The Americas Blog

El Blog de las Americas

The Americas Blog seeks to present a more accurate perspective on economic and political developments in the Western Hemisphere than is often presented in the United States. It will provide information that is often ignored, buried, and sometimes misreported in the major U.S. media.

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On April 22nd, President Trump signed an Executive Order putting a 60-day halt on the issuance of new green cards to immigrants admissible for permanent residency in the United States. This measure, coming on the back of other government measures restricting legal immigration, ostensibly seeks to protect the US from imported cases of COVID-19. But while Trump endeavors to block nearly all immigration into the US, his administration has been exporting the virus to countries that have extremely limited capacity and resources to deal with pandemics.

As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, the Trump administration has continued deportation flights of undocumented migrants to Central America and the Caribbean, all while openly threatening countries that push back. The results are tragic and predictable: there are now multiple instances of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases to countries with under-resourced public health care systems that are already strained by the pandemic. In doing so, the Trump administration is not just putting the lives of immigrants and Latin Americans at risk, but those of people around the world.

On March 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order invoking authority under a 1944 law to restrict travel from Mexico and Canada. The order states the need for 

the movement of all such aliens to the country from which they entered the United States, or their country of origin, or another location as practicable, as rapidly as possible, with as little time spent in congregate settings as practicable under the circumstances. The faster a covered alien is returned … the lower the risk the alien poses of introducing, transmitting, or spreading COVID–19 into [Ports of Entry], Border Patrol stations, other congregate settings, and the interior.

Part of the order’s justification was that immigrant detention centers, notorious for deplorable hygiene and sanitation conditions, are ill-equipped for a quarantine scenario. Nationwide, more than 375 ICE detainees, and numerous staff, have tested positive for COVID-19 despite low testing rates. New research suggests that, at current detention levels, 72% of ICE detainees will have COVID-19 by day 90 in an optimistic scenario; in a pessimistic scenario, it’s nearly 100%. Despite this, ICE has only slowed down, not ended, raids to round up new detainees.

As a result of the CDC’s order, immigrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mexican border into the US are now being returned to Mexico in an average of just 96 minutes, without testing and without recognition of their due process or other rights under the US Constitution. Even with total border crossings into the US down significantly, over 10,000 immigrants were expelled back to Mexico in the weeks following the order. Taken together with administration policy before the outbreak, it seems clear that the CDC order is intended to further undermine the rights of asylum seekers. Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, commented that though the coronavirus pandemic “may warrant extraordinary measures at borders, expulsion of asylum seekers resulting in refoulement should not be among them.”

But the Trump administration hasn’t just been turning away new immigrants; it is continuing to deport detainees back to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported 2,985 deportations in the first 11 days of April, a substantial decline from prior numbers but still deeply troubling given the global pandemic.

Though ICE is notoriously secretive about its operations, a review of public flight data shows that Swift Air, one of ICE’s major subcontractors for deportation flights, has continued to fly regularly from international airports near major ICE detainment centers to airports throughout Latin America, with the majority of flights headed to three national airports in Northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), even amid a dramatic decline in global air travel. Though some of Swift’s air traffic may be private flights unrelated to deportation, 43 percent of ICE deportees were returned to Northern Central America in 2019, making up the vast majority of deportations when excluding Mexico’s 47 percent (deportations to Mexico occur over ground more often than by flight). 

As deportations have continued, there are now multiple confirmed cases of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases. In one instance, an immigrant, unaware he had contracted the virus, was deported from Houston to Mexico, leading to the infection of 13 others in a Nuevo Laredo shelter just south of the US-Mexican border. Ironically, the CDC order claimed “Medical experts believe that community transmission and spread of COVID–19 at asylum camps and shelters along the US border is inevitable, once community transmission begins in Mexico”; the order itself has contributed to this exact outcome. The Mexican government is now making the same mistake under US pressure, clearing its migrant shelters and sending immigrants and refugees back to Central America.

In Haiti, three deportees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, prompting 27 members of the US Congress and 164 human rights organizations to send letters asking the Trump administration to halt deportations to the beleaguered nation, and some Haitian scientists have asked the same. In fact, Haitian citizens legally visiting the US are having a harder time returning to Haiti than deportees are, as deportees aren’t being properly tested first. In Guatemala, the public health ministry has reported at least 99 people infected with COVID-19 who have been deported from the US on various flights, nearly one-fifth of all the country’s known cases. Though there are contradictory reports, Guatemala’s health minister claims that on one of these flights, the majority of deportees aboard were sick.

That flight led the Guatemalan government to temporarily suspend incoming deportation flights on March 17, and to request that the US government reform deportation protocols by testing deportees beforehand and limiting flights to 25 deportees each in order to allow for distancing. El Salvador joined in temporarily suspending deportation flights, while flights had supposedly already been stopped in Honduras due to general flight restrictions. The US did not comply with Guatemala’s requests, but Guatemala still lifted its suspension two days later and allowed deportation flights to resume — the same day the US government announced it would continue aid to Northern Central America. ICE claimed to be implementing some precautions, but some experts said they were woefully inadequate

After the Trump administration continued to send back deportees with COVID-19, the Guatemalan government suspended flights again on April 16 in what it described as a “consensual decision” with the US; the US also sent a CDC team to investigate. Only on April 24 did ICE announce it would begin testing some deportees, several months after the outbreak had been confirmed in the US. Nevertheless, Swift Air flights to Northern Central America seem to have continued even when these governments had said they were suspending them. Swift flights from ICE hubs in the US to all three nations have proceeded in the several days leading up to publication of this post.

This is due, no doubt, in part to US pressure. When Guatemala raised concerns early on, Trump responded with a memo on April 10, threatening to impose visa sanctions against any country that “denies or unreasonably delays the acceptance of aliens who are … subjects … of that country after being asked to accept those aliens” in a way that “imped[es] operations of the Department of Homeland Security necessary to respond to the ongoing pandemic …” (Though visa sanctions aiming to pressure countries on immigration policy had been imposed just twice in the quarter century between the end of the Cold War and Donald Trump’s election, Trump has used them against a total of eight different countries so far.)

Some of the countries that Trump has pressured into accepting deportees despite the risk of COVID-19 may be some of the least prepared nations in the entire Western Hemisphere to manage a pandemic. Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras all have some of the lowest testing rates in Latin America, meaning deportations may well have already contributed to an undetected spread of COVID-19. These nations also rank at the very bottom for hospital beds and medical professionals per capita. 

While the Trump administration justifies these draconian measures as necessary to protect the US from disease, the danger is obvious: the continued spread of the pandemic to places unprepared to manage it will further imperil the region, the US included. This is especially the case when ICE has used the same planes to deport immigrants and to bring US citizens back.

The mass deportation of immigrants was cruel and unnecessary long before COVID-19 struck, but in the midst of an active pandemic, the policy is not just unjust, it is also a threat to global health. As congressional leaders prepare the next COVID-19-related legislative package, legislators should support a moratorium on deportations and the release of nonviolent detainees in ICE facilities so long as the pandemic rages.

On April 22nd, President Trump signed an Executive Order putting a 60-day halt on the issuance of new green cards to immigrants admissible for permanent residency in the United States. This measure, coming on the back of other government measures restricting legal immigration, ostensibly seeks to protect the US from imported cases of COVID-19. But while Trump endeavors to block nearly all immigration into the US, his administration has been exporting the virus to countries that have extremely limited capacity and resources to deal with pandemics.

As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, the Trump administration has continued deportation flights of undocumented migrants to Central America and the Caribbean, all while openly threatening countries that push back. The results are tragic and predictable: there are now multiple instances of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases to countries with under-resourced public health care systems that are already strained by the pandemic. In doing so, the Trump administration is not just putting the lives of immigrants and Latin Americans at risk, but those of people around the world.

On March 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order invoking authority under a 1944 law to restrict travel from Mexico and Canada. The order states the need for 

the movement of all such aliens to the country from which they entered the United States, or their country of origin, or another location as practicable, as rapidly as possible, with as little time spent in congregate settings as practicable under the circumstances. The faster a covered alien is returned … the lower the risk the alien poses of introducing, transmitting, or spreading COVID–19 into [Ports of Entry], Border Patrol stations, other congregate settings, and the interior.

Part of the order’s justification was that immigrant detention centers, notorious for deplorable hygiene and sanitation conditions, are ill-equipped for a quarantine scenario. Nationwide, more than 375 ICE detainees, and numerous staff, have tested positive for COVID-19 despite low testing rates. New research suggests that, at current detention levels, 72% of ICE detainees will have COVID-19 by day 90 in an optimistic scenario; in a pessimistic scenario, it’s nearly 100%. Despite this, ICE has only slowed down, not ended, raids to round up new detainees.

As a result of the CDC’s order, immigrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mexican border into the US are now being returned to Mexico in an average of just 96 minutes, without testing and without recognition of their due process or other rights under the US Constitution. Even with total border crossings into the US down significantly, over 10,000 immigrants were expelled back to Mexico in the weeks following the order. Taken together with administration policy before the outbreak, it seems clear that the CDC order is intended to further undermine the rights of asylum seekers. Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, commented that though the coronavirus pandemic “may warrant extraordinary measures at borders, expulsion of asylum seekers resulting in refoulement should not be among them.”

But the Trump administration hasn’t just been turning away new immigrants; it is continuing to deport detainees back to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported 2,985 deportations in the first 11 days of April, a substantial decline from prior numbers but still deeply troubling given the global pandemic.

Though ICE is notoriously secretive about its operations, a review of public flight data shows that Swift Air, one of ICE’s major subcontractors for deportation flights, has continued to fly regularly from international airports near major ICE detainment centers to airports throughout Latin America, with the majority of flights headed to three national airports in Northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), even amid a dramatic decline in global air travel. Though some of Swift’s air traffic may be private flights unrelated to deportation, 43 percent of ICE deportees were returned to Northern Central America in 2019, making up the vast majority of deportations when excluding Mexico’s 47 percent (deportations to Mexico occur over ground more often than by flight). 

As deportations have continued, there are now multiple confirmed cases of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases. In one instance, an immigrant, unaware he had contracted the virus, was deported from Houston to Mexico, leading to the infection of 13 others in a Nuevo Laredo shelter just south of the US-Mexican border. Ironically, the CDC order claimed “Medical experts believe that community transmission and spread of COVID–19 at asylum camps and shelters along the US border is inevitable, once community transmission begins in Mexico”; the order itself has contributed to this exact outcome. The Mexican government is now making the same mistake under US pressure, clearing its migrant shelters and sending immigrants and refugees back to Central America.

In Haiti, three deportees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, prompting 27 members of the US Congress and 164 human rights organizations to send letters asking the Trump administration to halt deportations to the beleaguered nation, and some Haitian scientists have asked the same. In fact, Haitian citizens legally visiting the US are having a harder time returning to Haiti than deportees are, as deportees aren’t being properly tested first. In Guatemala, the public health ministry has reported at least 99 people infected with COVID-19 who have been deported from the US on various flights, nearly one-fifth of all the country’s known cases. Though there are contradictory reports, Guatemala’s health minister claims that on one of these flights, the majority of deportees aboard were sick.

That flight led the Guatemalan government to temporarily suspend incoming deportation flights on March 17, and to request that the US government reform deportation protocols by testing deportees beforehand and limiting flights to 25 deportees each in order to allow for distancing. El Salvador joined in temporarily suspending deportation flights, while flights had supposedly already been stopped in Honduras due to general flight restrictions. The US did not comply with Guatemala’s requests, but Guatemala still lifted its suspension two days later and allowed deportation flights to resume — the same day the US government announced it would continue aid to Northern Central America. ICE claimed to be implementing some precautions, but some experts said they were woefully inadequate

After the Trump administration continued to send back deportees with COVID-19, the Guatemalan government suspended flights again on April 16 in what it described as a “consensual decision” with the US; the US also sent a CDC team to investigate. Only on April 24 did ICE announce it would begin testing some deportees, several months after the outbreak had been confirmed in the US. Nevertheless, Swift Air flights to Northern Central America seem to have continued even when these governments had said they were suspending them. Swift flights from ICE hubs in the US to all three nations have proceeded in the several days leading up to publication of this post.

This is due, no doubt, in part to US pressure. When Guatemala raised concerns early on, Trump responded with a memo on April 10, threatening to impose visa sanctions against any country that “denies or unreasonably delays the acceptance of aliens who are … subjects … of that country after being asked to accept those aliens” in a way that “imped[es] operations of the Department of Homeland Security necessary to respond to the ongoing pandemic …” (Though visa sanctions aiming to pressure countries on immigration policy had been imposed just twice in the quarter century between the end of the Cold War and Donald Trump’s election, Trump has used them against a total of eight different countries so far.)

Some of the countries that Trump has pressured into accepting deportees despite the risk of COVID-19 may be some of the least prepared nations in the entire Western Hemisphere to manage a pandemic. Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras all have some of the lowest testing rates in Latin America, meaning deportations may well have already contributed to an undetected spread of COVID-19. These nations also rank at the very bottom for hospital beds and medical professionals per capita. 

While the Trump administration justifies these draconian measures as necessary to protect the US from disease, the danger is obvious: the continued spread of the pandemic to places unprepared to manage it will further imperil the region, the US included. This is especially the case when ICE has used the same planes to deport immigrants and to bring US citizens back.

The mass deportation of immigrants was cruel and unnecessary long before COVID-19 struck, but in the midst of an active pandemic, the policy is not just unjust, it is also a threat to global health. As congressional leaders prepare the next COVID-19-related legislative package, legislators should support a moratorium on deportations and the release of nonviolent detainees in ICE facilities so long as the pandemic rages.

There were 232 likely ICE Air deportation flights to Latin America and Caribbean countries between February 3, 2020 and April 24, 2020, CEPR analysis shows. 

In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 267,258 individuals — 96 percent of whom were from the Latin America and Caribbean region. Though much of the media focus has been on Mexico (49.7 percent of the total) and the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (together 45.1 percent of the total), ICE deported at least one person to every country in the LAC region in 2019. Ten countries in the region accepted regular deportation flights conducted by ICE’s air operations — known as “ICE Air” — last year.

While the vast majority of deportations to Mexico take place over land, ICE Air flies tens of thousands of people across the country and across the world each year. Amid the global pandemic, which has led to countries shutting down air travel and closing borders, ICE Air continues to deport thousands of immigrants held in detention centers throughout the United States. Those facilities themselves have become hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks, meaning the US is now exporting the virus to countries throughout the region.

Despite the prevalence of ICE Air deportation flights, and the grave risk to public health that their continuation during the global pandemic presents, little is known about their frequency and destinations. However, a new analysis of flight tracker data sheds some much-needed light on the scope of ICE Air flights and the extent to which countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are affected by continued deportations. Since the Trump administration declared a national emergency on March 13, one ICE Air contractor has flown at least 72 likely deportation flights to 11 Latin America and Caribbean nations — including to Brazil and Ecuador, which are suffering the region’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19, and which have both experienced an increase in deportation flights under the Trump administration.

From March 15 to April 24, ICE Air appears to have made 21 deportation flights to Guatemala; 18 to Honduras; 12 to El Salvador; six to Brazil; three each to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic; and one each to Colombia and Jamaica. All likely ICE Air deportation flights since February can be seen in the interactive map below.

In 2019, researchers from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) obtained ICE flight records from 2010 to 2018 following a Freedom of Information Act request. The UWCHR analysis provided the most complete analysis of the extent of ICE Air operations, and their full dataset is available here. Their report also revealed that two private charter companies — Swift Air and Western Atlantic Airlines — conducted the majority of ICE Air deportation flights as subcontractors.

The data analyzed in this post was collected from Flight Aware, a public flight tracker database. Because both Swift and Western perform regular charter services, not all of their flights are part of ICE’s deportation system. However, the flights included in this analysis match known deportation trips, depart from airports known to be used for deportation flights, and follow routes known to be associated with the transport of ICE detainees. While it is possible some of the flights included here were not deportations, it is more likely that this data represents an underestimate of the extent of ICE Air’s operations. ICE is also known to use commercial airlines for deportations and it remains possible that additional charter companies are contracted by ICE. In fiscal year 2017 more than 85 percent of ICE Air deportations were conducted through charter services, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General.

ICE Air Deportations Continue, but Frequency Slows

In the first three months of 2020, ICE deported an average of 20,833 individuals each month — on pace for a similar annual number as in 2019. In contrast, the Washington Post reported that in the first 11 days of April 2020, ICE deported 2,985 people — less than half that rate. Indeed, the flight tracking data analyzed here shows a decrease in deportation flights beginning around March 13 — as can be seen in the table below.

Table 1. ICE Air Likely Deportation Flights, by Week

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.

The drop visible in the table above appears to result from the stoppage of Western Atlantic’s international charter flights on March 13 — when the US declared a national emergency. ICE Air’s other subcontractor, Swift Air, has continued flying. Despite growing restrictions on international air travel, Swift had almost exactly as many flights from the US to Latin America and the Caribbean in March as it did in February — though that number has decreased some in April. (In recent months, Swift-owned airplanes have made trips to an additional number of countries in the region, including Cuba, Suriname, Peru, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Belize, and Grenada; however those flights did not match up with known deportation flights and have been excluded from the analysis.)

Though much attention has been paid to recent deportation flights to Guatemala and Haiti — both countries have reported confirmed COVID-19 cases among those deported — the data reveal that many other countries are likely experiencing the same phenomenon.

In 2019, the Trump administration began ICE Air deportations to Brazil, which had previously blocked such flights. The United States relies on foreign governments to approve deportation flights, and under the leadership of Trump-ally Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil acquiesced. Flight data indicate that those flights have continued during the pandemic. Since March 13, there have been six flights conducted by Swift Air to Belo Horizonte, Brazil — the destination of previously reported deportation flights. Brazil is currently experiencing the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the region.

Some of the Swift Air flights to Brazil have first made a stop in Ecuador’s port city Guayaquil — home to perhaps the deadliest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world. Deportations to Ecuador increased by 78 percent in 2019 compared to the year prior as, similar to the Brazilian government, Ecuador has sought to bolster relations with the Trump administration. As can be seen in the table above, likely deportation flights to Ecuador have decreased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there have still been three since March 13 — including an April 17 flight to Quito that contained at least 70 individuals, according to immigration attorneys.

Interestingly, while deportations to Mexico have continued — one recent deportee has since tested positive and spread COVID-19 to at least 13 others — the regular ICE Air flights from San Diego and the Phoenix-area to Guadalajara appear to have halted since March 16. Those flights had formed part of an agreement between Mexico and the US to deport individuals to the interior of the country.

In just the last week, Swift Air has flown 11 likely deportation flights to seven different countries: Brazil, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, as well as Central American favorites Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

ICE Air Poses a Threat at Home and Abroad

The majority of the flights analyzed departed from two airports well-known to be ICE deportation locations: Brownsville, Texas and Alexandria, Louisiana. The Alexandria ICE staging facility, which is run by the private prison company GEO Group, has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, with at least 11 employees testing positive. The plane that brought an estimated 40 confirmed COVID-19 cases to Guatemala last week departed from the Alexandria airport.

Overall, the Guatemalan government has estimated that 20 percent of the country’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are recently returned immigrants.

Table 2. Likely ICE Deportation Flights After March 13, by Departure Airport

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.
Note: The total number of flights seen here does not match the overall number of flights after March 13 because some trips included multiple stops.

Despite the obvious public health concerns, ICE has so far refused to test detainees prior to deportation — though officials have recently indicated they would begin at least partial testing. The Washington Post reported that ICE “is unlikely to administer tests to every deportee unless foreign governments make that a condition for taking people back.”

The reality is that, in the shady world of ICE Air, the public has little clue as to the extent of the transportation of detainees — not just internationally but domestically. ProPublica reported last month that one detainee was flown across the United States nine times in a matter of 10 days. That case was not unique. Public health experts have warned that ICE detention centers pose a serious health risk to those held inside — as well as to employees and surrounding communities. Because detainees are often flown across the country and are held in closely confined spaces, it is virtually impossible to adequately isolate those who have contracted COVID-19 or to ensure that those deported have not been exposed to COVID-19.

Some US municipalities have taken it upon themselves to push back on ICE Air’s deportation racket. In 2019, King County in Washington banned ICE from conducting deportation flights from its local airport — though the Trump administration has since sued the local authorities. But it appears some communities are attempting to follow suit amid the global pandemic. Local leaders in El Paso recently raised concerns over continued deportation flights after an ICE flight carrying a passenger with a confirmed case of COVID-19 passed through the municipality-run airport.

But ICE Air is big business; from 2010 to 2017, ICE spent an estimated $1 billion on the program. In 2017, the Trump administration awarded a new primary contract to Classic Air Charters — the same company used as part of the CIA’s black site rendition program during the Bush administration. The ICE contract has an expected value of more than $300 million. Already in 2020, ICE has disbursed more than $90 million under the contract. Because both Swift Air and Western Atlantic operate as subcontractors, there is no public information on the value of their contracts with the federal government. The New York Times reported in 2017 that Swift took in an estimated $15 million per year from the government. ICE Air contractors charge about $8,000 per flight hour — regardless of the number of passengers. In 2019, iAero Group and Blackstone — one of world’s largest private equity firms — purchased Swift Air, though it continues to operate under the same name.

Tracking the ICE Air Fleet

Over the last 12 weeks, it appears that ICE has used 22 unique charter planes for 232 likely deportation flights. Of those planes, 15 participated in confirmed ICE Air deportation flights between October 2018 and May 2019, the most recent data compiled by UWCHR.

Previously, flight tracking software allowed users to see all flights with the call sign “RPN” for “repatriation.” However, it appears that service is no longer accessible and that current ICE Air flights are no longer using the RPN designation. A full list of likely deportation flights since the beginning of February is available here (the data will be updated regularly). The data includes the tag numbers of the 22 planes identified in an effort to promote public awareness around ongoing deportation flights.

Of course, it remains possible that some of these flights reflect regular charter services and not ICE deportation flights. Last week, citing a local airport official, the Miami Herald reported two Swift Air flights were deportation flights to Honduras and Brazil. The official, however, later said he had been “mistaken” and told the Herald the planes had been chartered by Royal Caribbean. If you have information that one of the listed flights was not in fact an ICE Air deportation flight, or if there is a known deportation flight missing from the list, please contact the author ([email protected]).

[Data update: Since the data was collected for this analysis, two additional flights have been added to the likely ICE deportation flight database. These flights help illustrate how the data may be helpful in identifying deportation flights moving forward. On Monday, April 27, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. This is the fifth consecutive Monday in which a Swift Air flight traveled to San Pedro Sula. On Tuesday, April 28, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed toward San Salvador, El Salvador. This is the sixth consecutive Tuesday a Swift Air plane has flown to San Salvador. On the other hand, on April 27, a Swift Air plane flew to Guatemala but that trip used a flight number not previously associated with known deportation flights and is excluded from the dataset.]

Maps and visualizations created by Kevin Cashman.

There were 232 likely ICE Air deportation flights to Latin America and Caribbean countries between February 3, 2020 and April 24, 2020, CEPR analysis shows. 

In 2019, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 267,258 individuals — 96 percent of whom were from the Latin America and Caribbean region. Though much of the media focus has been on Mexico (49.7 percent of the total) and the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador (together 45.1 percent of the total), ICE deported at least one person to every country in the LAC region in 2019. Ten countries in the region accepted regular deportation flights conducted by ICE’s air operations — known as “ICE Air” — last year.

While the vast majority of deportations to Mexico take place over land, ICE Air flies tens of thousands of people across the country and across the world each year. Amid the global pandemic, which has led to countries shutting down air travel and closing borders, ICE Air continues to deport thousands of immigrants held in detention centers throughout the United States. Those facilities themselves have become hotspots of COVID-19 outbreaks, meaning the US is now exporting the virus to countries throughout the region.

Despite the prevalence of ICE Air deportation flights, and the grave risk to public health that their continuation during the global pandemic presents, little is known about their frequency and destinations. However, a new analysis of flight tracker data sheds some much-needed light on the scope of ICE Air flights and the extent to which countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are affected by continued deportations. Since the Trump administration declared a national emergency on March 13, one ICE Air contractor has flown at least 72 likely deportation flights to 11 Latin America and Caribbean nations — including to Brazil and Ecuador, which are suffering the region’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19, and which have both experienced an increase in deportation flights under the Trump administration.

From March 15 to April 24, ICE Air appears to have made 21 deportation flights to Guatemala; 18 to Honduras; 12 to El Salvador; six to Brazil; three each to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic; and one each to Colombia and Jamaica. All likely ICE Air deportation flights since February can be seen in the interactive map below.

In 2019, researchers from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) obtained ICE flight records from 2010 to 2018 following a Freedom of Information Act request. The UWCHR analysis provided the most complete analysis of the extent of ICE Air operations, and their full dataset is available here. Their report also revealed that two private charter companies — Swift Air and Western Atlantic Airlines — conducted the majority of ICE Air deportation flights as subcontractors.

The data analyzed in this post was collected from Flight Aware, a public flight tracker database. Because both Swift and Western perform regular charter services, not all of their flights are part of ICE’s deportation system. However, the flights included in this analysis match known deportation trips, depart from airports known to be used for deportation flights, and follow routes known to be associated with the transport of ICE detainees. While it is possible some of the flights included here were not deportations, it is more likely that this data represents an underestimate of the extent of ICE Air’s operations. ICE is also known to use commercial airlines for deportations and it remains possible that additional charter companies are contracted by ICE. In fiscal year 2017 more than 85 percent of ICE Air deportations were conducted through charter services, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General.

ICE Air Deportations Continue, but Frequency Slows

In the first three months of 2020, ICE deported an average of 20,833 individuals each month — on pace for a similar annual number as in 2019. In contrast, the Washington Post reported that in the first 11 days of April 2020, ICE deported 2,985 people — less than half that rate. Indeed, the flight tracking data analyzed here shows a decrease in deportation flights beginning around March 13 — as can be seen in the table below.

Table 1. ICE Air Likely Deportation Flights, by Week

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.

The drop visible in the table above appears to result from the stoppage of Western Atlantic’s international charter flights on March 13 — when the US declared a national emergency. ICE Air’s other subcontractor, Swift Air, has continued flying. Despite growing restrictions on international air travel, Swift had almost exactly as many flights from the US to Latin America and the Caribbean in March as it did in February — though that number has decreased some in April. (In recent months, Swift-owned airplanes have made trips to an additional number of countries in the region, including Cuba, Suriname, Peru, Bolivia, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Belize, and Grenada; however those flights did not match up with known deportation flights and have been excluded from the analysis.)

Though much attention has been paid to recent deportation flights to Guatemala and Haiti — both countries have reported confirmed COVID-19 cases among those deported — the data reveal that many other countries are likely experiencing the same phenomenon.

In 2019, the Trump administration began ICE Air deportations to Brazil, which had previously blocked such flights. The United States relies on foreign governments to approve deportation flights, and under the leadership of Trump-ally Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil acquiesced. Flight data indicate that those flights have continued during the pandemic. Since March 13, there have been six flights conducted by Swift Air to Belo Horizonte, Brazil — the destination of previously reported deportation flights. Brazil is currently experiencing the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the region.

Some of the Swift Air flights to Brazil have first made a stop in Ecuador’s port city Guayaquil — home to perhaps the deadliest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world. Deportations to Ecuador increased by 78 percent in 2019 compared to the year prior as, similar to the Brazilian government, Ecuador has sought to bolster relations with the Trump administration. As can be seen in the table above, likely deportation flights to Ecuador have decreased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there have still been three since March 13 — including an April 17 flight to Quito that contained at least 70 individuals, according to immigration attorneys.

Interestingly, while deportations to Mexico have continued — one recent deportee has since tested positive and spread COVID-19 to at least 13 others — the regular ICE Air flights from San Diego and the Phoenix-area to Guadalajara appear to have halted since March 16. Those flights had formed part of an agreement between Mexico and the US to deport individuals to the interior of the country.

In just the last week, Swift Air has flown 11 likely deportation flights to seven different countries: Brazil, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, as well as Central American favorites Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

ICE Air Poses a Threat at Home and Abroad

The majority of the flights analyzed departed from two airports well-known to be ICE deportation locations: Brownsville, Texas and Alexandria, Louisiana. The Alexandria ICE staging facility, which is run by the private prison company GEO Group, has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, with at least 11 employees testing positive. The plane that brought an estimated 40 confirmed COVID-19 cases to Guatemala last week departed from the Alexandria airport.

Overall, the Guatemalan government has estimated that 20 percent of the country’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are recently returned immigrants.

Table 2. Likely ICE Deportation Flights After March 13, by Departure Airport

Source: Flight Aware, author’s calculation.
Note: The total number of flights seen here does not match the overall number of flights after March 13 because some trips included multiple stops.

Despite the obvious public health concerns, ICE has so far refused to test detainees prior to deportation — though officials have recently indicated they would begin at least partial testing. The Washington Post reported that ICE “is unlikely to administer tests to every deportee unless foreign governments make that a condition for taking people back.”

The reality is that, in the shady world of ICE Air, the public has little clue as to the extent of the transportation of detainees — not just internationally but domestically. ProPublica reported last month that one detainee was flown across the United States nine times in a matter of 10 days. That case was not unique. Public health experts have warned that ICE detention centers pose a serious health risk to those held inside — as well as to employees and surrounding communities. Because detainees are often flown across the country and are held in closely confined spaces, it is virtually impossible to adequately isolate those who have contracted COVID-19 or to ensure that those deported have not been exposed to COVID-19.

Some US municipalities have taken it upon themselves to push back on ICE Air’s deportation racket. In 2019, King County in Washington banned ICE from conducting deportation flights from its local airport — though the Trump administration has since sued the local authorities. But it appears some communities are attempting to follow suit amid the global pandemic. Local leaders in El Paso recently raised concerns over continued deportation flights after an ICE flight carrying a passenger with a confirmed case of COVID-19 passed through the municipality-run airport.

But ICE Air is big business; from 2010 to 2017, ICE spent an estimated $1 billion on the program. In 2017, the Trump administration awarded a new primary contract to Classic Air Charters — the same company used as part of the CIA’s black site rendition program during the Bush administration. The ICE contract has an expected value of more than $300 million. Already in 2020, ICE has disbursed more than $90 million under the contract. Because both Swift Air and Western Atlantic operate as subcontractors, there is no public information on the value of their contracts with the federal government. The New York Times reported in 2017 that Swift took in an estimated $15 million per year from the government. ICE Air contractors charge about $8,000 per flight hour — regardless of the number of passengers. In 2019, iAero Group and Blackstone — one of world’s largest private equity firms — purchased Swift Air, though it continues to operate under the same name.

Tracking the ICE Air Fleet

Over the last 12 weeks, it appears that ICE has used 22 unique charter planes for 232 likely deportation flights. Of those planes, 15 participated in confirmed ICE Air deportation flights between October 2018 and May 2019, the most recent data compiled by UWCHR.

Previously, flight tracking software allowed users to see all flights with the call sign “RPN” for “repatriation.” However, it appears that service is no longer accessible and that current ICE Air flights are no longer using the RPN designation. A full list of likely deportation flights since the beginning of February is available here (the data will be updated regularly). The data includes the tag numbers of the 22 planes identified in an effort to promote public awareness around ongoing deportation flights.

Of course, it remains possible that some of these flights reflect regular charter services and not ICE deportation flights. Last week, citing a local airport official, the Miami Herald reported two Swift Air flights were deportation flights to Honduras and Brazil. The official, however, later said he had been “mistaken” and told the Herald the planes had been chartered by Royal Caribbean. If you have information that one of the listed flights was not in fact an ICE Air deportation flight, or if there is a known deportation flight missing from the list, please contact the author ([email protected]).

[Data update: Since the data was collected for this analysis, two additional flights have been added to the likely ICE deportation flight database. These flights help illustrate how the data may be helpful in identifying deportation flights moving forward. On Monday, April 27, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. This is the fifth consecutive Monday in which a Swift Air flight traveled to San Pedro Sula. On Tuesday, April 28, a Swift Air flight departed Houston, Texas headed toward San Salvador, El Salvador. This is the sixth consecutive Tuesday a Swift Air plane has flown to San Salvador. On the other hand, on April 27, a Swift Air plane flew to Guatemala but that trip used a flight number not previously associated with known deportation flights and is excluded from the dataset.]

Maps and visualizations created by Kevin Cashman.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand around the world, Latin America is expected to become one of the hardest-hit regions. One of the biggest obstacles countries face in responding to the pandemic is that, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about 40 percent of all employment in the Americas in 2019 was informal. Many of these workers depend on day-to-day activities just to survive, and complying with stay-at-home orders is often a life-or-death decision. This indicates a worrying outlook for street vendors, domestic workers, and even small business owners. The ILO notes that there has been growth in the informal sector in the last few years, rendering the region even more susceptible to large economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting a 5.2 percentage point fall in the region’s GDP in 2020 as a result of the ongoing crisis. 

Government responses must be universal

While most governments in the region have enforced some level of stay-at-home order, these policies highlight the fragile nature of many lives in Latin America and how they will be strained further due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The prevalence of informal employment points to the need for governments to enact universal policies that ensure access to assistance and health care for all those affected. 

Those in the informal economy are at particular risk during the pandemic. As can be seen in the figure below, the ILO notes that the Americas has the highest percentage of workers employed in “at-risk” sectors, while more than 30 percent of Latin Americans are not covered by governments’ social protection measures. 

Because of the high rate of unregistered businesses and informal workers, only a small percentage of aid aimed at formal sectors is likely to reach these employers, their workers, and their employees’ families. In responding to the pandemic, governments must design policy responses with informality at the forefront. Food distributions, cash payouts, and access to public services must be accessible to all — even those not formally employed. Some governments have acknowledged this reality. The Colombian and Brazilian governments have both proposed $40 monthly payouts, though this is unlikely to adequately support informal workers throughout the crisis. Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are undoubtedly among the hardest hit during this outbreak. 60% of the nearly 1.8 millions Venezuelans in Colombia don’t have regular status. This suggests that a staggering number of Venezuelan migrants work in the informal sector and will need to be taken into consideration when drafting more inclusive policies.

An increase in inequality calls for formalizing more workers

Unfortunately, with an expected deep economic downturn, Latin America risks seeing a steep increase in inequality. According to a report published by Oxfam, there are currently 162 million people living on $5.50 a day in Latin America and the Caribbean, and even a 5 percent contraction in income means 2.6 million people will fall under the poverty line. In its report Oxfam predicts in the most extreme case of a 20 percent contraction, there could be an increase in the number of those in poverty ranging from 13.1 million to 54.3 million. Although some of these people might work in the formal economy (e.g., for factories), the reality is that the crisis could push many more into the informal economy, exacerbating inequality in the region. 

Projected Effects of Drops in Income to the Poor in Latin America and the Carribean

(the term ¨hit¨ designates a contraction in income)

Number of Poor (million)

Additional Poor (million)

Aggregated

Status quo

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

Under $1.90 a Day

25.3

27.9

30.8

38.5

2.6

5.5

13.1

Under $3.20 a Day

66.4

72.8

80.2

98.6

6.4

13.8

32.1

Under $5.50 a Day

162.0

174.6

187.8

216.3

12.5

25.8

54.3

Source: Oxfam

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder stated that after this crisis unfolds, new systems must be “safer, fairer and more sustainable.” This must include a plan to make formal economies more inclusive and social protections more extensive. Informal labor markets show the unfortunate reality of many in Latin America, and the current crisis should be an opportunity for government officials to recognize the importance of formalizing these workers in the economy. Decision-makers must however, do so in a way that will not expand pre-existing inequalities but rather offer a platform to reduce the economic gap in the region.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expand around the world, Latin America is expected to become one of the hardest-hit regions. One of the biggest obstacles countries face in responding to the pandemic is that, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), about 40 percent of all employment in the Americas in 2019 was informal. Many of these workers depend on day-to-day activities just to survive, and complying with stay-at-home orders is often a life-or-death decision. This indicates a worrying outlook for street vendors, domestic workers, and even small business owners. The ILO notes that there has been growth in the informal sector in the last few years, rendering the region even more susceptible to large economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting a 5.2 percentage point fall in the region’s GDP in 2020 as a result of the ongoing crisis. 

Government responses must be universal

While most governments in the region have enforced some level of stay-at-home order, these policies highlight the fragile nature of many lives in Latin America and how they will be strained further due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The prevalence of informal employment points to the need for governments to enact universal policies that ensure access to assistance and health care for all those affected. 

Those in the informal economy are at particular risk during the pandemic. As can be seen in the figure below, the ILO notes that the Americas has the highest percentage of workers employed in “at-risk” sectors, while more than 30 percent of Latin Americans are not covered by governments’ social protection measures. 

Because of the high rate of unregistered businesses and informal workers, only a small percentage of aid aimed at formal sectors is likely to reach these employers, their workers, and their employees’ families. In responding to the pandemic, governments must design policy responses with informality at the forefront. Food distributions, cash payouts, and access to public services must be accessible to all — even those not formally employed. Some governments have acknowledged this reality. The Colombian and Brazilian governments have both proposed $40 monthly payouts, though this is unlikely to adequately support informal workers throughout the crisis. Venezuelan migrants in Colombia are undoubtedly among the hardest hit during this outbreak. 60% of the nearly 1.8 millions Venezuelans in Colombia don’t have regular status. This suggests that a staggering number of Venezuelan migrants work in the informal sector and will need to be taken into consideration when drafting more inclusive policies.

An increase in inequality calls for formalizing more workers

Unfortunately, with an expected deep economic downturn, Latin America risks seeing a steep increase in inequality. According to a report published by Oxfam, there are currently 162 million people living on $5.50 a day in Latin America and the Caribbean, and even a 5 percent contraction in income means 2.6 million people will fall under the poverty line. In its report Oxfam predicts in the most extreme case of a 20 percent contraction, there could be an increase in the number of those in poverty ranging from 13.1 million to 54.3 million. Although some of these people might work in the formal economy (e.g., for factories), the reality is that the crisis could push many more into the informal economy, exacerbating inequality in the region. 

Projected Effects of Drops in Income to the Poor in Latin America and the Carribean

(the term ¨hit¨ designates a contraction in income)

Number of Poor (million)

Additional Poor (million)

Aggregated

Status quo

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

5% hit

10% hit

20% hit

Under $1.90 a Day

25.3

27.9

30.8

38.5

2.6

5.5

13.1

Under $3.20 a Day

66.4

72.8

80.2

98.6

6.4

13.8

32.1

Under $5.50 a Day

162.0

174.6

187.8

216.3

12.5

25.8

54.3

Source: Oxfam

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder stated that after this crisis unfolds, new systems must be “safer, fairer and more sustainable.” This must include a plan to make formal economies more inclusive and social protections more extensive. Informal labor markets show the unfortunate reality of many in Latin America, and the current crisis should be an opportunity for government officials to recognize the importance of formalizing these workers in the economy. Decision-makers must however, do so in a way that will not expand pre-existing inequalities but rather offer a platform to reduce the economic gap in the region.

The COVID-19 data tracker will be continually updated as the pandemic spreads throughout the region and CEPR experts will be providing regular analysis on The Americas Blog.

The COVID-19 data tracker will be continually updated as the pandemic spreads throughout the region and CEPR experts will be providing regular analysis on The Americas Blog.

In the last few days and weeks, media outlets around the world have been publishing shocking stories and images of the COVID-19 crisis in Ecuador. Scenes of corpses abandoned in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city, have shaken audiences in Latin America and beyond. Statistics, even the highly untrustworthy official ones, have confirmed the dire picture of a fast accelerating crisis. Whereas on March 17 just 111 people had tested positive for COVID-19, by April 16, 8,225 were reported to be infected, and 403 people were reported to have died. Bearing in mind the difficulties of cross-country comparisons and disparities in testing, Ecuador now has the highest per capita COVID-19 death toll in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the second-highest per capita number of COVID-19 cases. So how did Ecuador, and the city of Guayaquil in particular, with 70 percent of national cases, reach this point?

Then suddenly on April 16, the government official in charge of the mortuary crisis, Jorge Wated, announced: “We have approximately 6703 deaths in these [first] 15 days of April reported in the province of Guayas. The usual monthly average for Guayas is about 2000 deaths. After 15 days, we obviously have a difference of approximately 5700 deaths from different causes: COVID, presumed COVID and natural deaths.” The next day, Minister of the Interior [Ministra de Gobierno] María Paula Romo would confess: “Can I as an authority confirm that all these cases are COVID-19? I can’t, because there are some protocols to say that these cases qualify as such, but I can deliver the information and tell you that, at least, a good part of this data, their only explanation is that they are part of the contagion epicenter we had in Guayaquil and Guayas.”

The revelations are astonishing. This suggests that a likely 90 percent of COVID-19 fatalities went unreported by the government. If these 5,700 deaths in excess of Guayaquil’s fortnightly average of fatalities were COVID-19 victims, Ecuador would be the country with, by far, the highest COVID-19 per capita death toll on the planet over this period. Even if other countries are eventually shown to have underreported, it is difficult to fathom underreporting on such a grand scale. So how did Ecuador, and the city of Guayaquil in particular, with 70 percent of confirmed national cases, reach this point?

On February 29, 2020, the Ecuadorian government announced that it had detected its first case of COVID-19, thus becoming the third country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico, to report a case. That afternoon, authorities claimed they had located 149 people who may have been in contact with the first COVID patient, including some in the city of Babahoyo, 41 miles from Guayaquil, as well as passengers on her flight into Ecuador from Madrid.

The next day, the government announced that six more people were infected, some in the city of Guayaquil. We now know that these numbers were greatly underestimated, and that many people had contracted the illness before displaying any symptoms. In fact, the Ecuadorian government has since established its own late projection of what may have been closer to the real numbers: rather than the seven people infected with COVID-19 it announced on March 13, a more accurate figure was probably 347; and when on March 21 it reported 397 people had tested positive, contagion had probably already extended to 2,303.

From early on, Guayaquil and its surroundings seemed to be the most affected by the spread of the virus. Despite this, initial measures to slow infections were late coming and even slower to be implemented. On March 4, after the government had already prohibited the presence of spectators at soccer games, the government took the decision to allow the public to attend a Libertadores Cup soccer game in Guayaquil, which many commentators have blamed as a major contributor to the massive outbreak of COVID-19 in the city. Over 17,000 fans attended. Another smaller national league game was held on March 8.

By mid-March, and despite numbers of infected people quickly rising, many guayaquileños continued to go about their lives with minimal — if any — social distancing. Contagion also seems to have spread aggressively in certain well-to-do areas of the city, for example in the wealthy gated communities of La Puntilla in the suburban municipality of Samborondón, where, even after authorities had issued stay-at-home ordinances, inhabitants continued to mingle. A high-profile wedding was attended by some of the city’s “finest,” and authorities later intervened to cancel at least two more weddings and a game of golf. On the weekend of March 14 and 15, guayaquileños congregated on the nearby beaches of Playas and Salinas.

By the end of the first week of March, the situation had deteriorated sharply. On March 12, the government finally announced that it was closing schools, establishing checks on international visitors, and limiting gatherings to 250 people. On March 13, Ecuador’s first COVID-19 death was reported. The same day, the government announced it was imposing quarantines on incoming visitors from several countries. Four days later, the government limited gatherings to 30 people and suspended all incoming international flights.

On March 18, the conservative mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, attempted an audacious political stunt. Facing rising infections in her city, the mayor ordered municipal vehicles to occupy the runway of Guayaquil’s international airport. In a clear breach of international norms, two empty KLM and Iberia aircrafts (with only crew on board) that had been sent to repatriate European citizens to their home countries were thus prevented from landing in Guayaquil and forced to reroute to Quito. (The next day Viteri announced that she had contracted COVID-19 and would be self-isolating. She has since recovered.)

On March 18, the government finally imposed a stay-at-home quarantine. The next day, it imposed a curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. (from 4 p.m. in Guayaquil), which was later extended from 2 p.m. for the whole country. Four days later, Guayas province was declared a national security zone and militarized.

For hundreds of thousands of less privileged guayaquileños whose livelihoods depend on their daily income, staying at home was always going to be problematic, unless the government was able to intervene with an unprecedented program to cover the basic needs of the population. With a high percentage of the labor force being informal and non-salaried, and therefore especially vulnerable to the impact of income lost because of people staying at home, Guayaquil is in many regards an archetypal example of a vulnerable urban context in the developing world.

On March 23, the government announced, and later started to implement, a $60 cash transfer for the most vulnerable families. Sixty dollars in the context of Ecuador’s dollarized economy, in which the minimum wage is $400 per month, can be an important supplement in the fight against extreme poverty. But it can hardly be considered adequate to guarantee subsistence for many people barred from exercising other economic activities. Moreover, recent images of people lining up in vast numbers in front of banks in order to cash in on the government offer should raise alarm if the objective is for people to stay home.

On March 21, Minister of Health Catalina Andramuño resigned. That morning she had announced in a press conference that she would be receiving 2 million testing kits and that these would arrive shortly. But on March 23, her successor announced that there was no evidence 2 million kits had been purchased and that only 200,000 were on their way.

In her resignation letter to President Moreno, Andramuño complained that the government had not allocated her ministry any additional budget to face the emergency. In response, the Finance Ministry argued that the Health Ministry had plenty of unused money and that it should use what had been assigned to it for the fiscal year 2020 before requesting more. But this is easier said than done, as preapproved spending in ministerial budgets inevitably leads to difficulties in freeing up liquidity for unforeseen activities, especially on a grand scale.

In the last week of March, disturbing images of abandoned corpses in the streets of Guayaquil started flooding social media and, soon afterward, international news networks. The government cried foul play and claimed it was “fake news” being pushed by supporters of former president Rafael Correa, still the main opposition figure in Ecuadorian politics, despite residing abroad and despite persecution against leaders of his Citizens’ Revolution political movement. While some videos posted online did not correspond to what was going on in Guayaquil, many horrifying images were completely authentic. CNN reported that bodies were being left in the streets, as did the BBC, The New York Times, Deutsche Welle, France 24, The Guardian, El País, and many others. Several Latin American presidents started referring to the events unfolding in Ecuador as cautionary examples to be avoided in their home countries. Ecuador, and Guayaquil in particular, had suddenly become the pandemic’s epicenter in Latin America and a showcase for its potentially ravaging effects.

Yet, the Moreno government’s response has been denial. Government ministers and diplomatic representatives abroad were told to give interviews denouncing it all as “fake news.” The Ecuadorian ambassador in Spain denounced the “false rumors, including the one about the corpses, supposedly on the sidewalk,” as propagated by Correa and his supporters to destabilize the government. The attempt backfired; global media added to its coverage of the drama unfolding in Ecuador the government’s brazen negationism.

On April 1, after Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele tweeted, “After seeing what is going on in Ecuador, I think we have been underestimating what the virus will do. We weren’t alarmist, rather we were conservative.” Moreno replied: “Dear fellow presidents, let us not echo fake news that have clear political intentions. We are all making efforts in our fight against COVID-19! Humanity requires us to be united.” Meanwhile, corpses continued to pile up.

Guayaquil’s authorities had announced on March 27 that these abandoned bodies would be buried in a mass grave, and that a mausoleum would be erected later. This provoked national outrage. The national government was forced to intervene to say this would not be the case, but it took four more vital days for it to act. On March 31, under tremendous pressure, President Moreno finally took the decision to appoint a task force to deal with the problem.

The man at the head of the task force, Jorge Wated, explained on April 1 that the problem stemmed in part from the fact that several funeral parlors, whose owners and workers were afraid of COVID-19 contagion through their handling of corpses, had decided to close down during the crisis. This, added to the increase in deaths from COVID-19, had created a bottleneck and prevented timely burials. The bottleneck had gradually grown as the Moreno government failed to intervene in the funeral parlors or mobilize other urgent private assets, such as refrigerated infrastructure (trucks, coolers, etc.) to manage the growing number of bodies.

The mortuary crisis was the result of COVID-19 in as much as the number of dead bodies rose and people were afraid of contagion. But the bottleneck affected the management of bodies from other causes of death. The system simply collapsed. More evidence is needed to evaluate whether fear of contagion, including the fear felt by health care workers in different capacities, has been a decisive factor in the weakening of appropriate institutional responses.

The special task force seems to have at least reduced the backlog of bodies awaiting burial, but the problem is still far from resolved. France 24 reported that nearly 800 bodies have been picked up from people’s homes, outside the usual channels, by police officers dispatched by the task force. Another emergency measure has been the use of cardboard coffins, which has also fostered much public anger — expressed on social media in the midst of physical distancing policies. These extreme measures have emboldened the notion that the official numbers of COVID-19 deaths cannot be trusted. How could a few hundred deaths suddenly throw the country in such disarray? When over 600 people died in a matter of seconds during the April 2016 earthquake, Ecuador did not face such consequences. Time seems to have confirmed that these suspicions were fully warranted.

There are other, more structural and long-term problems related to the COVID-19 crisis. Convinced of the need and under pressure by the IMF to reduce the size of the state, the Moreno government has made damaging cuts to public health. Public investment in health care fell from $306 million in 2017 to $130 million in 2019. Researchers from the Dutch International Institute of Social Studies have confirmed that in 2019 alone, there were 3,680 layoffs from Ecuador’s Health Ministry, amounting to 4.5 percent of total employment in the ministry. In early April 2020, the health care workers’ union, Osumtransa, protested that an additional 2,500 to 3,500 health care workers were notified during the carnival holidays (February 22 to 25) that their contracts were ending. This would have hiked ministerial layoffs to roughly 8 percent. And, of course, in November 2019, Ecuador put an end to the agreement it had with Cuba in health cooperation and 400 Cuban doctors were sent home by year’s end.

If leadership, trust, and good communication are important in times of crises, then the fact that President Moreno’s approval ratings oscillate between 12 and 15 percent, some of the lowest for any president since Ecuador democratized in 1979, reflect a serious problem. There can be no doubt that the Moreno government’s current lack of popularity greatly hampers its capacity to demand collective sacrifice and uphold the rule of law. The head of the task force’s singular April 1 public address thus sounded like a desperate attempt to make the government look serious, competent, and accountable. Wated went as far as to predict that things would get far worse before they got better, saying between 2,500 and 3,500 would die, in Guayas province alone, from the pandemic. This was still short of revelations yet to come. But was Wated psychologically preparing the Ecuadorian people for what appeared to be a far greater death toll than what had thus far been announced? 

Wated’s admission seems to have sparked a new approach from the Moreno government. In his April 2 address to the nation, Moreno pledged to be more transparent with information on the victims of COVID-19 “even if this painful.” He publicly acknowledged that “whether for the numbers of infected or of deaths, the registers have been underestimated.” But old habits die hard, and Moreno again denounced “fake news,” even blaming the current economic hardship on public debt accrued under his predecessor, Correa. Moreno claimed that Correa had left him a public debt of $65 billion even as his government’s own figures indicate that the public debt at the end of the previous government was only $38 billion (it is now over $50 billion). All this pettiness, in the midst of a deadly crisis, will likely do little to improve the president’s credibility gap; polls show only 7.7 percent find Moreno credible. 

Three days later, encouraged by the president’s call for transparency, the deputy minister of health reported that 1,600 public health care workers had contracted COVID-19 and that 10 medical doctors had died because of the virus. But the next day, the minister of health rebuked his deputy, and said only 417 medical workers had fallen ill; 1,600 merely referred to those who could be infected. These admissions nevertheless gave credence to health care workers’ recurrent complaints that they are ill-equipped to tackle the crisis which puts their own safety, and their families’, at risk.

Then on April 4, in this sudden flourish of ostensible governmental sincerity, Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner apologized, in another formal televised address, for the deterioration of Ecuador’s “international image.” A likely candidate in the February 2021 elections, Sonnenholzner has attempted to position himself as the leader of the government’s response to the crisis but has also been accused of exploiting the pandemic to promote his image. Time will tell whether Sonnenholzner succeeds in spinning his leadership, or whether Ecuador’s dramatic mismanagement of the pandemic and mortuary crisis becomes a death blow to his political ambitions.

It took the Ecuadorian government another 12 days from Vice President Sonnenholzner’s apology to finally admit what everybody had long suspected: that the government’s report of 403 COVID-19 deaths was fictitious and probably amounted to less than 10 percent of the pandemic’s casualties.

Ecuador’s COVID-19 disaster has now acquired proportions that the country’s current leadership seems ill equipped to overcome. Sadly, for the people of Guayaquil, the suffering seems far from over.

Note: This post was edited on April 18 and on April 20, and updated with new official numbers of deaths.

In the last few days and weeks, media outlets around the world have been publishing shocking stories and images of the COVID-19 crisis in Ecuador. Scenes of corpses abandoned in the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city, have shaken audiences in Latin America and beyond. Statistics, even the highly untrustworthy official ones, have confirmed the dire picture of a fast accelerating crisis. Whereas on March 17 just 111 people had tested positive for COVID-19, by April 16, 8,225 were reported to be infected, and 403 people were reported to have died. Bearing in mind the difficulties of cross-country comparisons and disparities in testing, Ecuador now has the highest per capita COVID-19 death toll in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the second-highest per capita number of COVID-19 cases. So how did Ecuador, and the city of Guayaquil in particular, with 70 percent of national cases, reach this point?

Then suddenly on April 16, the government official in charge of the mortuary crisis, Jorge Wated, announced: “We have approximately 6703 deaths in these [first] 15 days of April reported in the province of Guayas. The usual monthly average for Guayas is about 2000 deaths. After 15 days, we obviously have a difference of approximately 5700 deaths from different causes: COVID, presumed COVID and natural deaths.” The next day, Minister of the Interior [Ministra de Gobierno] María Paula Romo would confess: “Can I as an authority confirm that all these cases are COVID-19? I can’t, because there are some protocols to say that these cases qualify as such, but I can deliver the information and tell you that, at least, a good part of this data, their only explanation is that they are part of the contagion epicenter we had in Guayaquil and Guayas.”

The revelations are astonishing. This suggests that a likely 90 percent of COVID-19 fatalities went unreported by the government. If these 5,700 deaths in excess of Guayaquil’s fortnightly average of fatalities were COVID-19 victims, Ecuador would be the country with, by far, the highest COVID-19 per capita death toll on the planet over this period. Even if other countries are eventually shown to have underreported, it is difficult to fathom underreporting on such a grand scale. So how did Ecuador, and the city of Guayaquil in particular, with 70 percent of confirmed national cases, reach this point?

On February 29, 2020, the Ecuadorian government announced that it had detected its first case of COVID-19, thus becoming the third country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico, to report a case. That afternoon, authorities claimed they had located 149 people who may have been in contact with the first COVID patient, including some in the city of Babahoyo, 41 miles from Guayaquil, as well as passengers on her flight into Ecuador from Madrid.

The next day, the government announced that six more people were infected, some in the city of Guayaquil. We now know that these numbers were greatly underestimated, and that many people had contracted the illness before displaying any symptoms. In fact, the Ecuadorian government has since established its own late projection of what may have been closer to the real numbers: rather than the seven people infected with COVID-19 it announced on March 13, a more accurate figure was probably 347; and when on March 21 it reported 397 people had tested positive, contagion had probably already extended to 2,303.

From early on, Guayaquil and its surroundings seemed to be the most affected by the spread of the virus. Despite this, initial measures to slow infections were late coming and even slower to be implemented. On March 4, after the government had already prohibited the presence of spectators at soccer games, the government took the decision to allow the public to attend a Libertadores Cup soccer game in Guayaquil, which many commentators have blamed as a major contributor to the massive outbreak of COVID-19 in the city. Over 17,000 fans attended. Another smaller national league game was held on March 8.

By mid-March, and despite numbers of infected people quickly rising, many guayaquileños continued to go about their lives with minimal — if any — social distancing. Contagion also seems to have spread aggressively in certain well-to-do areas of the city, for example in the wealthy gated communities of La Puntilla in the suburban municipality of Samborondón, where, even after authorities had issued stay-at-home ordinances, inhabitants continued to mingle. A high-profile wedding was attended by some of the city’s “finest,” and authorities later intervened to cancel at least two more weddings and a game of golf. On the weekend of March 14 and 15, guayaquileños congregated on the nearby beaches of Playas and Salinas.

By the end of the first week of March, the situation had deteriorated sharply. On March 12, the government finally announced that it was closing schools, establishing checks on international visitors, and limiting gatherings to 250 people. On March 13, Ecuador’s first COVID-19 death was reported. The same day, the government announced it was imposing quarantines on incoming visitors from several countries. Four days later, the government limited gatherings to 30 people and suspended all incoming international flights.

On March 18, the conservative mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, attempted an audacious political stunt. Facing rising infections in her city, the mayor ordered municipal vehicles to occupy the runway of Guayaquil’s international airport. In a clear breach of international norms, two empty KLM and Iberia aircrafts (with only crew on board) that had been sent to repatriate European citizens to their home countries were thus prevented from landing in Guayaquil and forced to reroute to Quito. (The next day Viteri announced that she had contracted COVID-19 and would be self-isolating. She has since recovered.)

On March 18, the government finally imposed a stay-at-home quarantine. The next day, it imposed a curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. (from 4 p.m. in Guayaquil), which was later extended from 2 p.m. for the whole country. Four days later, Guayas province was declared a national security zone and militarized.

For hundreds of thousands of less privileged guayaquileños whose livelihoods depend on their daily income, staying at home was always going to be problematic, unless the government was able to intervene with an unprecedented program to cover the basic needs of the population. With a high percentage of the labor force being informal and non-salaried, and therefore especially vulnerable to the impact of income lost because of people staying at home, Guayaquil is in many regards an archetypal example of a vulnerable urban context in the developing world.

On March 23, the government announced, and later started to implement, a $60 cash transfer for the most vulnerable families. Sixty dollars in the context of Ecuador’s dollarized economy, in which the minimum wage is $400 per month, can be an important supplement in the fight against extreme poverty. But it can hardly be considered adequate to guarantee subsistence for many people barred from exercising other economic activities. Moreover, recent images of people lining up in vast numbers in front of banks in order to cash in on the government offer should raise alarm if the objective is for people to stay home.

On March 21, Minister of Health Catalina Andramuño resigned. That morning she had announced in a press conference that she would be receiving 2 million testing kits and that these would arrive shortly. But on March 23, her successor announced that there was no evidence 2 million kits had been purchased and that only 200,000 were on their way.

In her resignation letter to President Moreno, Andramuño complained that the government had not allocated her ministry any additional budget to face the emergency. In response, the Finance Ministry argued that the Health Ministry had plenty of unused money and that it should use what had been assigned to it for the fiscal year 2020 before requesting more. But this is easier said than done, as preapproved spending in ministerial budgets inevitably leads to difficulties in freeing up liquidity for unforeseen activities, especially on a grand scale.

In the last week of March, disturbing images of abandoned corpses in the streets of Guayaquil started flooding social media and, soon afterward, international news networks. The government cried foul play and claimed it was “fake news” being pushed by supporters of former president Rafael Correa, still the main opposition figure in Ecuadorian politics, despite residing abroad and despite persecution against leaders of his Citizens’ Revolution political movement. While some videos posted online did not correspond to what was going on in Guayaquil, many horrifying images were completely authentic. CNN reported that bodies were being left in the streets, as did the BBC, The New York Times, Deutsche Welle, France 24, The Guardian, El País, and many others. Several Latin American presidents started referring to the events unfolding in Ecuador as cautionary examples to be avoided in their home countries. Ecuador, and Guayaquil in particular, had suddenly become the pandemic’s epicenter in Latin America and a showcase for its potentially ravaging effects.

Yet, the Moreno government’s response has been denial. Government ministers and diplomatic representatives abroad were told to give interviews denouncing it all as “fake news.” The Ecuadorian ambassador in Spain denounced the “false rumors, including the one about the corpses, supposedly on the sidewalk,” as propagated by Correa and his supporters to destabilize the government. The attempt backfired; global media added to its coverage of the drama unfolding in Ecuador the government’s brazen negationism.

On April 1, after Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele tweeted, “After seeing what is going on in Ecuador, I think we have been underestimating what the virus will do. We weren’t alarmist, rather we were conservative.” Moreno replied: “Dear fellow presidents, let us not echo fake news that have clear political intentions. We are all making efforts in our fight against COVID-19! Humanity requires us to be united.” Meanwhile, corpses continued to pile up.

Guayaquil’s authorities had announced on March 27 that these abandoned bodies would be buried in a mass grave, and that a mausoleum would be erected later. This provoked national outrage. The national government was forced to intervene to say this would not be the case, but it took four more vital days for it to act. On March 31, under tremendous pressure, President Moreno finally took the decision to appoint a task force to deal with the problem.

The man at the head of the task force, Jorge Wated, explained on April 1 that the problem stemmed in part from the fact that several funeral parlors, whose owners and workers were afraid of COVID-19 contagion through their handling of corpses, had decided to close down during the crisis. This, added to the increase in deaths from COVID-19, had created a bottleneck and prevented timely burials. The bottleneck had gradually grown as the Moreno government failed to intervene in the funeral parlors or mobilize other urgent private assets, such as refrigerated infrastructure (trucks, coolers, etc.) to manage the growing number of bodies.

The mortuary crisis was the result of COVID-19 in as much as the number of dead bodies rose and people were afraid of contagion. But the bottleneck affected the management of bodies from other causes of death. The system simply collapsed. More evidence is needed to evaluate whether fear of contagion, including the fear felt by health care workers in different capacities, has been a decisive factor in the weakening of appropriate institutional responses.

The special task force seems to have at least reduced the backlog of bodies awaiting burial, but the problem is still far from resolved. France 24 reported that nearly 800 bodies have been picked up from people’s homes, outside the usual channels, by police officers dispatched by the task force. Another emergency measure has been the use of cardboard coffins, which has also fostered much public anger — expressed on social media in the midst of physical distancing policies. These extreme measures have emboldened the notion that the official numbers of COVID-19 deaths cannot be trusted. How could a few hundred deaths suddenly throw the country in such disarray? When over 600 people died in a matter of seconds during the April 2016 earthquake, Ecuador did not face such consequences. Time seems to have confirmed that these suspicions were fully warranted.

There are other, more structural and long-term problems related to the COVID-19 crisis. Convinced of the need and under pressure by the IMF to reduce the size of the state, the Moreno government has made damaging cuts to public health. Public investment in health care fell from $306 million in 2017 to $130 million in 2019. Researchers from the Dutch International Institute of Social Studies have confirmed that in 2019 alone, there were 3,680 layoffs from Ecuador’s Health Ministry, amounting to 4.5 percent of total employment in the ministry. In early April 2020, the health care workers’ union, Osumtransa, protested that an additional 2,500 to 3,500 health care workers were notified during the carnival holidays (February 22 to 25) that their contracts were ending. This would have hiked ministerial layoffs to roughly 8 percent. And, of course, in November 2019, Ecuador put an end to the agreement it had with Cuba in health cooperation and 400 Cuban doctors were sent home by year’s end.

If leadership, trust, and good communication are important in times of crises, then the fact that President Moreno’s approval ratings oscillate between 12 and 15 percent, some of the lowest for any president since Ecuador democratized in 1979, reflect a serious problem. There can be no doubt that the Moreno government’s current lack of popularity greatly hampers its capacity to demand collective sacrifice and uphold the rule of law. The head of the task force’s singular April 1 public address thus sounded like a desperate attempt to make the government look serious, competent, and accountable. Wated went as far as to predict that things would get far worse before they got better, saying between 2,500 and 3,500 would die, in Guayas province alone, from the pandemic. This was still short of revelations yet to come. But was Wated psychologically preparing the Ecuadorian people for what appeared to be a far greater death toll than what had thus far been announced? 

Wated’s admission seems to have sparked a new approach from the Moreno government. In his April 2 address to the nation, Moreno pledged to be more transparent with information on the victims of COVID-19 “even if this painful.” He publicly acknowledged that “whether for the numbers of infected or of deaths, the registers have been underestimated.” But old habits die hard, and Moreno again denounced “fake news,” even blaming the current economic hardship on public debt accrued under his predecessor, Correa. Moreno claimed that Correa had left him a public debt of $65 billion even as his government’s own figures indicate that the public debt at the end of the previous government was only $38 billion (it is now over $50 billion). All this pettiness, in the midst of a deadly crisis, will likely do little to improve the president’s credibility gap; polls show only 7.7 percent find Moreno credible. 

Three days later, encouraged by the president’s call for transparency, the deputy minister of health reported that 1,600 public health care workers had contracted COVID-19 and that 10 medical doctors had died because of the virus. But the next day, the minister of health rebuked his deputy, and said only 417 medical workers had fallen ill; 1,600 merely referred to those who could be infected. These admissions nevertheless gave credence to health care workers’ recurrent complaints that they are ill-equipped to tackle the crisis which puts their own safety, and their families’, at risk.

Then on April 4, in this sudden flourish of ostensible governmental sincerity, Vice President Otto Sonnenholzner apologized, in another formal televised address, for the deterioration of Ecuador’s “international image.” A likely candidate in the February 2021 elections, Sonnenholzner has attempted to position himself as the leader of the government’s response to the crisis but has also been accused of exploiting the pandemic to promote his image. Time will tell whether Sonnenholzner succeeds in spinning his leadership, or whether Ecuador’s dramatic mismanagement of the pandemic and mortuary crisis becomes a death blow to his political ambitions.

It took the Ecuadorian government another 12 days from Vice President Sonnenholzner’s apology to finally admit what everybody had long suspected: that the government’s report of 403 COVID-19 deaths was fictitious and probably amounted to less than 10 percent of the pandemic’s casualties.

Ecuador’s COVID-19 disaster has now acquired proportions that the country’s current leadership seems ill equipped to overcome. Sadly, for the people of Guayaquil, the suffering seems far from over.

Note: This post was edited on April 18 and on April 20, and updated with new official numbers of deaths.

On April 13, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it would suspend debt servicing requirements for 25 lower-income countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program, an expansion of the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT), would provide “grants to our poorest and most vulnerable members to cover their IMF debt obligations for an initial phase over the next six months,” IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva said.

Advocates of debt cancellation and relief, such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, have commended the effort as a necessary first step in allowing poorer countries to invest in public health responses. Jubilee research revealed that, in 2019, 64 countries spent more on debt servicing than on public health. 

While the IMF’s debt pause is indeed a welcome step, the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, told the press that the IMF is thus far resistant to a large allocation of the Fund’s reserve currency, Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). An SDR allocation would provide needed resources for developing economies, but could also free up additional resources to expand debt relief operations. Opposition, Le Maire said, is coming from the United States — which remains the IMF’s largest voting member and maintains virtual veto power over IMF activities. Bloomberg reports:

“The U.S. response for now is negative,” Le Maire told reporters on Tuesday ahead of a call with Group of Seven finance chiefs Tuesday and virtual meetings of the IMF and World Bank this week. “But we continue to think it is a response that is not costly for IMF members and very effective for developing countries.” 

While no agreement is likely on Wednesday, France will keep pushing because the measure is more monetary than fiscal so would be less of a burden on budgets, according to a finance ministry official, who declined to be identified in line with government policy.

 

More SDRs could help ensure emerging markets avoid a cash crunch as they deal with the health crisis, economic stagnation and capital outflows. The IMF’s executive board on Monday approved debt service relief for 25 countries for six months via its Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust. 

In a recent report, Mark Sobel, the U.S.’s former executive director at the IMF, has said there are “better and more effective solutions” for the IMF to embrace than seeking more SDRs, such as offering short-term loans of dollars.

The six-month debt suspension to the IMF is projected to save the 25 affected countries a total of $225 million. In no case would the debt relief amount to more than 0.5 percent of a country’s GDP. With global growth expected to nose-dive and capital outflows from emerging markets already reaching record levels, debt relief alone is inadequate. The IMF’s Georgieva has estimated developing country finance needs at $2.5 trillion. UNCTAD has called for $2.5 trillion in support. CEPR economists Mark Weisbrot and Andrés Arauz have previously called for a 3 trillion SDR allocation. The Financial Times editorial board called for an allocation of 1.37 trillion SDRs. However, even a much lower allocation of $500 billion would deliver more than $7 billion in needed reserve assets to the 25 countries that received debt relief.

Some have raised concerns over an SDR allocation by noting that more than half of the resources would go toward developed countries that are able to access external credit lines — such as those offered by the Fed. But an SDR allocation, if handled appropriately, could provide an invaluable buffer to developing countries’ reserves, while also allowing the vast expansion of the IMF’s debt relief trust, in addition to other bilateral or regional arrangements. The IMF could allow developed countries — or those who do not need an infusion of SDRs — to donate their allocation to a centralized IMF trust. That trust, with its capitalization greatly enhanced, would be able to greatly expand debt relief operations throughout the world, beyond the initial 25 countries, and beyond the next six months.

Though the US has remained steadfast in its opposition to an SDR allocation, the policy has received widespread support — even from financial sector actors. As Bloomberg reported: 

“Some major members remain unconvinced for now, but ultimately concerns about the negative effects of money creation at the IMF would be the same as on the national level where central banks have been rapidly expanding money supply,” Bank of America Corp. analysts said in a report on Tuesday. “In a world of massive demand shortage and deleveraging, inflation seems a rather unlikely concern.”

The costs are low, but the upside to the global economy — particularly to those countries most vulnerable — could be tremendous, not just in terms of stabilizing reserves, but also, if done well, in offering unprecedented debt relief amid the ongoing pandemic. 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

On April 13, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it would suspend debt servicing requirements for 25 lower-income countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program, an expansion of the Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT), would provide “grants to our poorest and most vulnerable members to cover their IMF debt obligations for an initial phase over the next six months,” IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva said.

Advocates of debt cancellation and relief, such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, have commended the effort as a necessary first step in allowing poorer countries to invest in public health responses. Jubilee research revealed that, in 2019, 64 countries spent more on debt servicing than on public health. 

While the IMF’s debt pause is indeed a welcome step, the French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, told the press that the IMF is thus far resistant to a large allocation of the Fund’s reserve currency, Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). An SDR allocation would provide needed resources for developing economies, but could also free up additional resources to expand debt relief operations. Opposition, Le Maire said, is coming from the United States — which remains the IMF’s largest voting member and maintains virtual veto power over IMF activities. Bloomberg reports:

“The U.S. response for now is negative,” Le Maire told reporters on Tuesday ahead of a call with Group of Seven finance chiefs Tuesday and virtual meetings of the IMF and World Bank this week. “But we continue to think it is a response that is not costly for IMF members and very effective for developing countries.” 

While no agreement is likely on Wednesday, France will keep pushing because the measure is more monetary than fiscal so would be less of a burden on budgets, according to a finance ministry official, who declined to be identified in line with government policy.

 

More SDRs could help ensure emerging markets avoid a cash crunch as they deal with the health crisis, economic stagnation and capital outflows. The IMF’s executive board on Monday approved debt service relief for 25 countries for six months via its Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust. 

In a recent report, Mark Sobel, the U.S.’s former executive director at the IMF, has said there are “better and more effective solutions” for the IMF to embrace than seeking more SDRs, such as offering short-term loans of dollars.

The six-month debt suspension to the IMF is projected to save the 25 affected countries a total of $225 million. In no case would the debt relief amount to more than 0.5 percent of a country’s GDP. With global growth expected to nose-dive and capital outflows from emerging markets already reaching record levels, debt relief alone is inadequate. The IMF’s Georgieva has estimated developing country finance needs at $2.5 trillion. UNCTAD has called for $2.5 trillion in support. CEPR economists Mark Weisbrot and Andrés Arauz have previously called for a 3 trillion SDR allocation. The Financial Times editorial board called for an allocation of 1.37 trillion SDRs. However, even a much lower allocation of $500 billion would deliver more than $7 billion in needed reserve assets to the 25 countries that received debt relief.

Some have raised concerns over an SDR allocation by noting that more than half of the resources would go toward developed countries that are able to access external credit lines — such as those offered by the Fed. But an SDR allocation, if handled appropriately, could provide an invaluable buffer to developing countries’ reserves, while also allowing the vast expansion of the IMF’s debt relief trust, in addition to other bilateral or regional arrangements. The IMF could allow developed countries — or those who do not need an infusion of SDRs — to donate their allocation to a centralized IMF trust. That trust, with its capitalization greatly enhanced, would be able to greatly expand debt relief operations throughout the world, beyond the initial 25 countries, and beyond the next six months.

Though the US has remained steadfast in its opposition to an SDR allocation, the policy has received widespread support — even from financial sector actors. As Bloomberg reported: 

“Some major members remain unconvinced for now, but ultimately concerns about the negative effects of money creation at the IMF would be the same as on the national level where central banks have been rapidly expanding money supply,” Bank of America Corp. analysts said in a report on Tuesday. “In a world of massive demand shortage and deleveraging, inflation seems a rather unlikely concern.”

The costs are low, but the upside to the global economy — particularly to those countries most vulnerable — could be tremendous, not just in terms of stabilizing reserves, but also, if done well, in offering unprecedented debt relief amid the ongoing pandemic. 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though COVID-19 was slow to appear in worrying numbers in Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of infected people in the region is now rising rapidly. Between March 1 and April 1, total confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Latin America rose from 5 to 25,500. In the first half of April, that number nearly tripled to 75,200. The US currently has the highest rate of reported COVID-19 cases per capita of any country in the Western Hemisphere, but this may be primarily because it saw its first case weeks earlier. Latin America may still have a similarly overwhelming case load coming its way.

Like in other regions around the world, the impacts of the pandemic are not evenly distributed throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Infections are concentrated in certain countries and certain areas within countries; policy responses and health care systems differ from country to country, and from region to region within countries. 

Current Cases

The majority of confirmed Latin American cases are in just a handful of countries, with Brazil making up more than a third of all reported cases. Looking at the raw number of reported cases can help give us an idea of where the disease is, but looking only at the overall numbers may obscure serious outbreaks in smaller nations. Additionally, Figure 1 makes it clear that some countries have large numbers of total cases per capita, but much smaller numbers of active cases per capita due to recoveries and deaths. Figure 2 presents national data of confirmed active COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people. 

As can be seen, measuring confirmed cases in this manner highlights some potentially significant outbreaks that have thus far largely occurred under the radar. The highest overall active rate of infection right now can be found in Panama, which has more than double the rate seen in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Chile, the next most-infected nations. Along with Peru, the outbreaks in Ecuador and Chile suggest that COVID-19 is more widespread on the Western Pacific coast of South America. Accounting for population size also illustrates that there appears to be significant outbreaks in some smaller Caribbean nations as well, with the Dominican Republic, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and Grenada all making the top ten.

There are reasons to question these numbers. First, even if they all reported in good faith, each nation has its own sets of standards and collection mechanisms for reporting this data, meaning that each nation has differences in how their COVID-19 numbers are put together. Even more problematic, however, is the matter of testing. COVID-19 cases, recoveries, and deaths can only be reported if the virus is first diagnosed through testing, and the availability of testing varies widely. The inconsistency in testing across the region may also prevent us from having an accurate picture of the disease’s spread. Though not all countries in Latin America are reporting their testing numbers, a look at the data reveals that many nations in the region may be drastically underreporting confirmed cases. 

To get an idea of which countries are testing more than others, Figure 3 presents tests per 1,000 people for those countries with available data, with darker green illustrating more testing and white illustrating less.

The gaps between testing rates and reported active case rates can shed some light on who is underreporting most. Figure 4 plots tests per million people against active COVID-19 cases with a trendline that indicates how much an additional amount of testing yields in additional cases on average. Venezuela is excluded from this chart because they have recently received large shipments of medical supplies from China which dramatically expanded their testing capacity in just the last week, while their case numbers have remained relatively low; this suggests that it’s unlikely they’ve had a chance to deploy the tests and report back more accurate numbers accordingly.

If a country appears above the trendline, it indicates that it has a higher number of active cases than we would expect for a country in the region given its number of tests; if it appears below, it has fewer cases than would be expected.

This visualization tells us that the high levels of COVID-19 reported in some countries, like Chile and Panama, is in part due to the fact that they have some of the highest testing rates in Latin America. Unlike Chile, however, Panama’s placement high above the trendline indicates that it does in fact have a very serious outbreak on hand. Other countries with above-average cases per test include Antigua and Barbuda, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Ecuador, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Of the countries that have reported their testing rates, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Bolivia have the lowest. It is no coincidence that these are some of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in Latin America: testing rates correlate significantly with both GDP per capita and the UN’s Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index. Because the accuracy of coronavirus rates rises with more testing, we can’t be sure how widespread COVID-19 actually is in these countries.

There is another complication: the first cases of COVID-19 appeared at different times in different countries, and there is a clear relationship between how long it’s been since the beginning of an outbreak and how many total cases a nation has had. As such, it’s worth keeping an eye on the last countries to see cases appear, as these are nations likely to witness the most future growth. Examples include Belize, El Salvador, Grenada, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

On a more positive note, a few nations like Costa Rica, Cuba, and Uruguay appear to have handled the crisis fairly well so far, with a low number of active cases per thousand even when taking into account relatively high testing rates and the fact that their first cases appeared over a month ago.

Health Care Systems

Like the reported numbers of COVID-19 itself, health care systems and policies vary significantly across Latin America. Data on these types of metrics can help us get an idea of which nations are most ready to contain and treat coronavirus, and which may be least prepared to do so. Two simple measures of health care system capacity are hospital beds per capita and doctors and nurses per capita, serving as proxies for both basic health infrastructure and the quantity of medical personnel. In Figure 5, these two measures are plotted against one another for comparison, with each nation shaded darker blue the wealthier it is on a per capita basis.

For the most part, wealthier nations in Latin America have both more hospital beds and health professionals per capita than their poorer neighbors, and will thus be able to handle a larger strain on their health care system. Some countries stand out. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Barbados have all clearly put major effort into developing certain aspects of their health care system, while Cuba’s system is by far the most prepared in terms of sheer capacity despite Cuba being less wealthy. Panama, the worst-off country in the region right now, has put significantly less investment in health care capacity than other nations of a similar relatively high-income. Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines punch well-above their weight here considering their GDP per capita. Finally, three nations stand out in their unique unpreparedness for a serious health crisis: Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras. This is especially important to note as the data presented above indicate that these three countries are all among the countries with the lowest testing rates. Not only are the countries particularly vulnerable, but we also have little information about how widespread the virus is within them.

It perhaps comes as little surprise that three of the most vulnerable countries are also three of the most impoverished nations in the hemisphere. Just as people living below the poverty line are most vulnerable, so too are the most impoverished countries. While the countries with the largest outbreaks in raw numbers will likely receive the lion’s share of attention, it is important to keep in mind that small states — including many small island nations — will face significant outbreaks on their own right.

Though COVID-19 was slow to appear in worrying numbers in Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of infected people in the region is now rising rapidly. Between March 1 and April 1, total confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Latin America rose from 5 to 25,500. In the first half of April, that number nearly tripled to 75,200. The US currently has the highest rate of reported COVID-19 cases per capita of any country in the Western Hemisphere, but this may be primarily because it saw its first case weeks earlier. Latin America may still have a similarly overwhelming case load coming its way.

Like in other regions around the world, the impacts of the pandemic are not evenly distributed throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Infections are concentrated in certain countries and certain areas within countries; policy responses and health care systems differ from country to country, and from region to region within countries. 

Current Cases

The majority of confirmed Latin American cases are in just a handful of countries, with Brazil making up more than a third of all reported cases. Looking at the raw number of reported cases can help give us an idea of where the disease is, but looking only at the overall numbers may obscure serious outbreaks in smaller nations. Additionally, Figure 1 makes it clear that some countries have large numbers of total cases per capita, but much smaller numbers of active cases per capita due to recoveries and deaths. Figure 2 presents national data of confirmed active COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people. 

As can be seen, measuring confirmed cases in this manner highlights some potentially significant outbreaks that have thus far largely occurred under the radar. The highest overall active rate of infection right now can be found in Panama, which has more than double the rate seen in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, and Chile, the next most-infected nations. Along with Peru, the outbreaks in Ecuador and Chile suggest that COVID-19 is more widespread on the Western Pacific coast of South America. Accounting for population size also illustrates that there appears to be significant outbreaks in some smaller Caribbean nations as well, with the Dominican Republic, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and Grenada all making the top ten.

There are reasons to question these numbers. First, even if they all reported in good faith, each nation has its own sets of standards and collection mechanisms for reporting this data, meaning that each nation has differences in how their COVID-19 numbers are put together. Even more problematic, however, is the matter of testing. COVID-19 cases, recoveries, and deaths can only be reported if the virus is first diagnosed through testing, and the availability of testing varies widely. The inconsistency in testing across the region may also prevent us from having an accurate picture of the disease’s spread. Though not all countries in Latin America are reporting their testing numbers, a look at the data reveals that many nations in the region may be drastically underreporting confirmed cases. 

To get an idea of which countries are testing more than others, Figure 3 presents tests per 1,000 people for those countries with available data, with darker green illustrating more testing and white illustrating less.

The gaps between testing rates and reported active case rates can shed some light on who is underreporting most. Figure 4 plots tests per million people against active COVID-19 cases with a trendline that indicates how much an additional amount of testing yields in additional cases on average. Venezuela is excluded from this chart because they have recently received large shipments of medical supplies from China which dramatically expanded their testing capacity in just the last week, while their case numbers have remained relatively low; this suggests that it’s unlikely they’ve had a chance to deploy the tests and report back more accurate numbers accordingly.

If a country appears above the trendline, it indicates that it has a higher number of active cases than we would expect for a country in the region given its number of tests; if it appears below, it has fewer cases than would be expected.

This visualization tells us that the high levels of COVID-19 reported in some countries, like Chile and Panama, is in part due to the fact that they have some of the highest testing rates in Latin America. Unlike Chile, however, Panama’s placement high above the trendline indicates that it does in fact have a very serious outbreak on hand. Other countries with above-average cases per test include Antigua and Barbuda, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Ecuador, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Of the countries that have reported their testing rates, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Bolivia have the lowest. It is no coincidence that these are some of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in Latin America: testing rates correlate significantly with both GDP per capita and the UN’s Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index. Because the accuracy of coronavirus rates rises with more testing, we can’t be sure how widespread COVID-19 actually is in these countries.

There is another complication: the first cases of COVID-19 appeared at different times in different countries, and there is a clear relationship between how long it’s been since the beginning of an outbreak and how many total cases a nation has had. As such, it’s worth keeping an eye on the last countries to see cases appear, as these are nations likely to witness the most future growth. Examples include Belize, El Salvador, Grenada, Haiti, and Nicaragua.

On a more positive note, a few nations like Costa Rica, Cuba, and Uruguay appear to have handled the crisis fairly well so far, with a low number of active cases per thousand even when taking into account relatively high testing rates and the fact that their first cases appeared over a month ago.

Health Care Systems

Like the reported numbers of COVID-19 itself, health care systems and policies vary significantly across Latin America. Data on these types of metrics can help us get an idea of which nations are most ready to contain and treat coronavirus, and which may be least prepared to do so. Two simple measures of health care system capacity are hospital beds per capita and doctors and nurses per capita, serving as proxies for both basic health infrastructure and the quantity of medical personnel. In Figure 5, these two measures are plotted against one another for comparison, with each nation shaded darker blue the wealthier it is on a per capita basis.

For the most part, wealthier nations in Latin America have both more hospital beds and health professionals per capita than their poorer neighbors, and will thus be able to handle a larger strain on their health care system. Some countries stand out. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Barbados have all clearly put major effort into developing certain aspects of their health care system, while Cuba’s system is by far the most prepared in terms of sheer capacity despite Cuba being less wealthy. Panama, the worst-off country in the region right now, has put significantly less investment in health care capacity than other nations of a similar relatively high-income. Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines punch well-above their weight here considering their GDP per capita. Finally, three nations stand out in their unique unpreparedness for a serious health crisis: Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras. This is especially important to note as the data presented above indicate that these three countries are all among the countries with the lowest testing rates. Not only are the countries particularly vulnerable, but we also have little information about how widespread the virus is within them.

It perhaps comes as little surprise that three of the most vulnerable countries are also three of the most impoverished nations in the hemisphere. Just as people living below the poverty line are most vulnerable, so too are the most impoverished countries. While the countries with the largest outbreaks in raw numbers will likely receive the lion’s share of attention, it is important to keep in mind that small states — including many small island nations — will face significant outbreaks on their own right.

As of noon on April 8th the total number of Covid-19 positive cases reported by Brazil’s health ministry exceeded 14,000 and the number of deaths exceeded 700. This is, by far, the highest number of reported cases in Latin America (though Ecuador has a greater number of reported cases and deaths on a per capita basis).  The actual number of cases is likely many times greater, given that the current rate of testing for Covid-19 in Brazil is still very low – 258 per million, compared to 3,159 per million in Chile, 6,423 per million in the U.S. and 10,962 per million in Germany. In São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, and the hardest hit urban area in the country, the local health secretariat is reportedly only providing tallies for severe cases of the virus.

Far right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, an admirer and close ally of President Trump, has been seriously downplaying the gravity of the pandemic. He has referred to the virus as a “little flu” and has openly flouted social distancing measures, promoting political rallies in mid March and wading into crowds of supporters.  Ironically, prior to the recent rallies, senior members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet tested positive for the virus following an international trip that included a meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.  These and other members of the delegation were among the first imported cases of Covid-19 to Brazil (and it is rumored that Bolsonaro himself was infected).

As seems to be the case with his U.S. counterpart and mentor, Bolsonaro’s rejection of experts’ recommendations has a clear motivation: keeping the economy running at all costs.  Even before the virus arrived, Brazil’s economy was in sad shape, with no signs of real recovery following a deep recession in 2015-16. Unemployment remained stubbornly high (more than 11.6 percent in February) and economic growth stood at less than one percent during the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency (as might be expected given the government’s constitutionally-mandated austerity policies).  As is the case in most of Latin America (see ECLAC’s grim predictions for the region), business state and local shut-downs and stay-at-home measures designed to save hundreds of thousands of lives are expected to have devastating economic consequences.  Brazil’s biggest bank, Itaú, forecasts as much as 6.4% negative economic growth for 2020 alone if virus containment measures are maintained for an extended period of time.

In response to these and other dire predictions, Brazil’s lower house has passed a “war budget” amendment to the constitution, which – if approved by 3/5 of the Senate – will ease current draconian budget constraints and allow the state to engage in significant deficit spending to try to address the country’s looming health and economic emergencies.  Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s state governors have ordered non-essential businesses to close and have supported social distancing measures. In response, Bolsonaro has engaged in heated clashes with governors and threatened to issue a decree forcing businesses to re-open throughout the country. He has also butted heads with his own health minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta, who has supported strong social distancing protocols, threatening at one point to fire him.  Currently Mandetta has the highest ratings of any politician in the country while Bolsonaro’s favorability ratings have been sinking. Millions of people in cities across Brazil have protested Bolsonaro’s dismissive approach with regular panelaços – loud, pot-banging protests staged from residents’ windows and balconies. Brazil’s major leftwing leaders have called for the president’s resignation. 

It’s possible that Bolsonaro is making a long-term political calculation,  attempting to position himself to better weather the coming economic tsunami by blaming others for taking lifesaving measures that shut down much of the economy.  Here again, his behavior bears similarities with that of the occupant of the White House.

Regardless of what social distancing steps are taken throughout Brazil, many observers believe that the pandemic will exact a particularly terrible human and economic toll in the country’s poor favelas, where around 11 million people live.  Historically neglected by public authorities (apart from police agents engaged in increasingly widespread extrajudicial killings targeting Black youth), favela communities have extremely limited access to healthcare resources and water and sanitation infrastructures.  As Brazilian-Colombian researcher Nicole Froio explains in NACLA, many favela residents are simply unable to wash their hands regularly or practice social distancing measures in houses where large families share tiny living spaces.  Given the lack of effective support from the state, favela communities in Río de Janeiro and São Paulo are pooling scant resources to hire round-the-clock medical support. 

Brazil’s rural indigenous communities are also particularly vulnerable, given the fact that they are often located far away from hospitals able to treat infected patients with acute symptoms.  Ironically, the first indigenous Brazilian to test positive for Covid-19 is a healthcare worker who was in contact with an infected medical doctor who was visiting a remote Kokoma community.  Researchers fear that the virus could wreak enormous destruction and havoc in communities, especially as those at highest risk – the elderly – are typically the pillars of social order and transmitters of traditional knowledge.  In response to the pandemic, many indigenous peoples are likely to disperse into small groups, according to Dr. Sofia Mendonça, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo. Amnesty International reports that some communities are blocking roads and going into voluntary isolation to keep the pandemic at bay.    

Amnesty notes that Brazil’s indigenous communities are facing two sorts of attacks now.  Alongside the threat of Covid-19 infections, grileiros – those that illegally appropriate land – are taking advantage of the pandemic, and the fact that indigenous communities are prevented from effectively patrolling their territories, to step up the use of indigenous lands for illegal logging, agriculture and mining enterprises.  Government protection of indigenous lands has already been severely weakened under Bolsonaro – who has sought to open up indigenous lands for outside exploitation – and indigenous leaders who resist land invaders are being threatened and killed at an increasing rate.  On March 31st, Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara, a well-known Guajajara leader and opponent of illegal logging in Araribóia indigenous lands, was assassinated.  It was the fifth murder of a Guajajara land rights advocate so far this year, according to Amazon Watch.  

As of noon on April 8th the total number of Covid-19 positive cases reported by Brazil’s health ministry exceeded 14,000 and the number of deaths exceeded 700. This is, by far, the highest number of reported cases in Latin America (though Ecuador has a greater number of reported cases and deaths on a per capita basis).  The actual number of cases is likely many times greater, given that the current rate of testing for Covid-19 in Brazil is still very low – 258 per million, compared to 3,159 per million in Chile, 6,423 per million in the U.S. and 10,962 per million in Germany. In São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, and the hardest hit urban area in the country, the local health secretariat is reportedly only providing tallies for severe cases of the virus.

Far right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, an admirer and close ally of President Trump, has been seriously downplaying the gravity of the pandemic. He has referred to the virus as a “little flu” and has openly flouted social distancing measures, promoting political rallies in mid March and wading into crowds of supporters.  Ironically, prior to the recent rallies, senior members of Bolsonaro’s cabinet tested positive for the virus following an international trip that included a meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago.  These and other members of the delegation were among the first imported cases of Covid-19 to Brazil (and it is rumored that Bolsonaro himself was infected).

As seems to be the case with his U.S. counterpart and mentor, Bolsonaro’s rejection of experts’ recommendations has a clear motivation: keeping the economy running at all costs.  Even before the virus arrived, Brazil’s economy was in sad shape, with no signs of real recovery following a deep recession in 2015-16. Unemployment remained stubbornly high (more than 11.6 percent in February) and economic growth stood at less than one percent during the first year of Bolsonaro’s presidency (as might be expected given the government’s constitutionally-mandated austerity policies).  As is the case in most of Latin America (see ECLAC’s grim predictions for the region), business state and local shut-downs and stay-at-home measures designed to save hundreds of thousands of lives are expected to have devastating economic consequences.  Brazil’s biggest bank, Itaú, forecasts as much as 6.4% negative economic growth for 2020 alone if virus containment measures are maintained for an extended period of time.

In response to these and other dire predictions, Brazil’s lower house has passed a “war budget” amendment to the constitution, which – if approved by 3/5 of the Senate – will ease current draconian budget constraints and allow the state to engage in significant deficit spending to try to address the country’s looming health and economic emergencies.  Meanwhile, many of Brazil’s state governors have ordered non-essential businesses to close and have supported social distancing measures. In response, Bolsonaro has engaged in heated clashes with governors and threatened to issue a decree forcing businesses to re-open throughout the country. He has also butted heads with his own health minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta, who has supported strong social distancing protocols, threatening at one point to fire him.  Currently Mandetta has the highest ratings of any politician in the country while Bolsonaro’s favorability ratings have been sinking. Millions of people in cities across Brazil have protested Bolsonaro’s dismissive approach with regular panelaços – loud, pot-banging protests staged from residents’ windows and balconies. Brazil’s major leftwing leaders have called for the president’s resignation. 

It’s possible that Bolsonaro is making a long-term political calculation,  attempting to position himself to better weather the coming economic tsunami by blaming others for taking lifesaving measures that shut down much of the economy.  Here again, his behavior bears similarities with that of the occupant of the White House.

Regardless of what social distancing steps are taken throughout Brazil, many observers believe that the pandemic will exact a particularly terrible human and economic toll in the country’s poor favelas, where around 11 million people live.  Historically neglected by public authorities (apart from police agents engaged in increasingly widespread extrajudicial killings targeting Black youth), favela communities have extremely limited access to healthcare resources and water and sanitation infrastructures.  As Brazilian-Colombian researcher Nicole Froio explains in NACLA, many favela residents are simply unable to wash their hands regularly or practice social distancing measures in houses where large families share tiny living spaces.  Given the lack of effective support from the state, favela communities in Río de Janeiro and São Paulo are pooling scant resources to hire round-the-clock medical support. 

Brazil’s rural indigenous communities are also particularly vulnerable, given the fact that they are often located far away from hospitals able to treat infected patients with acute symptoms.  Ironically, the first indigenous Brazilian to test positive for Covid-19 is a healthcare worker who was in contact with an infected medical doctor who was visiting a remote Kokoma community.  Researchers fear that the virus could wreak enormous destruction and havoc in communities, especially as those at highest risk – the elderly – are typically the pillars of social order and transmitters of traditional knowledge.  In response to the pandemic, many indigenous peoples are likely to disperse into small groups, according to Dr. Sofia Mendonça, a researcher at the Federal University of São Paulo. Amnesty International reports that some communities are blocking roads and going into voluntary isolation to keep the pandemic at bay.    

Amnesty notes that Brazil’s indigenous communities are facing two sorts of attacks now.  Alongside the threat of Covid-19 infections, grileiros – those that illegally appropriate land – are taking advantage of the pandemic, and the fact that indigenous communities are prevented from effectively patrolling their territories, to step up the use of indigenous lands for illegal logging, agriculture and mining enterprises.  Government protection of indigenous lands has already been severely weakened under Bolsonaro – who has sought to open up indigenous lands for outside exploitation – and indigenous leaders who resist land invaders are being threatened and killed at an increasing rate.  On March 31st, Zezico Rodrigues Guajajara, a well-known Guajajara leader and opponent of illegal logging in Araribóia indigenous lands, was assassinated.  It was the fifth murder of a Guajajara land rights advocate so far this year, according to Amazon Watch.  

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has lowered regional GDP growth projections from positive 1.3 percent to negative 1.8 percent in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic. ECLAC projects that, with such a growth rate, poverty and extreme poverty will increase by 34 million and 23.3 million, respectively. In an op-ed, ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena notes that more than 47 percent of the region’s population does not currently have access to social security, placing the region’s elderly population in a dangerous position.

Bárcena writes:

In the current situation, it cannot be overlooked that massive fiscal stimulus is needed to bolster health services and protect income and jobs, among the numerous challenges at hand. The provision of essential goods (medication, food, energy) cannot be disrupted today, and universal access to testing for COVID-19 must be guaranteed along with medical care for all those who need it. Providing our health care systems with the necessary funds is an unavoidable imperative.

When we talk about massive fiscal stimulus, we are also talking about financing the social protection systems that care for the most vulnerable sectors. We are talking about rolling out non-contributory programs such as direct cash transfers, financing for unemployment insurance, and benefits for the underemployed and self-employed.

Likewise, central banks have to ensure liquidity so the production apparatus can guarantee its continued functioning. These efforts must translate into support for companies with zero-interest loans for paying wages. In addition, companies and households must be aided by the postponement of loan, mortgage and rent payments. Many interventions will be needed to ensure that the chain of payments is not interrupted. Development banks should play a significant role in this.

And, certainly, multilateral financing bodies will have to consider new policies on low-interest loans and offer relief and deferments on current debt servicing to create fiscal space.

Economic distress will come through various channels in the coming months and will not be solely tied to domestic efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Remittances, a key source of revenue in many countries, are expected to diminish drastically. The region’s exports are also likely to take a hit as economic growth slows among trading partners. Commodities, which many countries in the region rely upon for foreign exchange, are experiencing significant price declines. ECLAC estimates a possible 10.7 percentage point reduction in the value of the region’s exports this year. The collapse of the tourism industry, especially important in the Caribbean, will also have significant impacts — in some countries calamitous.

Bárcena acknowledged that ECLAC’s projection of -1.8 percent growth in 2020 could turn out to be over-optimistic. Some private estimates already anticipate a much larger shock. Goldman Sachs, for example, projected -3.8 percent growth for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru — which together account for some 89 percent of regional GDP.

S&P Global, although more optimistic than either ECLAC or Goldman in projecting -1.3 percent growth, notes that the risk is very clearly on the downside. As opposed to the six-quarter recession during the Great Recession, however, S&P projects only two quarters of negative regional growth in 2020. The current situation differs in another key regard, according to S&P: regional growth has been slow in previous years, placing economies in an already fragile place before the current slowdown. “Fixed investment has been either declining or slowing across most of the region in recent years,” the ratings agency notes. Further, S&P estimates that the length of the downturn will depend greatly on the public health response of individual countries:

The initial economic policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America was similar to other parts of the world: emergency interest rate cuts and programs designed to boost liquidity, followed by fiscal stimulus measures in some countries, most notably in Chile, where a 5% of GDP recovery package was announced. These measures will help curb the fall in demand and reinvigorate the economic recovery once the pandemic wanes. However, the public health policy response, which has diverged across the region, will determine the length of the health crisis, and, as a result, affect the length of the economic crisis.

Unfortunately, few countries in the region are well positioned to robustly respond to the crisis. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) points out that 21 of the 26 regional countries borrowing from the IDB reported current account deficits in 2019. With an abrupt halt in countries’ access to foreign capital, many could find themselves in an unsustainable position. Early evidence points to an even greater outflow of capital from the region than during the 2009 financial crisis. Only Brazil and Mexico have capped dollar access via a bilateral swap line with the Federal Reserve to placate this outflow. In contrast to previous periods, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is a truly global problem, meaning that it will be difficult for countries to increase exports to make up for the lack of foreign capital.

Further, traditional stimulus measures are likely to be less impactful than during previous economic downturns given that many businesses will remain closed as part of the public health response to COVID-19. All of this makes a coordinated, international response imperative. The IMF has pledged to increase its lending capacity in response to the crisis, but it is unlikely the fund has the capacity to process loan requests from the more than 80 countries that have already inquired. Further, IMF-supported austerity policies ― such as those in Ecuador and Argentina ― have left those countries in an even worse position to respond to the current situation.

One way for the IMF to respond to the immediate needs of the region ― and developing nations across the globe ― would be with a significant allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), which function as a reserve currency. In response to the Global Recession in 2009, the IMF increased SDRs by some $250 billion, providing necessary financial lifelines for countries without access to foreign capital. But the current need is far greater. The IMF itself has estimated that developing countries will need some $2.5 trillion to adequately respond to the situation. CEPR economists Mark Weisbrot and Andrés Arauz have called for a 3 trillion SDR allocation (i.e., $4 trillion). The UN is calling for an allocation of 1 trillion SDRs, while some of the largest and most influential economic policy organizations in the US, like the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the Center for Global Development, and the Institute for International Finance support a 500 billion SDR issuance.

What is clear is that the cost of doing nothing is tremendous. The Imperial College of London estimates that, in a worst-case scenario, more than 3 million could die in Latin America and the Caribbean and more than 560 million could be sickened due to COVID-19. The study estimates that, if significant “suppression strategies” are implemented, the death toll could be reduced to 158,000.

But it is important to remember that regardless of the severity in terms of health or the economy, it is likely to be the most vulnerable in the region who will be most affected. As ECLAC notes, the COVID-induced recession will likely push more than 30 million people into poverty throughout the region. Further, many regional economies have expansive informal labor markets that will make it extraordinarily difficult to enforce physical distancing responses to COVID-19. While the wealthy will have resources to stay at home and survive, it will be the most vulnerable, forced to continue working just to live, who will bear the brunt of COVID-19. That will be true in terms of health outcomes as well as economic outcomes, and policy responses should be formulated with that consideration at the forefront.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has lowered regional GDP growth projections from positive 1.3 percent to negative 1.8 percent in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic. ECLAC projects that, with such a growth rate, poverty and extreme poverty will increase by 34 million and 23.3 million, respectively. In an op-ed, ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena notes that more than 47 percent of the region’s population does not currently have access to social security, placing the region’s elderly population in a dangerous position.

Bárcena writes:

In the current situation, it cannot be overlooked that massive fiscal stimulus is needed to bolster health services and protect income and jobs, among the numerous challenges at hand. The provision of essential goods (medication, food, energy) cannot be disrupted today, and universal access to testing for COVID-19 must be guaranteed along with medical care for all those who need it. Providing our health care systems with the necessary funds is an unavoidable imperative.

When we talk about massive fiscal stimulus, we are also talking about financing the social protection systems that care for the most vulnerable sectors. We are talking about rolling out non-contributory programs such as direct cash transfers, financing for unemployment insurance, and benefits for the underemployed and self-employed.

Likewise, central banks have to ensure liquidity so the production apparatus can guarantee its continued functioning. These efforts must translate into support for companies with zero-interest loans for paying wages. In addition, companies and households must be aided by the postponement of loan, mortgage and rent payments. Many interventions will be needed to ensure that the chain of payments is not interrupted. Development banks should play a significant role in this.

And, certainly, multilateral financing bodies will have to consider new policies on low-interest loans and offer relief and deferments on current debt servicing to create fiscal space.

Economic distress will come through various channels in the coming months and will not be solely tied to domestic efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Remittances, a key source of revenue in many countries, are expected to diminish drastically. The region’s exports are also likely to take a hit as economic growth slows among trading partners. Commodities, which many countries in the region rely upon for foreign exchange, are experiencing significant price declines. ECLAC estimates a possible 10.7 percentage point reduction in the value of the region’s exports this year. The collapse of the tourism industry, especially important in the Caribbean, will also have significant impacts — in some countries calamitous.

Bárcena acknowledged that ECLAC’s projection of -1.8 percent growth in 2020 could turn out to be over-optimistic. Some private estimates already anticipate a much larger shock. Goldman Sachs, for example, projected -3.8 percent growth for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru — which together account for some 89 percent of regional GDP.

S&P Global, although more optimistic than either ECLAC or Goldman in projecting -1.3 percent growth, notes that the risk is very clearly on the downside. As opposed to the six-quarter recession during the Great Recession, however, S&P projects only two quarters of negative regional growth in 2020. The current situation differs in another key regard, according to S&P: regional growth has been slow in previous years, placing economies in an already fragile place before the current slowdown. “Fixed investment has been either declining or slowing across most of the region in recent years,” the ratings agency notes. Further, S&P estimates that the length of the downturn will depend greatly on the public health response of individual countries:

The initial economic policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America was similar to other parts of the world: emergency interest rate cuts and programs designed to boost liquidity, followed by fiscal stimulus measures in some countries, most notably in Chile, where a 5% of GDP recovery package was announced. These measures will help curb the fall in demand and reinvigorate the economic recovery once the pandemic wanes. However, the public health policy response, which has diverged across the region, will determine the length of the health crisis, and, as a result, affect the length of the economic crisis.

Unfortunately, few countries in the region are well positioned to robustly respond to the crisis. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) points out that 21 of the 26 regional countries borrowing from the IDB reported current account deficits in 2019. With an abrupt halt in countries’ access to foreign capital, many could find themselves in an unsustainable position. Early evidence points to an even greater outflow of capital from the region than during the 2009 financial crisis. Only Brazil and Mexico have capped dollar access via a bilateral swap line with the Federal Reserve to placate this outflow. In contrast to previous periods, however, the COVID-19 pandemic is a truly global problem, meaning that it will be difficult for countries to increase exports to make up for the lack of foreign capital.

Further, traditional stimulus measures are likely to be less impactful than during previous economic downturns given that many businesses will remain closed as part of the public health response to COVID-19. All of this makes a coordinated, international response imperative. The IMF has pledged to increase its lending capacity in response to the crisis, but it is unlikely the fund has the capacity to process loan requests from the more than 80 countries that have already inquired. Further, IMF-supported austerity policies ― such as those in Ecuador and Argentina ― have left those countries in an even worse position to respond to the current situation.

One way for the IMF to respond to the immediate needs of the region ― and developing nations across the globe ― would be with a significant allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), which function as a reserve currency. In response to the Global Recession in 2009, the IMF increased SDRs by some $250 billion, providing necessary financial lifelines for countries without access to foreign capital. But the current need is far greater. The IMF itself has estimated that developing countries will need some $2.5 trillion to adequately respond to the situation. CEPR economists Mark Weisbrot and Andrés Arauz have called for a 3 trillion SDR allocation (i.e., $4 trillion). The UN is calling for an allocation of 1 trillion SDRs, while some of the largest and most influential economic policy organizations in the US, like the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the Center for Global Development, and the Institute for International Finance support a 500 billion SDR issuance.

What is clear is that the cost of doing nothing is tremendous. The Imperial College of London estimates that, in a worst-case scenario, more than 3 million could die in Latin America and the Caribbean and more than 560 million could be sickened due to COVID-19. The study estimates that, if significant “suppression strategies” are implemented, the death toll could be reduced to 158,000.

But it is important to remember that regardless of the severity in terms of health or the economy, it is likely to be the most vulnerable in the region who will be most affected. As ECLAC notes, the COVID-induced recession will likely push more than 30 million people into poverty throughout the region. Further, many regional economies have expansive informal labor markets that will make it extraordinarily difficult to enforce physical distancing responses to COVID-19. While the wealthy will have resources to stay at home and survive, it will be the most vulnerable, forced to continue working just to live, who will bear the brunt of COVID-19. That will be true in terms of health outcomes as well as economic outcomes, and policy responses should be formulated with that consideration at the forefront.

Guilty until proven innocent. That appears to be the electoral fraud approach favored by Walter D. Valdivia and Diego Escobari in their recent piece in Project Syndicate. It is also the exact approach the Organization of American States (OAS) had a responsibility to avoid in their audit of the October 2019 Bolivian election. As we write in our response to the OAS, citing the International Foundation for Electoral Systems:

[A]n audit that results from a losing candidate’s allegations of fraud means “that the election commission is starting from a position of weakness … Essentially, the electoral process is considered guilty until proven innocent, often undermining public confidence in the electoral system.” [emphasis added.]

Let us preface this with some very important context that Valdivia and Escobari (V&E) left out of their piece. On October 21, 2019 — the day after the election, and as the official counting of the votes had only begun — the OAS put out a press release asserting that the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE)

presented [preliminary count] data with an inexplicable change in trend that drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process. [emphasis added.]

The OAS went so far as to presume that a second round in the presidential election would be coming, despite the fact that the official count was less than two-thirds complete.

With its irresponsible press release, the OAS itself actively “generated a loss of confidence in the electoral process.” The OAS statement emboldened a political opposition that had openly questioned the validity of the election even prior to the first vote being cast. Protests spread throughout the country:

The OAS observers confirmed that the violence forced the interruption of the [official count] in six departments: La Paz, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Potosí, Oruro and Beni. In Potosí, Pando and Tarija, the infrastructure of the Departmental Electoral Tribunal was completely burned, as were the facilities of the Civic Registry Service in Potosí and Chuquisaca.

Not until November 10 did the OAS even attempt to provide evidence to support their claim of a “drastic” and “inexplicable” trend change. One prominent statistician described their preliminary statistical analysis as “a joke.” In the meantime, our own analysis of the electoral data clearly showed that the fate of the election was foreseeable well before the “inexplicable change” revealed itself in the preliminary count. In so far as the trend did change, the swing toward Morales’s first-round victory was entirely predictable.

Absent an “inexplicable change” which “drastically modifies the fate of the election,” the whole OAS audit falls apart. It is the logical starting point for any analysis of the election. In this context, the significance of the OAS’s initial statement the day after the election cannot be understated.

That also means that the question of whether or not the OAS claim is supportable is bound to be contentious. So what do V&E have to say?

John Curiel and Jack R. Williams (C&W) claimed in The Washington Post to have “found no reason to suspect fraud.”

Given its narrow scope, the C&W study cannot, in fact, dispel doubts about the election’s fraud. Nonetheless, the researchers’ widely publicized blanket statement detonated in Bolivia like a cluster bomb …

Put aside the gross hyperbole. V&E misrepresent the headline — not even written by C&W. The full sentence reads “Our research found no reason to suspect fraud.” [emphasis added.] For their part, C&W emphasize the “narrow scope” of that research, writing:

We do not evaluate whether these irregularities point to deliberate interference — or reflect the problems of an underfunded system with poorly trained election officials. Instead, we comment on the statistical evidence. [emphasis added.]

So yes, neither the report by C&W nor their piece in the Monkey Cage proves there was no fraud. C&W did not set out to prove there was no fraud — merely to investigate whether the data supported a specific claim by the OAS. There is no amount of analysis that can suffice to prove there was no fraud. Neither expanding the scope of the analysis, nor changing any underlying assumptions, can possibly overcome this impossible hurdle. And C&W nowhere imply that they have.

However, C&W do raise doubts about the OAS allegations of fraud to the extent that they are conditioned on the supposedly “inexplicable change.” V&E simply attempt to shift the burden of proof. But the burden of proof absolutely must lie with those alleging fraud. Otherwise, mere allegation — impossible to disprove —will on its own suffice to invalidate an election. This is clearly intolerable.

Even if sufficient, credible, evidence for fraud is found, that is not sufficient by itself to overturn an election. If evidence against a particular person is established, that person should face legal consequences. But even an election with established fraud must not be overturned unless the legally cast ballots would point to a different outcome. In this light, there are two questions: is there credible evidence of fraud, and what impact might it have had on the election?

Despite its obvious importance to the overall fraud narrative, V&E criticize C&W for focusing “on the vote-reporting blackout on election night ― a single event that had little to do with structural fraud.”

This is especially comical as Escobari (along with his coauthor Gary Hoover) have an entire paper based exclusively on the premise that the “blackout” permitted them to “estimate the size of voting fraud” by comparing results before and after the interruption. V&E even cite that paper, claiming that they “found statistically significant evidence of fraud.”

V&E move the goalposts. The overriding concern regarding the election is whether or not the legitimate votes sufficiently favored Morales to warrant a first-round victory. Because the official results showed Morales winning by more than one vote, the size of the alleged fraud matters much more than the statistical significance.

However, even in that paper, Escobari and Hoover (E&H) in no way found evidence of fraud. “Fraud” in their paper is a simple catch-all for any difference between the pre- and post-“blackout” vote that their models fail to explain. Specifically, the model that E&H favor fails to account for any differences between votes counted before and after the interruption — except for the fact of the timing. That is, they do not even attempt in that model to explain why the late votes favored Morales more heavily than the early votes.

Once they do account for geographic differences (municipality and precinct controls) they find that these are sufficient to entirely explain how the late break for Morales put him over the 10 percent margin required to claim victory in the first round. This confirms — not contradicts — C&W. Their results affirm what we have argued since October 22: that the change in trend was entirely predictable.

V&E also cite the work of Rómulo Chumacero as “robust” support for their argument. We are still in the process of attempting to reproduce those results, but several of his summary tables appear to show that geography explained the late votes that delivered Morales’s first-round victory. Unlike the OAS, Chumacero has so far cooperated in responding to substantive questions about his methodology critical for reproducing his results.

Nevertheless, V&E diminish findings that geography accounts for the change in trend:

[L]ack of evidence of trend-change after the TREP blackout is not evidence of an absence of fraud. If fraud was already baked into the 84% of votes reported before the interruption, then C&W’s results suggesting no shift in trend when reporting resumed are incapable of shedding light on the existence of fraud before the blackout.

This is pure burden-shifting. C&W properly address OAS allegations about the shift in trend. But there is no evidence of fraud “baked into the 84%” either. The OAS provides none; V&E provide none. There is no analysis that may be performed to satisfy V&E in this regard; by their own logic, lack of evidence is not evidence of an absence. It is up to V&E or the OAS to provide proof.

Still, if we take V&E seriously here, then we must also account for the fact that evidence is lacking that there was no fraud in favor of the opposition baked into the 84 percent. We may just as easily suggest that Morales’s victory was close only because the opposition committed fraud. Simply making the suggestion does not make it credible. Surely, E&H would not accept this suggestion to be a valid critique of their work. Why is V&E’s argument of C&W any more valid? In any case, the entirety of E&H’s analysis is conditioned on the idea that the 84 percent is clean. Absent that assumption, E&H’s analysis offers nothing.

V&E further call out C&W for comparing late-counted precincts to similarly sized precincts counted early. Yet they merely suggest that this could be a problem “[i]f electoral fraud is easier to engineer in small precincts.” Again, there lies the unstated assumption that such fraud would be in support of Morales. The presumption of guilt persists.

Nevertheless, the OAS levered the suspicion of fraud — suspicion it helped manufacture and promote — into a demonstrably unbalanced audit of the election. The OAS restricted much of the focus of its audit exclusively on MAS-heavy geographic areas with no consideration to the possibility of irregularities occurring elsewhere. Having (inevitably) found irregularities, the OAS pointed to the fact that these areas heavily favored MAS as evidence that the irregularities themselves benefited MAS.

This would be circular logic if the last step held at all. Consider that such a presumption of benefit — even if the OAS had audited more broadly — would actually reward the opposition for spoiling tally sheets where Morales performed best. More importantly, the OAS provides no specific evidence that the legitimate votes cast on the 226 tally sheets it identified as “irregular” should look less favorable to Morales than the official results indicated — let alone to a degree sufficient to invalidate the results. In fact, what we discovered was that the results reported on these 226 tally sheets look almost exactly the same as the non-irregular tally sheets from the same voting centers.

Again, V&E start from a supposition of guilt, stating, “the fact that Morales was even on the ballot at all last October indicated that fraud was afoot.” V&E may not like that the “Constitutional Court caved in” by allowing Morales to run in the 2019 election. It may even suffice to make opponents vigilant in hopes of securing the integrity of the election, but it cannot possibly indicate fraud.

They continue, writing:

In addition, the preponderance of evidence that has since emerged points to rampant electoral fraud. An audit by the Organization of American States (OAS) revealed major irregularities and manipulation, including falsification of poll officials’ signatures, altered tally sheets and databases, and a broken chain of custody. Most damning of all, the transmission of voting data was redirected to two unauthorized hidden servers.

We discuss these concerns in our report, but neither V&E nor the OAS provide any credible evidence that these irregularities in any way favored Morales, let alone were part of a coordinated attempt to manipulate the electoral results. According to the public reports of both private contractors involved in the election, the TSE actually believed at the time that fraud was being committed against Morales.

Even the “broken chain of custody” concerns raised by the OAS included opposition protesters burning electoral materials. The OAS used this to cast doubt on the election results saying this hindered their ability to verify the results. That may be true, but it is the height of chutzpah to accuse electoral authorities of manipulating the election by pointing to opposition destruction of electoral materials. V&E go even further and actually point to this destruction as evidence of fraud.

There is no credible evidence that Morales failed to win by the necessary margin based exclusively on legitimate votes. V&E have no basis for criticizing C&W — who make no claims unsupported by their research. V&E don’t even disagree substantially with the findings of C&W. Rather, V&E must accurately report what others argue and quit pretending that their inability to model the election results justifies their cries of fraud.

Ultimately, the most important thing is whether or not the actions taken by the OAS were justified. By denying the clearest explanation for the change in trend, using that ignorance to conduct a completely biased audit of the election, and then misrepresenting the report’s findings as proof of fraud, the record is clear: the OAS’s actions have been consistently irresponsible.

Guilty until proven innocent. That appears to be the electoral fraud approach favored by Walter D. Valdivia and Diego Escobari in their recent piece in Project Syndicate. It is also the exact approach the Organization of American States (OAS) had a responsibility to avoid in their audit of the October 2019 Bolivian election. As we write in our response to the OAS, citing the International Foundation for Electoral Systems:

[A]n audit that results from a losing candidate’s allegations of fraud means “that the election commission is starting from a position of weakness … Essentially, the electoral process is considered guilty until proven innocent, often undermining public confidence in the electoral system.” [emphasis added.]

Let us preface this with some very important context that Valdivia and Escobari (V&E) left out of their piece. On October 21, 2019 — the day after the election, and as the official counting of the votes had only begun — the OAS put out a press release asserting that the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE)

presented [preliminary count] data with an inexplicable change in trend that drastically modifies the fate of the election and generates a loss of confidence in the electoral process. [emphasis added.]

The OAS went so far as to presume that a second round in the presidential election would be coming, despite the fact that the official count was less than two-thirds complete.

With its irresponsible press release, the OAS itself actively “generated a loss of confidence in the electoral process.” The OAS statement emboldened a political opposition that had openly questioned the validity of the election even prior to the first vote being cast. Protests spread throughout the country:

The OAS observers confirmed that the violence forced the interruption of the [official count] in six departments: La Paz, Cochabamba, Chuquisaca, Potosí, Oruro and Beni. In Potosí, Pando and Tarija, the infrastructure of the Departmental Electoral Tribunal was completely burned, as were the facilities of the Civic Registry Service in Potosí and Chuquisaca.

Not until November 10 did the OAS even attempt to provide evidence to support their claim of a “drastic” and “inexplicable” trend change. One prominent statistician described their preliminary statistical analysis as “a joke.” In the meantime, our own analysis of the electoral data clearly showed that the fate of the election was foreseeable well before the “inexplicable change” revealed itself in the preliminary count. In so far as the trend did change, the swing toward Morales’s first-round victory was entirely predictable.

Absent an “inexplicable change” which “drastically modifies the fate of the election,” the whole OAS audit falls apart. It is the logical starting point for any analysis of the election. In this context, the significance of the OAS’s initial statement the day after the election cannot be understated.

That also means that the question of whether or not the OAS claim is supportable is bound to be contentious. So what do V&E have to say?

John Curiel and Jack R. Williams (C&W) claimed in The Washington Post to have “found no reason to suspect fraud.”

Given its narrow scope, the C&W study cannot, in fact, dispel doubts about the election’s fraud. Nonetheless, the researchers’ widely publicized blanket statement detonated in Bolivia like a cluster bomb …

Put aside the gross hyperbole. V&E misrepresent the headline — not even written by C&W. The full sentence reads “Our research found no reason to suspect fraud.” [emphasis added.] For their part, C&W emphasize the “narrow scope” of that research, writing:

We do not evaluate whether these irregularities point to deliberate interference — or reflect the problems of an underfunded system with poorly trained election officials. Instead, we comment on the statistical evidence. [emphasis added.]

So yes, neither the report by C&W nor their piece in the Monkey Cage proves there was no fraud. C&W did not set out to prove there was no fraud — merely to investigate whether the data supported a specific claim by the OAS. There is no amount of analysis that can suffice to prove there was no fraud. Neither expanding the scope of the analysis, nor changing any underlying assumptions, can possibly overcome this impossible hurdle. And C&W nowhere imply that they have.

However, C&W do raise doubts about the OAS allegations of fraud to the extent that they are conditioned on the supposedly “inexplicable change.” V&E simply attempt to shift the burden of proof. But the burden of proof absolutely must lie with those alleging fraud. Otherwise, mere allegation — impossible to disprove —will on its own suffice to invalidate an election. This is clearly intolerable.

Even if sufficient, credible, evidence for fraud is found, that is not sufficient by itself to overturn an election. If evidence against a particular person is established, that person should face legal consequences. But even an election with established fraud must not be overturned unless the legally cast ballots would point to a different outcome. In this light, there are two questions: is there credible evidence of fraud, and what impact might it have had on the election?

Despite its obvious importance to the overall fraud narrative, V&E criticize C&W for focusing “on the vote-reporting blackout on election night ― a single event that had little to do with structural fraud.”

This is especially comical as Escobari (along with his coauthor Gary Hoover) have an entire paper based exclusively on the premise that the “blackout” permitted them to “estimate the size of voting fraud” by comparing results before and after the interruption. V&E even cite that paper, claiming that they “found statistically significant evidence of fraud.”

V&E move the goalposts. The overriding concern regarding the election is whether or not the legitimate votes sufficiently favored Morales to warrant a first-round victory. Because the official results showed Morales winning by more than one vote, the size of the alleged fraud matters much more than the statistical significance.

However, even in that paper, Escobari and Hoover (E&H) in no way found evidence of fraud. “Fraud” in their paper is a simple catch-all for any difference between the pre- and post-“blackout” vote that their models fail to explain. Specifically, the model that E&H favor fails to account for any differences between votes counted before and after the interruption — except for the fact of the timing. That is, they do not even attempt in that model to explain why the late votes favored Morales more heavily than the early votes.

Once they do account for geographic differences (municipality and precinct controls) they find that these are sufficient to entirely explain how the late break for Morales put him over the 10 percent margin required to claim victory in the first round. This confirms — not contradicts — C&W. Their results affirm what we have argued since October 22: that the change in trend was entirely predictable.

V&E also cite the work of Rómulo Chumacero as “robust” support for their argument. We are still in the process of attempting to reproduce those results, but several of his summary tables appear to show that geography explained the late votes that delivered Morales’s first-round victory. Unlike the OAS, Chumacero has so far cooperated in responding to substantive questions about his methodology critical for reproducing his results.

Nevertheless, V&E diminish findings that geography accounts for the change in trend:

[L]ack of evidence of trend-change after the TREP blackout is not evidence of an absence of fraud. If fraud was already baked into the 84% of votes reported before the interruption, then C&W’s results suggesting no shift in trend when reporting resumed are incapable of shedding light on the existence of fraud before the blackout.

This is pure burden-shifting. C&W properly address OAS allegations about the shift in trend. But there is no evidence of fraud “baked into the 84%” either. The OAS provides none; V&E provide none. There is no analysis that may be performed to satisfy V&E in this regard; by their own logic, lack of evidence is not evidence of an absence. It is up to V&E or the OAS to provide proof.

Still, if we take V&E seriously here, then we must also account for the fact that evidence is lacking that there was no fraud in favor of the opposition baked into the 84 percent. We may just as easily suggest that Morales’s victory was close only because the opposition committed fraud. Simply making the suggestion does not make it credible. Surely, E&H would not accept this suggestion to be a valid critique of their work. Why is V&E’s argument of C&W any more valid? In any case, the entirety of E&H’s analysis is conditioned on the idea that the 84 percent is clean. Absent that assumption, E&H’s analysis offers nothing.

V&E further call out C&W for comparing late-counted precincts to similarly sized precincts counted early. Yet they merely suggest that this could be a problem “[i]f electoral fraud is easier to engineer in small precincts.” Again, there lies the unstated assumption that such fraud would be in support of Morales. The presumption of guilt persists.

Nevertheless, the OAS levered the suspicion of fraud — suspicion it helped manufacture and promote — into a demonstrably unbalanced audit of the election. The OAS restricted much of the focus of its audit exclusively on MAS-heavy geographic areas with no consideration to the possibility of irregularities occurring elsewhere. Having (inevitably) found irregularities, the OAS pointed to the fact that these areas heavily favored MAS as evidence that the irregularities themselves benefited MAS.

This would be circular logic if the last step held at all. Consider that such a presumption of benefit — even if the OAS had audited more broadly — would actually reward the opposition for spoiling tally sheets where Morales performed best. More importantly, the OAS provides no specific evidence that the legitimate votes cast on the 226 tally sheets it identified as “irregular” should look less favorable to Morales than the official results indicated — let alone to a degree sufficient to invalidate the results. In fact, what we discovered was that the results reported on these 226 tally sheets look almost exactly the same as the non-irregular tally sheets from the same voting centers.

Again, V&E start from a supposition of guilt, stating, “the fact that Morales was even on the ballot at all last October indicated that fraud was afoot.” V&E may not like that the “Constitutional Court caved in” by allowing Morales to run in the 2019 election. It may even suffice to make opponents vigilant in hopes of securing the integrity of the election, but it cannot possibly indicate fraud.

They continue, writing:

In addition, the preponderance of evidence that has since emerged points to rampant electoral fraud. An audit by the Organization of American States (OAS) revealed major irregularities and manipulation, including falsification of poll officials’ signatures, altered tally sheets and databases, and a broken chain of custody. Most damning of all, the transmission of voting data was redirected to two unauthorized hidden servers.

We discuss these concerns in our report, but neither V&E nor the OAS provide any credible evidence that these irregularities in any way favored Morales, let alone were part of a coordinated attempt to manipulate the electoral results. According to the public reports of both private contractors involved in the election, the TSE actually believed at the time that fraud was being committed against Morales.

Even the “broken chain of custody” concerns raised by the OAS included opposition protesters burning electoral materials. The OAS used this to cast doubt on the election results saying this hindered their ability to verify the results. That may be true, but it is the height of chutzpah to accuse electoral authorities of manipulating the election by pointing to opposition destruction of electoral materials. V&E go even further and actually point to this destruction as evidence of fraud.

There is no credible evidence that Morales failed to win by the necessary margin based exclusively on legitimate votes. V&E have no basis for criticizing C&W — who make no claims unsupported by their research. V&E don’t even disagree substantially with the findings of C&W. Rather, V&E must accurately report what others argue and quit pretending that their inability to model the election results justifies their cries of fraud.

Ultimately, the most important thing is whether or not the actions taken by the OAS were justified. By denying the clearest explanation for the change in trend, using that ignorance to conduct a completely biased audit of the election, and then misrepresenting the report’s findings as proof of fraud, the record is clear: the OAS’s actions have been consistently irresponsible.

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