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Latin America Report

Latin America And The Caribbean 2020: From COVID-19 Devastation To Cuban Artist Defiance

Andre Penner
HORRIBLE EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK Cemetery workers bury COVID-19 victims outside Sao Paulo, Brazil, last summer. Brazil recorded the world's second-highest number of coronavirus deaths this year, behind the U.S.

As if the region's coronavirus catastrophe wasn't enough, 2020 heaped human rights crises and historic hurricanes on Latin America and the Caribbean too.

As it was for the rest of the world, COVID-19 was overwhelmingly the top story of 2020 in Latin America and the Caribbean. And the most tragic. Brazil alone has recorded the world's second-highest number of COVID deaths, behind the United States.

But from human rights struggles to hurricane devastation, 2020 heaped enough on top of the pandemic to make this an even more stressful year for Latin America.

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WLRN’s Tim Padgett looked back at the year in the region with Nora Gámez Torres, who covers Cuba and Latin America for El Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald.

Excerpts from their conversation:

WLRN: Happy New Year, Nora. So we both chose our three top stories of the year for Latin America and the Caribbean. And our No. 3 picks are actually the same: the surprisingly large movement for free speech and expression in Cuba — led by the island's artists. It just sprang up in Havana last month. Do you think it has staying power?

READ MORE: Latin America and the Caribbean 2019: From Fire in the Streets to Ire in the Skies

GÁMEZ TORRES: Well, this is a very unusual scenario in Cuba [because] the protests just grew bigger. And then the government arrested many of the members of this movement, named San Isidro, which then sparked an even bigger protest. The artists are demanding more freedom not only for themselves, but freedom of expression for all Cuban citizens. The government hasn’t been able to isolate them the same way they’ve done with other opposition or dissident movements — there seems to be broader solidarity with them in the population.

So, yes, it's definitely going to be more difficult for the government to contain all this, especially because there's a new reality. And it's the fact that Cuban citizens finally have access to Internet.

Ismael Francisco
UNUSUAL CHALLENGE Cuban artists lead a protest for free speech and expression rights in front of the communist government's Culture Ministry last month.

Right. Social media is a very big part of this.

Exactly. Since 2018, they have been providing Internet on cell phones, which has changed the game completely. But the government response has been appalling. They accuse the San Isidro protesters of being terrorists, mercenaries paid by the U.S.

So we'll have to see. I fear there could also be a new government crackdown on rights when it unifies Cuba's dual currencies on New Year's Day. That will cause a spike in prices for food and basic services, which will cause a lot of frustration and unrest among ordinary Cubans. For the country to survive the regime has got to speed up economic reforms like more private enterprise.

But you mentioned you feel the human rights situation has deteriorated across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Yes. If you take a broader look, you see how many governments are increasingly authoritarian. Nicaragua, Haiti. Haiti's president, for example, has been ruling by decree since the beginning of the year, rejecting calls for new elections, and he created a new secret police. And then you have the situation in Venezuela, the U.N. report saying that you have a regime responsible for crimes against humanity.

RULING BY DECREE Haitian President Jovenel Moise

Which brings us to your No. 2 story in Latin America and the Caribbean this year: the failure of President Trump's Venezuela policy — his campaign to bring down the regime of authoritarian socialist President Nicolás Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

Maduro is now in control of all institutions in the country…

…after the dubious parliamentary elections Maduro held this month.

Right. The year will end with Maduro more entrenched now than two years ago, despite whatever the Trump administration has done: US sanctions, even an indictment of Maduro, which was very surprising. At the same time, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has taken on more terrible dimensions.

Ariana Cubillos
TRUMP FAILURE? Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido in Caracas after losing control of the National Assembly in parliamentary elections most of the international community called an illegitimate sham orchestrated by President Nicolas Maduro.

My No. 2 story is the devastating back-to-back hurricanes — Eta and Iota —that hit Central America last month. Scientists say storms that strong have never been recorded that late in the year, and they point again to global warming as a big factor. What does that mean for poorer countries like Central America and the international community?

The international community and especially the U.S. government have to make a priority of investing in poorer countries to deal with these disasters — because there's going to be a big wave of migration coming again to the north. This is going to impact the U.S. I do think [President-elect Joe] Biden has a very detailed plan to help Central America and the hardest-hit countries in this regard.

Delmer Martinez
MORE MIGRATION? A pregnant woman is carried out of flood waters near San Pedro Sula last month after Tropical Storm Eta battered Honduras.

And of course our No. 1 story in Latin America and the Caribbean this year was the COVID-19 pandemic. The region has only one-twelfth of the world's population, but it's had one-third of the world's coronavirus deaths. The U.S. has certainly been a bad model of pandemic leadership; but Latin America isn't much better. Brazil's largest newspaper this month called President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of COVID-19 “homicidally negligent.”

We saw in both the U.S. and Latin America how populist leaders can make things worse by publicly underestimating the virus, disregarding science or claiming that masks are not indispensable, as Mexican President Lopez Obrador recently said.

Not surprisingly, the mortality rate is also very high in Mexico and it’s topping the charts in several other Latin American countries like Peru.

We saw how populist leaders can make a deadly pandemic even worse by publicly underestimating the virus, disregarding science or claiming that masks are not indispensable — as Mexican President Lopez Obrador recently said.
Nora Gamez-Torres

There’s also a severe recession looming that will hit Caribbean nations that depend on tourism especially hard. So we can expect an even more impoverished and unequal region in the near future, especially when it comes to education, which was hit especially hard in Latin America by this crisis. Most kids in the region have lost an entire year of school.

Andre Borge
'HOMICIDALLY NEGLIGENT' Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro struggling with a protective mask at the Planalto palace in Brasilia last spring.

There were some encouraging places to point to, such as Uruguay, which did listen to its scientists and has registered an infection rate 10 times lower than Brazil’s next door. What other lessons should the region take from the pandemic?

Most of all that they have to invest in healthcare far more than they do and expand their social safety net. I think there’s also a better understanding now of the importance of more Internet connectivity, which could have allowed more people to work and study at home.

But either way, it’s just horrible everywhere you look.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.