This week, the digest takes on the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including economic effects and a brain drain in Latin America. In addition, protests in Chile continue, while an investigation into a former Mexican president has kicked off.
Latin America remains the hardest-hit region in terms of both COVID-19 positive cases and fatalities. This week, the region crested another milestone, with six million reported cases.1 It took the region 11 days to climb from five million to six million, while it took 12 days to reach five million from four million. Brazil still dominates the region as far as cases, with well over three million positive tests and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus. Brazil’s neighbor Peru, though, now has the highest proportion of deaths caused by COVID-19, with Chile following close behind. About .06% of Peru’s population, and .05% of Chile’s, have died from COVID-19, with more than 1.5% and 2% of the total population infected, respectively.2 All these updates come as various nations in the region attempt to stabilize economies and reopen schools, but the situation in South America remains dangerous.
The scientific and economic effects of COVID-19 remain alarming, too. Researchers have found that many Mexican doctors and scientists are leaving the region for better opportunities elsewhere, in large part prompted by the pandemic. As the novel coronavirus reached the Americas, researchers at a laboratory in Mexico converted their workspace into a diagnostic clinic, helping the country’s find and treat infected patients. But as time went by, they saw their budgets slashed to a point where their labs could no longer function. In May, the National Council of Science and Technology requested that scientists donate a federal supplement to help their country fight COVID-19, further restricting their economic gains and leading some to search for employment elsewhere.3 Similar patterns in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia have resulted in scientists seeking opportunities in other industries or regions. This development comes as many Latin American and Caribbean countries face massive hits to trade and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). At a recent virtual meeting of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), executive secretary Alicia Barcena said that the Latin America and Caribbean bloc was “facing the worst crisis in a century.” She went on to state: “GDP is forecast to contract by 9.1%, poverty will increase 37.3% to reach 231 million people, some 98 million people will live in extreme poverty and run the risk of suffering hunger, because they will not be able to cover their basic food intake needs, and unemployment will rise to around 13.5%.”4 However, not all nations face the same economic struggles or are confronting them the same way. In Brazil, where the coronavirus has ravaged citizens’ health, the economic repercussions are somewhat muted. Economists note that the Brazilian government’s decisions to keep the economy open or to reopen it earlier than its neighbors, which have contributed to the spike in cases that make it the hardest-hit country other than the United States, has made its recession less impactful.5 The trade-off of public health and economic growth is an unenviable one, and it will be worth watching Brazil’s COVID-19 rates and economic statistics as the year goes on.
At the beginning of August, members of the Mapuche—an indigenous group in southern Chile—protested the holding of one of their leaders by Chilean officials. Those protests were met with violence from citizens in the area, but the story received little news coverage then. In fact, I only learned about the incidents last week, so the following is belated coverage of that news story. In recent months, the Chilean government has allowed several prisoners to serve terms under house arrest in order to avoid the confined spaces of prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. One prisoner, Celestino Cordova, is serving a sentence for an act of arson that killed an elderly couple; his request for transfer to house arrest through the end of the pandemic was denied, which prompted him to engage in a hunger strike. Those who support his request have peacefully occupied governmental buildings in the southern regions of Chile, and the case has overlapped with protests over inequality and economic hardships. On August 1, one of those peaceful protests was attacked by local civilians in concert with the Araucania’s Ultra-Right Group (APRA), resulting in the burning of an indigenous monument.6 Chilean police officers called in to keep the protests peaceful watched from afar, even as the anti-Mapuche crowd set fire to vehicles. Over the last couple of weeks, protests have continued, with the UN recently sending a fact-finding mission to the area to investigate the violence.7
Finally, the Mexican government announced that former President Enrique Peña Nieto was the target of a corruption investigation. Prosecutors opened the investigation following a tip from a former energy executive, who claimed that Peña Nieto took millions of dollars in bribes and played a role in bribing other government officials. Peña Nieto served as the country’s president from 2012-2018 and has been accused of taking bribes from people associated with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, although he has denied all allegations of corruption.8 Current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador ran on a platform of ending corruption, and ending governmental bribes has been a consistent issue for his administration. López Obrador has stated that he does not support charging Peña Nieto with a crime, as he fears it would destabilize the country, but that he would support any decisions made by the country’s attorney general.