Protests across Latin America reflect a toxic cocktail of pandemic and recession

People protest the government's Covid-19 quarantine policies in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Aug. 17, 2020.

(CNN)The impact of Covid-19 in Latin America is igniting protests in several countries, as the economic fallout from the pandemic aggravates existing social tensions from the streets of Buenos Aires and Panama City to remote parts of Brazil and Bolivia.

On Monday, at least 25,000 people marched through the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, protesting the government's continued lockdown, a deepening economic crisis and the government's plans for judicial reform. Protests were also held in the cities of Cordoba, Mar del Plata and Rosario.
A similar protest took place in the capital last month, when thousands defied quarantine restrictions to demonstrate against corruption and the restrictions on businesses due to the lockdown.
Argentina has seen more than 310,000 Covid-19 cases, with a sharp spike in infections over the last month. Quarantine measures have been extended to the end of the month, and even tightened in some areas.
    Argentines have also been angered by the release from jail of associates of former President Cristina Kirchner, such as former vice president Amado Boudou, convicted of corruption, who was granted house arrest because of the pandemic.
    Argentina's experience echoes across the region, where discontent across a range of issues has coalesced with the pandemic and its economic impact. Jimena Blanco, research director and head of Americas for the political analytics firm Verisk Maplecroft, says, "A significant part of the population in Argentina is saying 'We've been at home for five months; we need to start living again.'"
    Protesters in cars drive along 9 de Julio Avenue waving flags in Buenos Aires on Monday.
    Bolivia provides another instance of politics melding with the Covid-19 crisis. Supporters of former President Evo Morales blocked roads across the country for weeks as the interim government twice postponed elections due to the spread of coronavirus cases. For now there appears to be a truce; two labor unions agreed to lift roadblocks last week after President Jeanine Añez signed a law promising elections on October 18.
    In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro's dismissive attitude toward Covid-19 has sharpened an already polarized environment. A survey by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) showed that protests were up by one third in the first three months of the pandemic compared to the preceding quarter.
    Demonstrations have ebbed in recent weeks, but could reignite with critical decisions on extending income support are due in the coming weeks.
    On Wednesday, Bolsonaro said the monthly emergency stipend would have to be cut. "This is not the people's money, this is indebtedness, and if the country becomes over-indebted, it ends up losing its credibility," Bolsonaro said.
    Much of the unrest across the region so far has been driven by economic hardship. In Chile, lockdown protests such as the clanging of pots and pans -- known as cacerolazo -- escalated to street demonstrations in defiance of quarantine in mid-July. There were multiple grievances: poor administration of the "Food for Chile" initiative, a buckling health care system, and demands that people be allowed to withdraw part of their pensions (to which the government acquiesced).
    Colombia has been spared large-scale demonstrations, perhaps because of a low Covid-19 mortality rate. But the daily average of new cases hit a peak on August 16 and the economic crisis is just beginning to bite. Students at the National Pedagogical University in Bogotá have been occupying university facilities since July 27, demanding the cancellation of university fees. Most used to work in the informal economy to make ends meet.
    Angelica Sanchez, 22, told CNN she used to sell fruit on the street, but the lockdown took away her income. "Food, accommodation, rent... what are you going to do? Choose between your food and the semester fee?" the mathematics student said. On Tuesday, she and two other students began a hunger strike.
    Panama saw a wave of protests in July, largely by the poor and jobless complaining that income support promised by the government was not reaching them. Medical workers there protested shortages of staff and equipment, as they did in Mexico.
    And in parts of Central America and Mexico, there is another dimension to unrest: Violence among criminal gangs. The ACLED survey found that in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala "gangs are competing over a shrinking criminal market, and governments are faced with rising violence as they struggle to address an unprecedented health crisis."
    "Battles between cartels [in Mexico] are becoming more lethal, with a substantial increase in the number of reported fatalities stemming from inter-gang clashes," ACLED reported. It found the same in Honduras.

    'An escalation of unrest is inevitable'

    Across much of Latin America, inequality is high and informal employment widespread -- key potential ingredients for possible unrest. What will happen when emergency Covid-19 economic measures end and household funds dry up?
    Alexander Kazan at the Eurasia Group warns that the end of such aid could bring trouble.
    "Reversion to social safety nets for the most vulnerable may further undermine the social contract, and eventually result in more social conflict and division," he told Eurasia Group clients.
    As the pandemic wanes, young peoples' diminishing fear of Covid-19 could also promote demonstrations, he says. "That could mean a lower threshold to send people to the streets in protest. This dynamic is probably most relevant to places that have been hit hardest by the virus, have governments that responded poorly, are facing a long and slow economic recovery, and were already facing social discontent and previous grievances," Kazan wrote.
    Many Latin American countries tick those boxes. Last month, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the World Health Organization projected the regional economy would contract by 9% this year -- adding 18 million people to unemployment rolls.
    Verisk Maplecroft analysts believe that the restrictions that accompanied the pandemic temporarily placed a lid on a pressure cooker of social unrest which began to boil last year, especially in Chile and Ecuador.
    "The fallout from the pandemic is going to worsen basic inequalities and act as a catalyst for further unrest," the group's Latin American analysts wrote in June. "An escalation of unrest is inevitable, while the question over its intensity lingers on."
    Verisk Maplecroft agrees with Kazan that the reduction of food and fuel subsidies would be "a textbook driver of unrest."
    Blanco says another issue is combating unemployment. Jobs lost now may take three to five years -- in the best-case scenario -- to be recovered.
    She says upcoming elections will pose a challenge in countries such as Peru and Chile, "where there is a real risk that anti-establishment candidates will emerge. There's no clarity as to where this electoral process could go."
    She adds that Chile faces a confluence of destabilizing factors: the economic burden of the pandemic, high levels of discontent and a constitutional referendum later this year. Argentina faces both a deep recession and inflation, with labor unions yet to negotiate contracts for next year, she says.
    Much depends also on what sort of unrest develops. Middle class protesters in the region have historically turned out to rail against corruption, while the poor in Latin America's teeming barrios and favelas, who make up much of the informal sector, are driven more by economic hardship.
    The latter could result in more violent protests, says Blanco -- not least because of the danger that armed gangs may seek to lead or co-opt the unrest.
      "The fallout from the pandemic is going to worsen basic inequalities and act as a catalyst for further unrest," Blanco and her colleagues wrote in an analysis in June.
      "An escalation of unrest is inevitable, while the question over its intensity lingers."