SIXTEEN LATIN AMERICAN countries severely restricted their borders in mid-March, creating a physical firewall against the coronavirus that they hope will allow them to avoid the fate of countries such as Italy, Spain, and the United States, Nine nations--Honduras, Colombia, Suriname, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina--have closed their borders completely, leaving many travelers and foreign citizens trapped for the foreseeable future.
The most dramatic closure occurred in Colombia, which for years had maintained an open border with Venezuela amid the worst refugee crisis in modern Latin American history. Since 2015, over 6 million Venezuelans have fled their collapsing state, mostly through Colombia, where 1.7 million have taken up permanent residency. That is no longer a legal option, and the closure has put millions along the Colombian-Venezuelan border at the mercy of armed gangs who control informal smuggling paths.
"We have no choice," an immigration official told Reason in March. "Colombia is not a rich country. If Italy and the U.S. can't handle the virus, how can we?"
"I AM A strong critic of the authoritarian government" of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, says Jihan Simon Hasbun, a doctor and political activist in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. "But our health system almost collapsed under a dengue [fever] outbreak last year. Coronavirus is much more contagious and statistically much more deadly." At the same time, Hasbun believes Hernandez is using the COVID-19 outbreak to distract from accusations of government corruption and drug trafficking and to quash protests against privatization of the medical sector.
Honduras isn't the only country in the region taking advantage of the crisis. In the latest of a series of eyebrow-raising authoritarian actions, the unelected interim government of Bolivia indefinitely postponed national elections that were scheduled for May 3. In Colombia, the government's response to prisoners who rioted out of fear of infection left 23 people dead.
The mandatory national lockdowns in 12 countries, which allow citizens to leave their houses only to buy food or medicine, have been enforced with fines, arrests, and even deportations. In Ecuador, the military was put in charge of quarantine enforcement for an entire city. Meanwhile, the sudden halt in economic activity has left millions of working-class citizens across the region unemployed-people who were already living day-to-day...