As Mexico is scorched by COVID-19 cases, their president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), attacks small-scale newspapers for criticizing his handling of the pandemic. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has been embroiled in a judicial battle that he has deemed a political attack by opposition leaders. El Salvador’s government is being led by a president who marched armed soldiers into the country’s legislative assembly to demand votes. Snipers lined the rooftops outside. Amidst these calamities, Latin Americans are dying of COVID-19.
With incompetent and distant leaders at the helm, there must be a way for citizens to connect with government officials during a health crisis. In this time of social distancing, governments must get closer to their citizens.
To understand the need for better local government, one must realize that Latin America is too centralized. When looking at spending by non-national government bodies throughout Latin America, one sees that these bodies spend only 6% of GDP compared with 12% and 10% in Asia-Pacific and European countries respectively. This gap widens when addressing spending by mayors, who are responsible for 18% of government spending in Latin America, as opposed to 35% in Asian-Pacific countries. This gap must shrink if governments want to have the support of their own people, who are increasingly disenchanted with government.
The system of government itself is an archaic one. An increasingly urbanized place with 80% of the population living in cities, Latin American cities have antiquated infrastructure and are rife with crime. Such a reality reflects the anachronism that is the former Spanish colonial form of government in modern Latin America, which is one that stresses centralization. This government structure, put in place to control vast swaths of land, is counterintuitive for a geographically small and increasingly dense population today.
Deconstructing such a system starts by building up another: local government. Issues like land claims, native rights, infrastructure needs, and healthcare can all be handled better if there are more people closer to the issue working on the ground. An issue like COVID-19 exemplifies such a need. When examining Brazil, one sees that much of the fight has been bolstered by local governments instead of the national one. In Colombia, Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero has used an app to contact trace and has effectively dampened the virus in an incredibly dense city. Thus, local governments can be effective in fighting systemic country-wide issues.
Chileans agree, and currently the frontrunners in the 2021 presidential race are three mayors from districts in the capital city of Santiago. Chile has seen persistent protests in the last year against national government officials, so such a trend in the presidential race is indicative of a reorientation. That is, the Chilean public’s trust in national government officials is waning, but citizens find comfort in local officials. With Chile set to rewrite their constitution in the coming months, it will be critical that the Chilean public has the necessary confidence in their leaders. The public will ensure that the constitution is constructed by trustworthy officials. Without said confidence, the social construct will wither, and the new constitution will be as useless as the previous one.
Nonetheless, bolstering local government has its qualms. Inequality amongst country-wide regions poses a threat to any decentralization task. Government revenue is contingent on the wealth of its land areas, and wealth is never evenly distributed. It is salient that any shift towards local governance can be followed by an equal redistribution of revenue to each land area.
Furthermore, local corruption must cease if national governments are going to put their trust in the hands of subordinate officials. This corruption can be solved with incentives to move up in the ranks of government. Nonetheless, roadblocks that present themself in the form of corruption are a bi-product of a divided government where disillusionment is rife amongst local officials. The move to a balance of power between local and national governments would help to cure disconnect by giving local officials a larger role to play in their own communities.
Latin America will first have to confront COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean they can’t start redistributing power to local governments right now. One hopes that such a catastrophe will guide governments to the best public policy choice (increased funding for local government), but in the case that it doesn’t, it will be incumbent upon the people to demand direct action from their governments. In a region with a transparency problem, it is paramount that citizens demand clarity. This starts with voting for officials that will not only lend an ear to local politicians, but their budgets too.