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Latin America’s political elite jumped the vaccine line. ‘The masses won’t forget’ when they vote.

Adriana Brasileiro
·11 min read

Latin Americans were already angry at how their leaders have mismanaged efforts to fight the pandemic. Now, a series of scandals dubbed “vaccinegate” in which politicians have jumped the shot line has sparked fury that will likely drive voter sentiment as a new electoral cycle starts in the region this year.

“This isn’t just about revelations of bribery, kickbacks and peddling; this is about life and death,” said Michael Touchton, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. “The masses won’t forget and they will go to the polls thinking about these scandals.”

Two ministers in Peru and one in Argentina resigned earlier this month after receiving preferential access to scarce vaccine doses they shared with relatives and allies. In Ecuador, the health minister stepped down Friday after criticism over his decision to send part of the country’s first shipment of vaccines straight to a retirement home where his mom and other relatives live. In Brazil, over 4,700 reports denouncing line-cutters have been filed to public prosecutors’ offices across the country.

Frustration over the scandals may not immediately lead to explosive civil unrest like the historic wave of protests the region saw in 2019. Pre-pandemic, people took to the streets in often violent anti-government protests against everything from election fraud and pension reform to bus tariffs. Now, with the lockdown and economic slowdown deepening the wealth divide and increasing hardship for millions, experts say anger will likely translate into protest votes at the polls.

Mishandling of the pandemic will likely play a major role as nine Latin American countries hold elections this year, with five — Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua — selecting presidents. Legislative elections will also take place in Argentina, Mexico and El Salvador, and the electoral season will continue in 2022 with general elections in Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica.

“In the countries that didn’t handle the pandemic very well, which are most countries in the region, the incumbents will probably be voted out,” Touchton said. “Outsiders and new leadership will be very appealing to voters who lost confidence in their leaders.”

Peru’s Foreign Minister Elizabeth Astete resigned earlier this month after admitting to cutting in front of the COVID-19 vaccine line to receive the shot.
Peru’s Foreign Minister Elizabeth Astete resigned earlier this month after admitting to cutting in front of the COVID-19 vaccine line to receive the shot.

Though some analysts anticipate a new wave of populist leaders, the bungled pandemic handling by presidents on the left and right of the political spectrum means the reality could be more complicated. With millions cast into poverty and years of gains in jobs and economic growth wiped out, Latin American voters will be looking for candidates who can deliver better governance and services, analysts said. That could create an opening for new parties on both the left and right, defying easy categorization.

Distrust at all-time high

The schemes benefiting Latin America’s political elites while countries struggle to get their inoculation programs on track underscore the deep inequality that has only worsened during the pandemic.

The scandals embody a sense of entitlement and privilege that even huge corruption scandals like Brazil’s Lava Jato didn’t elicit, said Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a policy institute in London. And they come at a time when distrust of the political class and elites are at an all-time high in the region.

A look at vaccine distribution trends shows just how far behind countries in the region are compared with the U.S. Peru, one of the worst-hit countries and with some of the highest death rates in the world, had administered just 0.7 doses per 100 people by Feb. 25, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data. In comparison, the U.S. had given out about 20 vaccine doses per 100 people.

In Brazil, where a wobbly vaccination program has been plagued by a lack of logistical planning and political infighting, that metric is lower than four doses per 100 people, while Argentina and Mexico had distributed about 1.5 doses per 100 people. Colombia only received its first vaccine doses last week and started giving shots in its three largest cities on Feb. 18. Vaccine distribution there is less than 0.2 doses per 100 people.

That’s unlikely to improve in the short term as supply and distribution problems are far from being sorted out. In the meantime, people will only get angrier, Sabatini said.

“They have seen their savings disappear. They lost their jobs. In many countries a big chunk of the middle class no longer exists,” Sabatini said. “This kind of feeling will not only decide the elections, but may fuel the creation of new parties and new leadership to address the challenges post-pandemic.”

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been a face-mask skeptic, rejected science and politicized his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been a face-mask skeptic, rejected science and politicized his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

While dissatisfaction with established political parties fueled the rise of populist movements across the region in past years, political ideologies are losing their strength as a guiding principle for voters in countries like Brazil, for instance.

Voters are starting to realize the real-life problems that President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing, strongman ideology has caused, such as diplomatic isolation, which has contributed to difficulties in obtaining ingredients for vaccines from China and inoculations from India, said Monica de Bolle, an economist and senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“Bolsonaro’s political ideology and the effects it’s had on policy making in Brazil, especially around public health and political stimulus measures during the pandemic, is something people are rejecting now,” the economist said in a recent YouTube video analyzing the situation. “People want more pragmatism and less ideology.”

Newcomers who are not associated with extreme political views will likely have better chances in the region, Touchton said.

Ecuador’s election is a case in point. Though Andrés Arauz, a protégé of Rafael Correa, the former left-wing populist president of Ecuador, captured the most votes, he still won less than a third of the ballots. An indigenous activist, Yaku Perez, who many considered a long-shot, nearly advanced to the second round. The final race will pit Arauz against Guillermo Lasso, a millionaire executive who once worked at Coca-Cola. But the familiar showdown between left versus right is complicated by the fact that no single candidate has captured the enthusiasm of voters.

“Irrespective of who wins the election on April 11th, the next president will be sailing against the wind,” said Norman McKay, Latin America and the Caribbean analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit. “No party is on track to secure a legislative majority and the fractured vote suggests that no candidate has the popular support needed to pursue their agenda without facing resistance.”

Cemetery workers in Guayaquil, Ecuador, wait to burry people who died from COVID-19 in April 2020. Their coffins were wrapped in plastic.
Cemetery workers in Guayaquil, Ecuador, wait to burry people who died from COVID-19 in April 2020. Their coffins were wrapped in plastic.

The recent vaccine scandals will further weaken confidence in the political elite, Sabatini said.

He pointed to comments by Peru’s foreign minister, who was forced to resign after revelations she was among 487 people who got the vaccine in secret weeks before the start of distribution to health professionals, as exemplifying the political elite’s attitude.

“I couldn’t afford the luxury of getting sick,” Elizabeth Astete said in a now-deleted post on Twitter.

Ex-President Martín Vizcarra, who was impeached last year on unproven corruption charges and is now running for Congress, received a shot back in October, when Chinese lab Sinopharm was conducting trials in Peru. He claimed last week to have been part of the trial, but scientists said that neither Vizcarra nor his wife were volunteers.

“It’s not like these cases are egregious in themselves. Arguably, they could have been overlooked,” Sabatini said. “But because there is deep mistrust in political leaders and in the elite right now, they become symbols of a type of corruption that’s unacceptable.”

Vaccines for VIP only

In Argentina, the hashtag #VacunatorioVIP exploded on social media after a journalist revealed he was invited by the health minister to get an early shot as the ministry had received 3,000 doses for discretionary use. A list of about 70 people showed that mayors, diplomats, legislators and even union leaders close to Argentina’s political elite had received the vaccine, despite not being in the priority group of health care workers and the elderly.

Argentine President Alberto Fernández removed Minister Ginés González García last week just before a trip to Mexico to discuss vaccine cooperation efforts with fellow left-leaning counterpart Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The Mexican leader has been a vocal critic of what he calls a “hoarding of vaccines” by rich countries and has asked the World Health Organization to help ensure more equity in distribution.

Brazil, whose robust pharmaceutical industry could have supported mass production of a COVID vaccine, got lost in political infighting and a lack of logistical planning by the Bolsonaro administration. It wasn’t able to secure vaccines and only began a patchy inoculation program last month, with states and cities often negotiating their own contracts with different suppliers.

The country has had its fair share of vaccine scandals, which so far haven’t revealed wrongdoing by high-ranking officials. Still, dozens of municipal mayors, city council leaders and health officials from mostly poor states in the north and northeastern regions have been accused of cutting in front of the vaccine line.

In Manaus, the city in the Amazon that’s been ravaged by a new, more contagious COVID-19 variant, the young son of a state representative received shots even before vaccines were officially available in the state.

Frustration grows as wait for shots drags on

As headlines of elites getting shots flood social media, those waiting for their turn in line are growing antsy. Some estimates suggest many may have to wait until next year to get vaccinated.

“We don’t have enough for health workers, military and politicians.,” said Wilman Lucareli, 59, an advocate for the handicapped and health inspector in Venezuela’s capital. “We shouldn’t be vaccinating mayors, politicians.”

A healthcare worker walks past photos of doctors who died from COVID-19 at the Venezuelan Medical Federation in Caracas last year.
A healthcare worker walks past photos of doctors who died from COVID-19 at the Venezuelan Medical Federation in Caracas last year.

In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro didn’t even try to hide a vaccination plan that favors police and military personnel. In an announcement last week describing who would receive the first doses of Russia’s Sputnik V, he said health professionals, state security personnel and the military will get it first because “they are the ones taking care of our people.” The elderly were not included.

The issue has come up during weekly media briefings with the Pan American Health Organization, which is working with countries in the Americas to facilitate access to COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX mechanism, a multilateral system backed by the World Health Organization that aims to give more equitable access to millions of doses needed by countries that can’t afford to buy them.

PAHO’s recommendation to countries in the Americas is to prioritize front-line health workers, first responders and those caring for the elderly, followed by vulnerable groups such as adults with preexisting conditions, especially those over 65.

“But we can’t force countries to follow our recommendations. Each country can decide how to conduct its immunization campaign,” said Jarbas Barbosa, PAHO’s Assistant Director, during a press briefing on Feb. 24. “We are experiencing a lot of politicization of the vaccine at the moment, so it’s important to be transparent to win people’s trust.”

But with the shortage of vaccines, it’s still unclear how quickly all healthcare workers will receive the shots. Maduro announced earlier this month that Venezuela had secured 100,000 doses from Russia, but there isn’t a clear plan for the millions more who will need to be inoculated in the country of 30 million people.

In Los Magallanes de Catia, a slum in west Caracas populated by both Chavistas and supporters of the opposition, there is confusion and skepticism on both sides of the political divide. On a recent morning, men stood on the streets offering to exchange plantains for other basic essential goods that are hard to find or afford. Others cued up to fill empty tanks with gas for cooking.

Lilian Francia, a Maduro loyalist charged with dispersing the neighborhood’s gas supply, said she didn’t object to politicians being included in the first round of shots, noting that they have frequent contact with the public. Wearing a headscarf, her eyebrows perfectly painted on her face, Francia, 66, said she’d do whatever was asked of her - even take the “miracle drops” Maduro has promoted as a COVID-19 cure.

But she also said she’d be opposed to vaccines being diverted from hospitals to people who are not in the priority list.

“Anyone who robs a vaccine to administer it somewhere else should go to jail,” she said.

Lucareli, meanwhile, said officials should provide more transparency.

“I work as a public health inspector and I haven’t got a vaccine,” he said. “When will I get my shot?”

Camille Rodríguez Montilla contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.