Will Civil Rights in Latin America Be a Permanent Casualty of Coronavirus?

Latin American leaders are muzzling journalists, indefinitely postponing elections, and enforcing quarantines with military patrols.


Bogota, ColombiaPeople are never more willing to give up their civil rights to the government than when they feel threatened. Nearly 19 years after the United States enacted the supposedly temporary measures of the PATRIOT Act, citizens still live under the microscope of a surveillance state. The law has been used to justify torture as well as the assassination of U.S. citizens without due process. As humanity stares down a new enemy, the coronavirus, some states in Latin America are considering similarly broad expansions of power.

The world response to the COVID-19 epidemic has been completely unprecedented. At the time of writing, 82 countries have restricted travel through their borders and 37 have completely closed them completely. Both the invisible and physical walls that separate the world have grown less penetrable, but no region has enacted measures as strict as Latin America, whose governments fear their vulnerable health systems will not be able to cope with widespread outbreak. 

A dozen Latin American countries—with a combined population of more than 175 million people—have placed their citizens on full lockdown, a measure which some countries are enforcing by deploying soldiers to the streets.

Jihan Simon Hasbun is a doctor and political activist in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "Lockdown is unfortunately our only option," she tells Reason. "I am a strong critic of the authoritarian government of 'Joh' [the nickname for President Juan Orlando Hernandez], but our health system almost collapsed under a Dengue outbreak last year. Coronavirus is much more contagious and statistically much more deadly."

Hasbun also believes that the president is using the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to distract from ongoing corruption and drug trafficking accusations, as well as popular protests, all while pushing his long-running privatization agenda while the world is distracted.

Honduras isn't alone in having citizens worry the government is taking advantage of the crisis. Across the region, would-be autocrats are trying to dismantle the very institutions that safeguard democracy.

In the latest of a series of eyebrow-raising authoritarian actions, the unelected interim government of Bolivia has postponed national elections that were scheduled for May 3 and has yet to announce a date for rescheduling.

In Colombia, prison riots over infection fears were put down violently in a confrontation that left at least 23 people dead. Armed groups, meanwhile, have taken advantage of occupied authorities to resume their campaign of killing activists and social leaders who oppose their interests. 

When the coronavirus crisis eventually passes, will these encroachments on liberty recede? If history is any guide, the answer is likely to be no—at least not easily. 

The primary barrier to governments enacting controversial power grabs are the critics and institutions who would object, so a handful of Latin American leaders are taking dramatic steps to silence those who check their power. They're now muzzling journalists through intimidation, arrest, or character assassination.

In Honduras, the government passed an emergency measure that temporarily suspended constitutional protections on free speech for both citizens and journalists. On March 25, the Bolivian government announced a decree that allows imprisonment for up to 10 years of those who "misinform" or "promote non-compliance" with government regulation. The nonprofit Human Rights Watch has criticized the language of the law, saying it is intentionally vague and could be used to prosecute political opponents and journalists alike. 

In Venezuela, freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas was arrested by Special Action Forces (FAES) and imprisoned for his coverage of the coronavirus crisis. The local Venezuelan press has covered half a dozen instances of journalists being intimidated. And on April 6, FAES arrested Luis Serrano, a civil assemblyman who would have determined the next election oversight board in Venezuela, according to WOLA, a human rights group in Latin America. They seized masks and protective gear Serrano's organization had donated to journalists covering COVID-19 and detained politicians who'd been contradicting the government's official coronavirus statistics, which many medical experts consider unbelievably low. 

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has turned the crisis into a political weapon, claiming that the press is trying to destroy his presidency through misinformation. Despite ignoring advice from health officials within his own party about the danger of the epidemic, he used the crisis as justification to release an executive order that abolished freedom of information legislation, effectively undermining the ability of journalists or NGOs to obtain public health information. The executive order was quickly struck down by Brazil's Supreme Court.

"This is a continuation of a pattern of [Bolsonaro's] attacks on the bodies that limit presidential power," Camila Asano, program coordinator of Brazilian human rights organization Conectas, says. "His attempts to bypass and attack the Brazilian press and the judiciary have been especially problematic. He is using the crisis to silence critics and those he perceives as enemies."

Most of Latin America, 16 countries in all, severely restricted their borders between March 14 and 18, creating a physical firewall against the coronavirus that they hope will allow them to avoid the fate of countries that responded more slowly to the threat like Italy, Spain, and the United States. Nine Latin American nations—Honduras, Colombia, Suriname, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina—have closed their frontiers completely, leaving many travelers and foreign citizens trapped for the foreseeable future, and many immigrants dangerously vulnerable.

The most dramatic closure occurred in Colombia, which for years had maintained an open border with Venezuela amid the worst refugee crisis in modern Latin American history, a symbol of successful open borders policy for the world. Since 2015, over 6 million Venezuelans have fled their collapsing state, mostly through Colombia, where 1.7 million have taken up permanent residency. That is no longer a legal option, and the closure has put millions along the Colombian-Venezuelan border at the mercy of armed gangs who control informal smuggling paths.

"We have no choice," an immigration official told me on the Colombian-Venezuelan border in March. "We don't have the resources or robust health systems of North America or Europe. Colombia is not a rich country. If Italy and the U.S. can't handle the virus, how can we?"

The mandatory national lockdowns in 12 countries which allow citizens to leave their houses only to buy food or medicine have been enforced with fines, arrests, and even deportations. In Ecuador, the military was assigned control of an entire city to enforce the quarantine.

The sudden halt in economic activity has left millions of working class citizens across Latin America unemployed—people who live day to day with no savings and few other options. 

Meanwhile, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia have all been heavily criticized by the United Nations for violent repression of a continent-wide wave of protests that swept through Latin America just months ago. If civil unrest flares up again over economic or health issues during the current state of emergency, protesters in many countries may find themselves facing down state forces with extralegal powers and a muzzled press. 

The degree of authoritarianism varies by country: Brazil's institutions of democracy have proven sound for now, stopping dangerous and unjustifiable expansion of executive power, but Bolivian, Honduran, and Venezuelan citizens have been less fortunate. Many other nations teeter on the brink of policy decisions that would have grave consequences for liberty. Across the whole region, however, millions find themselves at risk from extreme government containment measures and borders that may never completely reopen.

People who live here in Latin America hope that life will return to normal once the crisis passes, but there's a very real possibility that many may soon be demanding their rights from governments loath to return them.

NEXT: Mass Antibody Testing in This Rural Colorado County Sheds Light on COVID-19's Prevalence and Lethality

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  1. Will Civil Rights in Latin America Be a Permanent Casualty of Coronavirus?

    Civil rights in Latin America are more the exception than the rule. Periods when civil rights are respected are the short intermissions between autocratic rule.

    1. Yeah, kinda thought civil rights in Latin America were more a goal than a reality.

    2. I’m sure civil rights will survive the Coronavirus in Latin America just as well as in Anglo America, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just a big old Racist!

    3. This.

      They certainly never had civil rights in a way that we understand them.

  2. As this crisis continues, countries will become more inward looking, more nationalistic, and quite possibly more militaristic. Combine that with an already established pattern of authoritarianism and the outcome doesn’t look pretty.

    1. Yeah, these days (actually, for at least the past ten years), when my mother blathers on about the coming one-world government and assorted other conspiracy theories, I can only laugh. One-world government has never been farther away than it is right now. Artificial nation-states are breaking up, tribes and enclaves are ascendant, and ethnic groups are becoming ever more insular. The vision of the League of Nations never had credibility, but at least it had the ring of plausibility. Now it lacks even that.

      1. It already is a one world government all nations are acting the same Clamping down on travel to control the people and to prevent “climate change” they already won and we are blind to it

    2. As this crisis continues, countries will become more inward looking, more nationalistic, and quite possibly more militaristic.

      And that’s bad for liberty… how?

  3. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  4. If things look bad in Latin America, the Koch / Reason solution is to invite that region’s entire population to immigrate to the United States.


  5. Latin American leaders are muzzling journalists, indefinitely postponing elections, and enforcing quarantines with military patrols.

    In other words they’re back to normal.

    1. Yea nothing new here

  6. India still prejudiced, Latin America still autocratic…
    Damn that Trump!

    1. The Saudis and Israelis are still jackasses, too. How is any of that Pres. Trump’s fault? (He does not create bad foreign leaders; he merely embraces them.)

      1. Well, better than him bowing to them ala Obama.

  7. Locked Up Abroad says civil rights in Latin America scant as it is

  8. Would the phrase “That’s a nasty question, you’re fake news” be considered muzzling journalists?

    1. was a followup allowed or was someone shot?

      1. All this talk of press-muzzling makes me increasingly of the opinion that Trump should be removed from office.

        When do we get CNN and MSNBC personalities carted away to internment camps? When does the New York Times get forcibly nationalized and Jared Kushner made the publisher? When does the White House Communications Director get put in charge of Twitter’s decisions to ban people?

        In short, when does Trump finally get off his ass, dammit, and deliver the authoritarianism that the Left has been promising me for years?

        1. “When do we get CNN and MSNBC personalities carted away to internment camps?”

          Not enough Latin American immigration yet. But soon.

        2. lol. word.

    2. No, just dumb.

    3. Did that journalist then get arrested?


      Then no, it doesn’t count. You can always ask a question – doesn’t mean you’re entitled to get it answered.

    4. No retard. Try harder or go away.

  9. An entire article at Reason that doesn’t blame Trump. Oh wait, this is a reporter actually in Colombia, not some schmuck in LA or DC.

  10. At least they’re being honest about it.

  11. Civil Rights are defined as privileges provided by govt. I think the author means Natural Rights.

    Civil Right have been rarely civil or pro liberty by the time govt sets them…

  12. Brazil has alternated between christian nationalsocialism and communist liberation theology socialism since at least 1964. The Nixon-style subsidized election court forbids libertarian parties and everyone is forced to vote at gunpoint. No surprise there. What is surprising is that the USA Communivirus map looks a lot like a map showing illegal alien penetration. States between Idaho and Michigan have almost no invasion and no outbreak. Texas, CA and FL have a lot of both. Have these data been compared?

  13. Latin America – so-called because it’s where the Latin-derived languages are spoken – pretty much by definition has no tradition of English common law, the basis of natural rights commonly conflated with civil rights. The idea that civil rights in Latin America might be threatened by the latest crisis du jour is kind of silly, they’ve really never had them in the first place. That’s what you get from being conquered by Spain rather than England.

  14. Will Civil Rights in Latin America Be a Permanent Casualty of Coronavirus?(FFY)


  15. Civil rights in Latin America were just within reach, and now this convenient excuse to trample them comes along. It’s enough to seriously frustrate liberty-minded people.

    1. Chile, under both Presidents Bachelet and Piñera, has been the one nation mainly ruled by law. Contracts are enforced, even if one of the parties is a cousin or brother-in-law.
      It is the Latin assumption that relationships always trump laws that has made the region unstable. It doesn’t really matter if the ruling party is military, oligarch, or Communist – those in power share the wealth and power with relatives and close associates.

  16. ah yes, because Central and South America were already bastions of democracy that didn’t have any historical issues when it came to civil rights. Ortega down in Nicaragua definitely hasn’t spent the last year or so murdering people who dare speak out against him

    1. speaking of Ortega, he hasn’t been seen publicly since late February, although he supposedly was on a confrence call with other Latin American leaders on 3/12 to discuss the Corona virus. His wife’s doing a good job of screwing everyone over though:

  17. The USA has a matchless record of toppling democracies around the world, then installing in their stead civil rights-demolishing dictatorships that serve American corporate interests, as well as our govt’s geopolitical goals of command and control.

    Think Iran in ’53, Guatemala in ’54, Chile in ’73, Brazil in ’66, Honduras in ’09, and, recently, Bolivia. Coups, all, followed by American-abetted death squads and torture chambers. It’s so regular by now it’s virtually banal.

    It’s simple: The USA absolutely hates democracy and human rights. Always has, since the days ‘we’ massacred myriad native Americans and stole their lands, ran a huge slave trade, blocked Vietnam from the Geneva Accords voting it was promised in the late ’50s, and since ‘our’ drenching of Indochina with our bombs and chemical weapons (Agent Orange among them), etc., etc., etc.

    And now we’re winding up for the next coup, in Venezuela, whose “make-the-economy-scream” US policies have crippled Venezuela’s economy and cost lives our “sancity-of-life,” conservative leadership isn’t the least concerned about. The economic calamities we’ve caused, like those we caused in Chile during Allende, are now offered “proof” ‘socialism doesn’t work.’ As if it doesn’t in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Australia, Canada, etc. – all countries in which it’s easier to rise from poverty to prosperity than it is here in the “land of opportunity.”

    As the son of a DAR, and as a major stockholder myself, I’ve done veddy, veddy well by America’s corruption, its pillage and plunder. But I don’t pretend to not see America for what it really is, and has always been. Many people around here seem lack the “reason,” and the vision, to see the obvious.

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