Non-technical summary The significant outlays by countries in the Global South to recover from the COVID-19 crisis could have been an opportunity to build back better, advancing both a green recovery and addressing pressing social problems, thus advancing sustainability. To examine if this was the case, in this paper we analyze the expected impacts of recovery initiatives in five Latin American countries. Our results show that these programs do not support the possibility of building back better, weakly impacting 12 dimensions related to sustainability. We also propose a methodology to improve how sustainability concerns can be included in future choice of projects. Technical summary It has been argued that the significant outlays by governments across the world required to recover from the COVID-19 crisis can be an opportunity to build back better, that is, advance toward greener societies. In the Global South, which suffered acute social, economic and environmental problems prior to this health crisis, recovery initiatives would be best suited to focus on sustainable economic recovery which - along with the environmental concerns of a green recovery - could address pressing local problems. To this end, we analyzed the expected impacts of recovery initiatives in five Latin American countries on each of 71 sustainability criteria. These criteria are based on the UN sustainable development goals and other relevant literature related to sustainable development. Using principal component analysis, criteria are grouped into 12 dimensions. Our results show that recovery programs examined do not take advantage of the possibility of building back better, and many relevant dimensions related to a sustainable recovery are only weakly considered. Our methodology provides a step forward toward supporting governments in their efforts to identify better policies and investment projects and consequently put together packages of initiatives that advance on sustainability, green recovery or other long-term goals they may have. Social media summary Methodology to analyze COVID-19 recovery packages shows small impact on sustainability in five Latin American countries.