacional.org/dev/repudiamos-la-represion-contra-trabajadoras-y-trabajadores-en-mendoza/; “El trabajo en la cuarentena: las relaciones laborales a un mes del aislamiento, social, preventivo y obligatorio,” Argentine Workers’ Central Union, May 4, 2020, http://ctanacional.org/dev/el-trabajo-en-la-cuarentena-las-relaciones-laborales-a-un-mes-del-aislamiento-social-preventivo-y-obligatorio/; Leonardo Diego Chazarreta, “Córdoba, Brutal represión a los trabajadores del transporte,” Argentine Workers’ Central Union, July 14, 2020, https://www.cta.org.ar/cordoba-brutal-represion-a-los.html; Jonathan Raed, “Camioneros bloqueó envíos de Mercado Libre, que acusó a los Moyano por "extorsión",” Tiempo Argentino, July 16, 2020, https://www.tiempoar.com.ar/nota/camioneros-bloqueo-envios-de-mercado-libre-que-acuso-a-los-moyano-por-extorsion.
31 Christoph Ernst and Elva López Mourelo, “La COVID-19 y el mundo del trabajo en Argentina: impacto y respuestas de política,” International Labor Organization, April 20, 2020, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---americas/---ro-lima/---ilo-buenos_aires/documents/publication/wcms_740742.pdf; “El Gobiernos nacional congela las tarifas de telefonía fija y móvil, internet y TV paga,” Casa Rosada, May 18, 2020, https://www.casarosada.gob.ar/slider-principal/46874-el-gobierno-nacional-congela-las-tarifas-de-telefonia-fija-y-movil-internet-y-tv-paga.
32 Rodrigo Lloret, “Decálogo de la militancia anticuarentena,” Perfil, June 28, 2020, https://www.perfil.com/noticias/columnistas/decalogo-de-la-militancia-anticuarentena.phtml; Ernesto Tenembaum, “Los argumentos falaces (y un poco irresponsables) de los ‘anticuarentena,’” InfoBae, May 24, 2020, https://www.infobae.com/opinion/2020/05/24/los-argumentos-falaces-y-un-poco-irresponsables-de-los-anticuarentena/.
33 “Video: Consignas antisemitas en la marcha anticuarentena de Buenos Aires,” Radio Jai, May 31, 2020, https://www.radiojai.com/index.php/2020/05/31/56048/consignas-antisemitas-en-la-marcha-anticuarentena-de-buenos-aires/; “Coronavirus: Los anticuarentena fueron al Obelisco,” Página 12, June 7, 2020, https://www.pagina12.com.ar/270781-coronavirus-los-anticuarentena-fueron-al-obelisco.
34 “Los anticuarentena marcharon al obelisco,” Página 12, May 30, 2020, https://www.pagina12.com.ar/269259-los-anticuarentena-marcharon-al-obelisco; “Marchas y protestas en todo el país: cruces entre personal de salud y grupos anticuarentena,” Perfil, May 30, 2020, https://www.perfil.com/noticias/actualidad/caravana-por-la-libertad-manifestacion-anti-cuarentena-buenos-aires.phtml.
35 “Máximo y Grabois impulsan un plan para urbanizar todas las villas de la Ciudad y el Conurbano,” La Política Online, June 7, 2020, https://www.lapoliticaonline.com/nota/127124-maximo-y-grabois-impulsan-un-plan-para-urbanizar-todas-las-villas-de-la-ciudad-y-el-conurbano/.