Pandemic Relief for Latino-Owned Businesses: Lessons from the Washington DC Metropolitan Area

By Robert Albro and Eric Hershberg*

Latina microenterprise in Washington DC/ Credit: Liz Albro

While the impacts of the pandemic and public health measures to contain it have been widespread across all demographic groups in the United States, minority-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected, with Latino-owned enterprises hit the hardest. A newly released CLALS study describes steps taken by local jurisdictions to ameliorate these impacts, identifies challenges experienced by Latino business owners in accessing pandemic relief, and offers recommendations to better support minority enterprises in anticipation of future crises.

  • By June of 2020, a Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative pulse survey reported that 83 percent of Latino businesses had experienced a negative impact from COVID‑19, and the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the number of Latino business owners nationwide had declined 32 percent.
  • In the Washington Metropolitan Area, Latino business owners surveyed by CLALS during the same time period reported catastrophic losses of customers and sales, pressures on liquidity, employee layoffs, and dramatic disruptions of their day-to-day business operations.
  • In many cases the industries in which Latino businesses are concentrated made them more vulnerable. The onset of the pandemic had an immediate negative impact on Latino front-line workers in essential industries and on restaurants and retail establishments that rely heavily on foot traffic, forcing widespread closures. An estimated 25 percent of Latino businesses nationwide are either permanently shuttered or remain temporarily closed.

Nearly all Latino business owners CLALS surveyed in mid-2020 – 94 percent – ranked as most important the need for greater access to financial assistance to survive the crisis. However, the pandemic has exacerbated long-standing disparities between Latino-owned and other businesses, with Latinos among those receiving the least support to help weather the economic catastrophe.

  • According to a 2021 Federal Reserve report, Latino businesses were less than half as likely as White-owned firms to be approved for a loan during the COVID‑19 emergency. And the U.S. Small Business Administration reported only 7 percent of Latino businesses that applied received Paycheck Protection Program funding in 2020, compared to 83 percent for White-owned enterprises.
  • Latino small business owners experienced multiple barriers to access, including in many cases not having a relationship with a bank or professional financial service provider, lack of access to timely Spanish-language information about programs, immigration status, and inadequate accounting that left them ineligible for government relief.

CLALS’s study documents all federal, state, and local pandemic relief programs in the DC-metro region, and concludes that outreach by assistance providers did not always reach Latino business owners because local governments did not necessarily seek to engage them through preferred channels and familiar institutional counterparts. It further concludes that cities and counties striving to improve support for businesses in historically underserved communities in advance of the next crisis can be more inclusive and effective by discussing challenges and sharing best practices among each other,  targeting aid sooner to specific industries and business types, coordinating at the outset with trusted community ambassadors with strong local knowledge, and improving their awareness of how and where to best engage minority and Latino business owners, both in-person and through the right channels of communication.  

Nationwide Latinos are the most likely to start a business of any group, and they are also the fastest growing population in the Washington Metropolitan Area. Our region’s economic prosperity is increasingly connected to the success of its Latino entrepreneurs. How well its business ecosystem supports new Latino start-ups, business growth and stability, during normal economic periods but also the next inevitable crisis, will be a big part of sustaining any such prosperity. But this, in turn, will depend upon applying key lessons learned from the present pandemic crisis, including further institutionalizing the advantages of inter-jurisdictional collaboration and information-sharing, and the need to better support non-governmental and community-based institutions other than banks – which effectively channeled information, financial and technical assistance to Latino and minority enterprises throughout the crisis – as mediators between local jurisdictions and often hard-to-reach Latino business owners.

September 21, 2021

* Robert Albro is a Research Associate Professor in American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. Eric Hershberg is the Center’s Director and a Professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. This report is part of an ongoing Center research program examining Latino Entrepreneurship.

El Salvador: Exploiting Superpower Competition

By Jeffrey Hallock and Christopher Kambhu*

Government of El Salvador / Creative Commons License

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is taking advantage of superpower competition between the United States and China to get vaccines for his country and boost his domestic image as a strong, independent national leader. Hours after the United States announced a donation of 1.5 million Moderna doses to El Salvador in early July, China announced its own 1.5 million dose donation – and Bukele touted his successes on Twitter. In securing and administering vaccines for millions of Salvadorans, Bukele has achieved a domestic political victory; 44 percent of adults have received one vaccine dose as of last month, well above the regional average.

  • China’s relations with El Salvador center on its longstanding policy goal to weaken international support for Taiwan. China has expanded its influence in El Salvador since the country switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic, moreover, Beijing has donated a wide variety of medical supplies to El Salvador, and sold it 2 million doses of Sinovac vaccine last spring. For Beijing, vaccine diplomacy is a short-term soft-power and public relations victory that lays the groundwork for future economic deals.
  • Policymakers in Washington primarily view El Salvador through the lens of domestic migration politics. Fleeing gang violence and seeking better economic opportunities, Salvadorans form part of successive waves of migration to the United States from the Northern Triangle (which also includes Guatemala and Honduras). President Joe Biden seeks to address the root causes of migration through anticorruption and good governance initiatives, including denying visas to several senior officials in the Bukele government accused of corruption. This focus has increased tensions with Bukele.

Bukele’s superpower manipulation coincides with increasingly authoritarian tendencies at home since his inauguration in June 2019. With an approval rating well over 80 percent, he is among the most popular leaders in the world. His Nuevas Ideas party and its allies secured a legislative supermajority in February’s elections. Recently, Bukele and his legislative allies have acted aggressively to consolidate power, replacing the Attorney General and all five Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court magistrates with loyalists and preventing oversight of pandemic spending. Bukele also shuttered the OAS-backed anticorruption commission CICIES, which his campaign had supported. Numerous observers believe Bukele’s iron grip on the three branches of government will undermine El Salvador’s democratic institutions.

When Biden first took office, Bukele appeared likely to mimic the delicate dance choreographed by other Northern Triangle presidents: pledge to reduce migration flows to the United States in exchange for leeway on domestic affairs. However, the Biden Administration has not looked the other way as Bukele has violated democratic norms and lashed out at critics, including a Twitter spat with U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres of California. When the Biden Administration recently released a list of corrupt politicians that included several Bukele allies, he strongly criticized the list while publicly praising additional Chinese aid and vaccines.

  • The recent U.S. vaccine donation reflects Washington’s concern about China’s regional influence and acknowledges that the lofty goals of good governance can be overshadowed by other geopolitical considerations. The U.S. retains strong economic leverage over El Salvador through remittances from Salvadoran migrants (some 200,000 of whom are dependent on continued U.S. Temporary Protected Status), but the Biden administration is wary of pushing El Salvador too close to China.
  • While Bukele’s maneuvering has provided him a domestic political victory, diplomatic challenges remain. China’s foreign policy is transactional in nature, and Beijing will likely ask something of Bukele in exchange for its pandemic diplomacy. It is difficult to see what El Salvador can offer China since it already dropped recognition of Taiwan. Perhaps Bukele is betting he can avoid the difficult concessions which plague other nations’ Chinese relations. El Salvador’s strong economic and cultural ties with the U.S. will endure, but for the moment, Bukele is reaping the benefits of instigating great power rivalry.

*Jeffrey Hallock is a doctoral student at American University’s School of International Service. Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

August 5, 2021

Brazil: Case Study of How NOT to Handle a Pandemic

By Ingrid Fontes*

A health professional from the Special Indigenous Health District (DSEI) prepares a dose of the CoronaVac vaccine/ International Monetary Fund/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Most of the blame for Brazil’s inept response to the COVID‑19 pandemic – including the highest per capita death rate in the world (214 per 100,000) – falls squarely on the shoulders of President Jair Bolsonaro. Some of the severe criticism of the President – including some in an ongoing Senate investigation – is surely politically driven, but government foot-dragging and bad decisions, compounding the country’s political economy of corruption, have worsened the 15-month crisis.

  • The country has recorded 16.2 million cases and 452,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID‑19 Dashboard. Since early May, Brazil has had a moving average of more than 2,000 deaths per day.
  • Vaccinations have lagged even though Brazil has a competent infrastructure for administering conventional flu shots. As of this week, Brazil has administered a total of 63.7 million doses, with nearly 14.74 percent of the population receiving at least one dose, and 7.15 percent receiving both doses (13.2 million) – out of a population of more than 212 million. That’s below Chile (41 percent fully vaccinated) and Uruguay (28 percent); more than Mexico (9 percent); and well ahead of Peru (3 percent) and Ecuador (3 percent), according to a tracking website.

Government efforts ran into some longstanding obstacles, but many problems directly resulted from Bolsonaro policies that, according to many observers and experts, were minimalist if not obstructionist.

  • The country’s health system has long been underfunded, but the chaos has been the result of government actions. Four ministers of health have cycled through the job during the pandemic. The President and his administration have willfully disseminated information about the pandemic and vaccines, including that some shots will “turn you into a crocodile,” that have been roundly debunked. Bolsonaro has hosted large events without masks and social distancing.
  • Initially calling COVID a “little flu,” the government failed to begin arranging the purchase of vaccines in mid-2020 and later refused several offers by Pfizer that would have guaranteed it millions of vaccines. It rejected a liability waiver that the United States, EU, UK, Japan, and other Latin American countries had accepted.
  • The government also refused public calls to develop an immunization plan and delayed training healthcare professionals to administer the vaccine. When Brazil received its first batch of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines last month, the government stated it would distribute them to its 27 capitals in a “proportional and equal” division, but the lack of a detailed plan has led to wasted doses, shortages, and the suspension of vaccinations.

Corruption has also hampered efforts. Congress authorized US$50.8 billion in April 2020 and allowed all levels of government to purchase ventilators, intensive care beds, masks, and other supplies without bids and the usual bureaucratic review. By August, auditors were already warning that less than 8 percent of funds expended had gone directly to fight the disease. Of seven field hospitals the ex-governor of Rio de Janeiro ordered, five never opened. State and public prosecutors have already developed various cases of companies bilking more than US$70 million in each of various schemes. A lot of key equipment, such as respirators, and protective gear, never reached patients.

  • The government was slow to crack down on scams, such as the sale of bogus cures, that stole citizens’ money and undermined their confidence. The resident of a luxury building in Belo Horizonte, for example, told police that both the nurse and vaccine he paid US$100 for turned out to be false.

Other Latin American countries have struggled with the pandemic, of course, but Brazil’s performance falls far short of what it could have achieved with effective leadership and transparency. The harm has been magnified by the country’s interconnected and problematic political economy, specifically corruption. which has created a perfect storm of government ineffectiveness.

  • The President’s personal role is not to be underestimated, both in his deeds, such as undermining state and local governments’ efforts to contain the disease, and his inaction. Ironically, even communities that oppose Bolsonaro, or at least have no reason to heed him, have been heavily influenced by his example. Indigenous leaders report, for instance, that his refusal to accept the Chinese vaccine has contributed to vaccine hesitation among the 410,000 adults in indigenous villages. His rhetoric has made thousands of supporters refuse taking the vaccine.

* Ingrid Fontes is a student in the School of Public Affairs and School of International Service, with a particular focus on Brazil.

COVID-19: A Race Against Time to Vaccinate

By Eric Hershberg, Christopher Kambhu, and Carla Froy*

A woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine in Brazil/ International Monetary Fund/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Latin American governments’ rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been plagued by an unequal distribution of doses, a lack of ancillary supplies, and political disharmony – and most have little prospect of making up for lost time. The region has struggled to obtain enough doses despite Chinese, Russian, and U.S. vaccine diplomacy, and only 3 percent of the population is inoculated. There is also intra-regional inequality: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have 90 percent of available doses. Only Chile has implemented a successful immunization program.

  • Argentina’s efforts are hampered by a lack of doses, despite deals with AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, and Sputnik. The administration of President Alberto Fernández has been forced to prioritize delivery of first-round shots and delay second shots. Scientists warn that this decision, similar to that of the United Kingdom, could jeopardize vaccine effectiveness. They have also criticized the pace of immunizations. While Argentina made a deal with Mexico last year to produce 150 million AstraZeneca doses for distribution across the region, it has yet to bear fruit.
  • Mexico is also struggling with a lack of doses, which caused the government to delay its vaccination campaign launch from December to February. While the Argentine-Mexican deal for AstraZeneca doses intends to address this deficit, a lack of ancillary inputs has significantly delayed manufacturing. Fewer than 3 percent of Mexicans have been fully vaccinated, and the government’s plan aims for herd immunity only by March 2022. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has criticized vaccine inequities as part of his discourse supporting marginalized populations, even speaking at the UN about this issue, but his administration’s list of vaccine priority groups has drawn fierce criticism. In some rural areas, citizens received vaccines before the medical staff administering them, raising concerns that AMLO is prioritizing political considerations over public health.
  • Brazil faces a host of problems. Its vaccination scheme relies primarily on China’s Sinovac, which health experts say has the lowest efficacy of any vaccine, though the government signed a deal with AstraZeneca last month to produce 12.2 million doses domestically. President Jair Bolsonaro has regularly denigrated COVID vaccines, part of his laissez-faire attitude towards the pandemic. Although an estimated 4 percent of Brazilians are fully immunized, an inadequate record-keeping system makes monitoring progress difficult. Furthermore, the spread of a new COVID-19 variant from Manaus threatens to significantly undermine current vaccination efforts.

By contrast, Chile’s vaccination program is a regional success, with nearly 30 percent of its population fully inoculated. Following the program’s December launch, more than 3 million doses were administered in the first three weeks, and the government aims to fully vaccinate 80 percent of the population by June.

  • Chile’s success is due in part to government efforts to procure vaccines from multiple sources (including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Sinovac) and hosting clinical trials in exchange for early access and better prices. The health ministry mobilized the national vaccination system to implement its program and established clear guidelines and a national schedule, avoiding the confusion and contradictory messaging that plague other nations.

The disparity between Chile’s and its neighbors’ results was not a forgone conclusion. Brazil also has a robust national vaccination system, and along with Argentina and Mexico secured vaccine deals around the same time as Chile. The key lies in the more aggressive approach of President Sebastian Piñera’s administration in acquiring as many doses as possible – from wherever they could be sourced – and in its ownership of Chile’s vaccination program. Unlike most governments in the region, in the second half of 2020, when many vaccines were still in development, Chile oriented its health infrastructure and bureaucracy toward a successful inoculation program. Most other countries in the region did not, and they have no available roadmap to make up for lost time.

April 22, 2021

* Eric Hershberg is the CLALS Director, Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS, and Carla Froy is a graduate student at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

COVID-19: Vaccine Diplomacy Drives Hard Bargain

By Eric Hershberg, Christopher Kambhu, and Carla Froy*

Sinopharm Vaccine Supplies Arriving in Peru/ Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Cancillería del Perú/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

China, Russia, and the United States are offering millions of desperately needed COVID-19 vaccines to Latin American governments in exchange for policy changes that suit the supplying governments, and – with limited supply and fierce global demand for vaccines – regional governments are playing along.

  • China’s strategy builds on its promotion of medical supplies from its state-owned and private firms to become Latin America’s COVID-19 partner of choice. It has signed deals for vaccines produced by Sinovac and Sinopharm totaling nearly 200 million doses regionally, including with Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The government has offered $1 billion in loans to facilitate vaccine purchases.
  • Russia, in turn, has secured deals for nearly 125 million doses of its state-developed Sputnik vaccine with Argentina, Mexico, and Peru. It is also negotiating with Brazil and Venezuela to host vaccine trials in exchange for more favorable supply deals. Moscow aims to build upon these connections to forge stronger commercial ties.
  • While the United States has made fewer deals, the administration of President Joe Biden announced in mid-March that it would give 2.5 million surplus AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Mexico. The deal occurred the same day as Mexico announced further travel restrictions limiting Central American migration to the U.S. border, suggesting that Washington, like Beijing and Moscow, is linking vaccine deals with favorable policies in the region.

The three vaccine suppliers’ actions are already influencing relations between them and Latin American countries. Before Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had his first phone call with President Biden, he had already finalized a deal for 24 million Sputnik doses and extended a state visit invitation to Vladimir Putin. In Brazil, regulators reversed their earlier position, adopted after aggressive lobbying from Washington, and allowed Chinese telecom Huawei to bid on 5G network construction contracts shortly after reaching a deal for tens of millions of Sinovac doses. In the long term, closer regional ties with Russia and China could influence Latin American governments to tilt more favorably toward the preferences of Moscow and Beijing in bilateral relations, at the United Nations, and in regional bodies such as CELAC.

In addition to offering deals to Latin American partners, the three governments promote their own efforts by critiquing their rivals. Chinese officials describe their objective as equitable vaccine access, contrasting it to Western nations stockpiling many more doses than their populations require. Their U.S. counterparts are no less circumspect; a senior Biden official accused China and Russia of “vaccine mercantilism” while promoting Washington’s collaboration.

  • Claims from Beijing, Moscow, and Washington that they merely wish to advance global vaccine cooperation fail to obscure the hard bargains on offer. All three governments are leveraging the desperation of Latin American officials to extract policy concessions that suit their interests. Nowhere is this more evident than in Paraguay – the only South American nation that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan – which is struggling to access Chinese vaccines. Press reports indicate that China is linking a vaccine deal with Asunción breaking those relations; the Paraguayan foreign minister’s recent call for closer economic and cultural ties with China suggests this pressure is working. Latin American governments face a stark choice: reorient their foreign policies in exchange for vaccines or remain mired in the pandemic’s mounting health and economic costs.

April 16, 2021

* Eric Hershberg is the CLALS Director, Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS, and Carla Froy is a graduate student at American University’s School of Public Affairs.

Dominican Republic: Remittances Showing Strong Rebound Despite COVID-19

By Gerelyn Terzo*

Tower and Auditorium of the Central Bank of the Dominican Republic/ Rafael Calventi/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

The Dominican Republic’s economy has not escaped the slowdown caused by coronavirus, but one of its most important engines of growth – remittances from expatriates – has shown a strong resurgence in recent months.

  • The DR’s economy has been on a rollercoaster since the onset of the pandemic. The World Bank projects it contracted 4.3 percent in 2020, with the fallout continuing to reverberate throughout the country this year and next. This comes after decades of expansion, including annual growth of 6.1 percent between 2015 and 2019. Much of the country’s growth for decades has been fueled by personal remittances, hovering around 8.3 percent of GDP as of 2019.

Remittances plummeted more than 20 percent in March 2020, when the shock of the pandemic first hit, but they rebounded soon after, and a broader turnaround in the second half of 2020 appears to be helping the Dominican Republic toward a course of recovery. Families depend on funds from family members abroad for consumption, savings and investing.

  • By May, money transfers into the country from the United States rebounded nearly 18 percent, thanks to a Dominican diaspora that sent approximately $638.7 million home to their families. That was close to double the amount sent the previous month. Remittances have shown particularly strong growth since July, when transfers surpassed $827 million, 29.3 percent over July 2019.
  • Since then, the Dominican migrant community has not disappointed – more than compensating for the dip in remittances during the early COVID period. The Central Bank announced in December that “the flow of foreign currency continues to improve.” It pointed to a 27 percent year-on-year increase in remittances in November 2020, when they reached $707.5 million. For the January-November 2020 period, remittances climbed to nearly $7.4 billion compared to roughly $7.1 billion for all of 2019.
  • Nearly 85 percent of the flows over the past eight months originated from the diaspora in the United States, where unemployment among Latinos dropped about a half percent per month in late 2020. Other major sources are Spain and Italy, where Dominican migrants number 158,000 and 43,000, respectively.

Lockdowns and travel bans have ravaged the tourism industry, which customarily accounts for another 7‑8 percent of GPD. The number of visitors in November was one quarter that of the same month a year ago – making remittances an even more important input for the DR economy. Migrants living in the United States are likely working jobs that are considered essential during COVID in sectors of the economy such as healthcare. Regardless of how tough times get abroad, moreover, migrants from the Caribbean and Central America know that conditions are likely to be even more difficult back home – and these expatriates are more prone to sacrificing meals for themselves to ensure families back home can survive. A Santo Domingo local on social media suggested constructing a statue – similar to one in San Salvador in honor of Salvadoran expatriates – to honor the Dominican diaspora, who “against all odds” got the money through. The trajectory of COVID is still unknowable, but migrants’ commitment to helping family back home is already clear.

February 18, 2021

* Gerelyn Terzo is an analyst and writer on remittance flows and cryptocurrencies. This article is adapted from one she wrote for Sharemoney.

Femicide in Guatemala: The Double Burden of COVID-19

By Megan DeTura, Skevi Kambitis, and Valery Valdez Pinto*

Stop Femicide in Guatemala Banner/ Karen Eliot/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Women in Guatemala are facing a double threat of contagion and violence: the global COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in gender violence. Stay-at-home orders and quarantines have forced victims and perpetrators of domestic violence into close quarters, exacerbating the risk of attacks. While epidemiologists work to highlight the importance of public health data documenting waves of COVID infections, an already high level of femicides has yet to receive such attention. The Guatemalan government has not provided data documenting an increase in domestic violence reports, but women’s groups and NGOs report an increase in anecdotal accounts of attacks.

  • As early as last June, international organizations warned that, although stay-at-home orders offer an effective means of preventing disease transmission, they entail inherent risks for women, children, and the elderly. UN agencies and human rights organizations believe a surge in domestic violence is occurring and is not being reported due to the pressure on women to stay silent. With women’s shelters, community centers, and other “safe spaces” shut down due to COVID, indigenous and other women in Guatemala have few or no options to flee. NGOs are facing various programmatic obstacles as they attempt to restructure their work in Guatemala while observing public health precautions.
  • Femicide in Guatemala is a consequence of deep-rooted, historic factors. Legacies of a patriarchal and conservative culture have long diminished women’s rights, as men used gender-violence for submission and control. This practice was exacerbated during the country’s 36-year civil war, when violence against women was a weapon of intimidation and terror. Peace Accords signed in 1996 were supposed to end it and bring perpetrators to justice, but serious flaws in implementation have prevented women and indigenous groups from fully benefiting. Continuing violence in and outside the home and discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, and class have prolonged persistent socio-economic inequality for women, especially those of indigenous descent.

Legislation has failed to stem the violence against women. In addition to a 1996 Law Against Intrafamilial Violence, the Guatemalan Congress in 2008 passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women, explicitly recognizing femicide as a criminal offense. And with the passage of the Immediate Search for Missing Women Act in 2016, the state enhanced its domestic infrastructure to combat femicide, creating a DNA database and registries of missing women and perpetrators – efforts spearheaded by a National Search Coordinator.

  • The impact on the ground, however, has been marred by limited access to justice and high levels of impunity. The country’s 29 specialized courts for crimes of femicide are located in just 11 of 22 departments, with many staffed entirely by men. Women residing in rural areas face transportation burdens that limit access and present jurisdictional challenges. When a case is filed by the Public Prosecutor’s office, the possibility of conviction remains uncertain, as less than one third of femicide cases filed from 2014 through 2017 have resulted in convictions. Even perpetrators found guilty are now afforded greater leniency because a 2018 decision by the Constitutional Court gutted the once mandatory 25- to 50-year prison sentence.

While Guatemala is among the worst, it is not alone in its failure to take effective action against femicide and other violence against vulnerable groups. Femicide was recently highlighted in a study by the Pan American Health Organization, which also documented serious gaps in preventing violence against children and adolescents in the Americas. PAHO has also reiterated its call on public health systems in Central America to acknowledge their role in protecting women from violence during the pandemic.

  • Guatemala specifically has the means by which the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei could take action. Much of the epidemiologic infrastructure developed for COVID, for example, can be expanded to create a parallel system for the surveillance of femicide at the local, state, and national levels. NGOs already in close proximity to potential victims and their families could be strengthened to increase the prevention and punishment of violence against women and answer the Femicide Watch Call issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last year. Much like the response to COVID as a public health challenge, only an orchestrated, multi-level response will curtail future outbreaks of violence against women from reaching epidemic proportions.

January 19, 2021

* Megan DeTura is a graduate student in Comparative Regional Studies and a research assistant at both the National Security Archive and American University’s Accountability Research Center (ARC). Skevi Kambitis is a graduate student in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and a research assistant at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Valery Valdez Pinto is a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and a graduate assistant at CLALS.

Brazil: Congress Shows Leadership on COVID-19

By Beatriz Rey*

National Congress of Brazil, Plenary Session, 2020/ Senado Federal/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The Brazilian Congress has been the leading force in combating the COVID‑19 pandemic and its disastrous impact on the Brazilian economy, made necessary by the disorganization of the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro in proposing and securing the approval of legislation. The President of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, recently pointed out that, following a trend that predates Bolsonaro, no substantial vote would have occurred without legislators’ leadership.

  • Political scientists have ranked Brazilian presidents as among the traditionally most powerful in the world. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, presidents in Brazil can initiate almost any type of bill in Congress, enabling them to be the dominant player behind major policy reforms. However, this pattern began to shift in the 2000s. Political scientist Acir Almeida has documented 2009 as the year in which Congress – for the first time ever – passed more legislation of its own drafting than that proposed by the presidency. In that Congressional session (2007-2010), 371 laws were legislator-sponsored – more than three times the 113 President-sponsored laws passed. The number of laws sponsored by the presidency dropped to 86 in the next Congressional session (2011-2014), compared to 297 by Congressmen. Between 2015 and 2018, lawmakers approved 369 of their own bills, while only 42 executive-sponsored bills became law. 

Congress has especially exerted leadership during the pandemic, during which the coronavirus has dominated the legislative agenda. (Almost half of the 133 bills that Congress passed last year were linked to the public health and economic impact of COVID‑19.) Legislators proposed 96 percent of the total 2,377 pandemic-related bills drafted. Bills initiated by the Legislative and the Executive branches experienced similar approval rates – roughly 47 percent of the Administration’s and 52 percent of the Congress’s – but all but one of the President’s laws were approved as provisional decrees, which are like executive orders in the United States. Executive decrees are arguably easier to pass than other bills. 

  • The coronavirus emergency aid program was one of the legislator-sponsored bills. The country’s most important COVID-19 policy to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic, its legal framework originated in a bill submitted by Congressman Eduardo Barbosa. The program’s approval also demonstrated Congressional activism in the level of funding. The Federal Government initially proposed a monthly benefit of 200 reals (about $55), but the Chamber of Deputies counterproposal of 500 reals put pressure on the government to increase the benefit to 600 reals (about $110).

The legislative branch naturally embodies a broader array of social, political, and economic interests than the President and his Administration, which, although elected with support from several segments of society, has a much smaller reach.

  • Congress’s performance indicates that it is able to serve – with at least some presidents – as a co-policymaker, potentially improving the quality of policy debates, acceptability among political actors, and the likelihood of successful implementation. A public opinion poll by Datafolha suggests that four in every 10 Brazilians aged 18 years or older requested emergency coronavirus aid. Indeed, a study by Fundação Getulio Vargas estimates that the program decreased the country’s poverty rate by 23.7 percent (compared to 2019). This means that 15 million Brazilians had left poverty by last August. These results validate the Congressional activism and lay the groundwork for more in the future.

January 12, 2021

* Beatriz Rey is a CLALS Research Fellow. Parts of this article appeared on the Wilson Center website and in the Brazilian Report. 

Mexico: Competing State Strategies and Results on COVID

By Piper Neulander*

Disinfecting city street in north-central Mexico./ Carl Campbell/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

In the face of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s relatively cavalier attitude toward the COVID‑19 virus, the governors of states as varied as Nuevo León and Oaxaca have implemented contrasting approaches – with different levels of success and political gains. AMLO’s response has been colored by relatively late shutdowns, limited ramping up of national-level coordination mechanisms, and the maintenance of strict austerity despite an extraordinary decline in economic activity. Yet state governments have a large degree of autonomy in Mexico’s federal system, and some have taken advantage of it. Nuevo León – a northern, industrial, relatively urbanized and wealthier state – and Oaxaca – a southern, more rural and poorer state – both initially followed AMLO’s hesitant lead towards the virus, but eventually diverged in their strategies.

Nuevo León

The governor of Nuevo León, independent Jaime Rodríguez, has adopted policies that have departed sharply from federal guidelines. The state began to count private and state labs’ coronavirus tests together and quickly, while the federal government still only had one lab to officially confirm tests. It also used its own measurement system in many industries to allow for slower, safer re-openings – developing 12 measures, rather than the federal government’s four – and cooperated with neighboring states to prevent spread of the disease.

  • These policies gave Nuevo León a fighting chance to slow the spread through its dense population and industrial workplaces. Early testing meant the state had a far more accurate initial count of cases, and local processing of the tests enabled faster action. While these steps made Nuevo León citizens more aware of the spread within their communities early on, they caught medical workers unprepared for the surge, prompting protests over the lack of preparation.

Oaxaca

Oaxaca Governor Alejandro Murat, who aligns himself closely with AMLO, took advantage of that relationship during the pandemic. The state received federal help from the military to build much-needed hospitals in the region – one of which AMLO personally inaugurated during a tour of the Istmo region. (It was unclear, however, if the hospital actually began operating upon inauguration.)

  • This strong partnership with the federal government, however, made the state vulnerable to the same pitfalls as national-level policies, including inadequate testing and slow identification of virus trends, contributing to striking lethality rates from COVID‑19 in certain Oaxacan counties. The county of Juchitán, for example, experienced an 18 percent fatality rate.

In Nuevo León, Rodríguez saw a huge boost in popularity during the early months of the pandemic – an average of 25 percentage point increase in various polls conducted between March and May. His approval rate for his handling of the COVID crisis specifically was 72.3 percent in June – one of the five highest approval rates among Mexico’s 31 states. In Oaxaca, where polling figures vary, most pointed to a 6.6 percentage point increase in Murat’s approval rate between May and July. Also in June, opinion on compliance with isolation and decreased mobility was at 68.3 percent approval in Nuevo León and 60.6 percent approval in Oaxaca.

The governors’ political fortunes seem to parallel the states’ health results. Rodríguez was successful on two fronts: relative success against the coronavirus, and clear success in grasping the moment for his own political purposes. He was smart to forge his own path against the virus, focusing on essential tools like testing and regional cooperation, and, despite the health workers’ protests, delivering quality care to victims of the disease. Rodríguez was consistent and clear with the public about the risks of the virus, allowed his Secretary of Health to guide a response to the virus, and harnessed his urban, industrially supported state’s strengths in his response, while avoiding many of the mistakes of the federal government. In Oaxaca, Murat’s close adherence to AMLO’s lead placed the state at a disadvantage in combatting COVID‑19. While he did also gain in popularity for his response, the gain was smaller. Much of Oaxaca’s actions were boosted by support from the federal government, making the state-level response less distinguishable from Mexico’s central government strategy.

September 18, 2020

* Piper Neulander is a student in the School of International Service focusing on Latin America.

COVID-19 Presents Challenges for Latinos in U.S. Election

By Stephen Nuño-Pérez*

“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish./ GPA Photo Archive/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The COVID‑19 pandemic – in addition to having a deep impact on U.S. Latinos’ economic wellbeing and health– is aggravating the community’s anxieties about whether their votes will be counted in the November 3 elections. A recent poll by Latino Decisions shows deep concern that Latinos’ impact on vote counts, already depressed by their traditionally anemic turnout rates, will be even more severely reduced by a lack of confidence in mail-in voting.

  • Five states – Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington – have all-mail voting systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, and California is adjusting its system in response to the pandemic to mail ballots to every voter automatically. Other states have more strict requirements to request a vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot.
  • There has been a widely disseminated argument that VBM gives the Democratic Party an advantage, but much of the research shows that neither party gains an advantage. Utah and Oregon, for example, are two very different states that are roughly 90 percent non-Hispanic white, yet Republicans control the legislature, the Senate, and the Governorship in the former, and Democrats control all three levels of government in the latter.

Latinos have traditionally preferred to vote in-person on election day, and Latino Decision’s latest poll shows that the conventional wisdom that VBM will significantly increase their participation during the coronavirus pandemic is exaggerated. While states with VBM systems tend to have higher turnout rates, the research pinpointing the causal relationship between VBM and turnout is somewhat mixed. Indeed, VBM raises concerns for Latinos. Researchers in Florida have been ringing the alarm on its inequities. Dr. Daniel Smith at the University of Florida has shown that VBM in Florida has disproportionately high rejection rates of mail ballots cast by Hispanic voters and young voters.

  • Latino Decisions’s latest poll surveyed 1,842 registered Latino voters on their concerns about voting during COVID‑19. Overall, 74 percent said they had health concerns about voting in person. (Ironically, the older respondents were slightly less concerned than the younger.) Eighty-one percent of those who identify as Democrats expressed worries, compared to just 60 percent of those who identify as Republicans.
  • While 53 percent of Latinos across demographic groups in the survey overall said they prefer to vote in-person, there was some variation in preference by state. For instance, 66 percent of Latinos in Arizona said they prefer VBM (compared to 80 percent of non-Latinos), and just 43 percent of Latinos in Texas said so. When asked if they had confidence that their mail-in ballot would be counted, just 47 percent of those who prefer to vote in person said they had confidence in the system. By comparison, 85 percent of those who prefer VBM said they had confidence in the system. Here again we see partisan differences in confidence, with 75 percent of Democrats saying they had confidence in the VBM system and 64 percent of Latino Republicans saying they had confidence their mail-in ballot would be counted.
  • A majority of Latino voters from both parties in the survey said they were confident they could navigate their states’ systems for switching from in-person to mail-in ballot. First-generation Latinos, those who were not born in the United States, were slightly less confident, at 48 percent, that they could navigate the system to request a VBM ballot.

The survey results suggest a strong need for efforts to improve VBM systems and build confidence among Latinos to vote by mail. Rejection rates of Latino mail-in voters in states like Florida are too high, and it is up to state elections officials to implement a multi-layered approach to fixing elements of the system that are seen as broken. Shoring up education on the VBM process will also build confidence in it. COVID‑19 makes this difficult, but addressing the VBM system’s flaws will help build credibility and improve participation in the November election – for Latinos as well as non-Latinos.

September 4, 2020

* Stephen Nuño-Pérez is Director of Communications and Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions.