Throwing Fuel on the Fire in South America

By Pablo Stefanoni on June 2, 2020

Photo: Juan Barreto

Latin America is becoming the new epicenter of the pandemic. The arrival of coronavirus in the area’s poorest neighborhoods threatens to intensify the pre-existing political, economic, and social problems, though with different nuances particular to each country, the health crisis soon will lead to a reality as unstable as it is explosive.

Is South America headed toward a “new normality?” Or is the pandemic of COVID-19 just a tragic parenthesis in its “usual normality?”  Will there be socio-political effects with long- reaching significance, or merely short term political consequences?  It’s too soon to know, but a look at the region shows that the struggle against the pandemic is blocked by the pre-existing problems and the pre-existing difficulties of dealing with them: Decayed health care systems, that are vastly unequal from country to country, high numbers of people working outside the usual labor market, over-crowding, inadequate State resources, lack of regional responses and a growing international irrelevance.  As officials of the World Health Organization state, Latin America is becoming a new epicenter of the pandemic.

As a response to COVID-19, governments have decided to apply stay-at -home orders – with different degrees of militarization -, social services- including in some cases temporary basic income supports -, assistance to businesses and stores and improvised efforts to update hospitals and quarantine centers for those who test positive.

Unlike Europe, we can say that the dilemma in South America is not strictly between health and economy, but rather between health and social explosions.  We are nearing a scenario even worse than that which preceded the pandemic, which was already bad enough: the Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL) – Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean – foresees a 5.3% contraction of the regional GNP and the IMF is talking about a new “lost decade.”  On top of this we can add, as a direct consequence a severe increase in unemployment and inequality.  To complicate things still further, most of the presidents are far from having a solid base of social approval to confront new cycles of political instability, which the pandemic has postponed at least for now, as in Chile, Bolivia and Colombia.

The outer margins of the great cities are potentially explosive territories.  In these densely populated spaces, the slogan “stay at home” conflicts with daily reality, not only because extended families live in crowded conditions and need to have income, but because many of the things that middle-class people do at home, like eat or get water, often have to be done in common spaces due to lack or resources.  Because of this, although the “stay at home” was converted to “stay in the neighborhood, after much delay, as in the case of the over-crowded poor areas in Argentina, as a form of unplanned community quarantine while they tried to expand testing on an emergency basis.

In the case of Brazil social isolation in the favelas is unworkable, as much from the point of view of housing conditions, as from the fact that, unlike the middle and upper classes, the ways of living expand beyond the four walls of the house,” pointed out the Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional, (Social and Educational Assistance Organisms Federation), a Brazilian NGO.

In Peru with almost half of the workers functioning outside the formal labor economy, quarantines have become of necessity flexible.  Almost 89% of the merchants in the Fruit Wholesale Market in Lima who were tested by rapid testing methods were positive.  In Bolivia and Chile there were protests in public spaces and in Ecuador the demonstrators threatened a “new October” in reference to the violent protests in 2019 about the increase in fuel prices. Many anticipate a “tragedy” if the virus arrives in the hills of the city of Valparaiso, one of the new COVID-19 focal areas.

“When the coronavirus pandemic gets into the working-class barrios of the great Latin American cities, it will be entering for the first time in an unknown world of profound poverty, chronic hunger, sub-standard housing without water supply, and chronic unemployment, in areas already afflicted with dengue, and tuberculosis,” wrote Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi.

Consumerism was not enough.

Although it is attractive to consider this current crisis as a cleavage of progressivism/neoliberalism, the reality, as so often occurs, is a little more complicated. Without a doubt, there were significant reductions in poverty during the “swing to the left” especially during the first five years of the decade starting in 2000, especially in increases to the minimum wage and the policies of direct transfer of income.  But these initiatives not only coincided with the commodities boom, but also did not have, as a counterpoint an improvement in the abilities of the state to build systems of social protection. In the case of Venezuela, the health system sunk into a profound crisis, in the context of a broader decline in the social and economic model.  In Bolivia, where the macro-economic management was diametrically opposite to that of Venezuela, and even gave rise to talk of an “economic miracle” with an average yearly growth rate of 5%, health care was one of the primary issues for the Evo Morales government.  Recently toward the end of his time in office which was terminated abruptly by a military coup in the middle of a political crisis, the Bolivian president tried to improve the health system in a hurried and disorganized manner, under social pressure.

Brazil, another example of “social inclusion,” of enormous dimensions under the governments of the Partido de los Trabajadores (Workers’ Party), also showed the limits of this model in terms of the Welfare State. Social protection expert Lena Lavinas summarized it like this: “In the case of Brazil, social policy acted to consolidate the model of consumerist social development through access to the financial system. The novelty of the social development model lies in its having instituted the logic of the financing of the whole system of social protection, whether by access to the credit marketplace, or by expansion of private health plans, educational credit, etc. They were years of promotion of an aggressive strategy of financial inclusion.” Meanwhile, the public health system, under-financed for decades, now has collapsed.

In almost all cases, the progressive cycle encouraged a more democratic access to consumption, more than the construction of solid systems of social protection and quality public services, like transportation, health and housing.  Many of these deficiencies are sharply increased now in post-popularist contexts in which governments with shades of going back to the old regimes and with reactionary programs have been installed in countries like Brazil and Bolivia, or as expressed in a nuanced manner in the interim administration of Mauricio Macri in Argentina.

Today we are present for a world-wide “sudden socialism” caused by the “nervousness of governments” in John Keane’s words, which do not lack irony.  This has caused governments to relax their orthodox fiscal policies and put money in the pockets of businesses and people, with or without belief in this.   Alberto Fernandez decided on a one-time payment of 10,000 pesos to casual workers and “simplified tax-payers” and Jair Bolsonaro approved a basic income of 600 reales (a bit more than $100) for three months for casual workers. “This way they will have resources over the next three months to confront the first wave of impact, the health problem. There will be another wave that threatens us, that of the coming apart of the economy,” said the Minister of Economy, Paulo Gedes, a Chicago Boy who worked with the advisors of Pinochet during the 70’s and who today, under pressure from the pandemic, seems more prone to be flexible  and open up the stretchers.  Peru dedicated between 9 and 12% of its GNP to help people who lost their jobs or self-employment and to the businesses that had no income due to the emergency. This has not prevented the country from having close to 4000 dead, with the virus spreading at dangerous speed.

And Politics?

One of the effects of the pandemic was to get protesters out of the streets, postpone the dates of elections, and, depending on the situation either depolarizes or aggravates the political scenario.  In the case of Chile, the COVID-19 pandemic gave a breathing space to the likes of Sebastian Piñera, who was going through his term like martyrdom, confronted with explosive social insubordination, one of the results of which was to cause a constitutional referendum to be scheduled to replace the Pinochet dictatorship’s legal system.  But if during the first stage Chile seemed to be a case in which success legitimated the “strategic and flexible” confinements imposed by government and the occupation of the streets by militants, as the situation became worse, they had to back-track and declare a stricter quarantine. In this way, we see the limits of a system like that of Argentina, where they sought to combat the coronavirus with a lot of testing but without quarantine. Anyone on this side of the Andes who was praising the Chilean policy quickly went on to extol that of Uruguay.

Bolivia was also “frozen” in a situation that was moving at a frantic political rate after the overthrow of Evo Morales last November. President Jean Añez is faced with the decay of her image due to the spread of the pandemic which has impacted the eastern part of the country, where she is from, disproportionately. The case of over-pricing in the purchase of  respirators lead to the resignation and arrest of the Minister of Health,  Marcelo Navajas, in record time, and put this government, not elected by popular vote, on the ropes.  With about 30% of the firm vote, the ex-Minister of Economy of the Evo Morales government, Luis Arce Catacora, is seeking to capitalize on the popular discontent while the electoral calendar is being argued over.  Without a social climate calling for the return of the ex-President, currently in exile in Buenos Aires, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) (Movement Toward Socialism) will seek to capitalize on their management of the economy and overcome what before the crisis of November had been perceived as the exhaustion of a power that had lasted for a decade and a half.

Meanwhile, Brazil in large measure demonstrates the discouraging regional climate. It was once the driving force behind South American integration; it now has become the elephant in a china shop, governed by a negativist president who puts the very co-existence of those in the republic at risk. Jair Bolsonaro is making his way through three super-imposed crises: political, economic, and health.  Political and judicial conspiracies after the exit of Minister Sergio Moro from the cabinet, a fall in the GNP estimated at 5%, and statistics of coronavirus that estimate 400,000 cases detected and 25,000 deaths color a process that, as Andre Singer said, is based on a “permanent radicalization.” With the support of one-third of the population, Bolsonaro manages the government in the key of “cultural war.” The attempt to impose ideology on the pandemic led him to declare ironically, with big laughs, that “the right-wing takes chloroquine, while the left has Tubaina “, comparing the medication promoted by the French infectious disease expert Didier Raoult, now with questionable results, with a soft-drink popular in San Pablo. As a sub plot, a growing military influence and a possible authoritarian drift is noted in a government that is the nearest Latin American equivalent to the Alt-Right.

The case of Venezuela is, as always, special. Possibly due to its previous international isolation, the country continues without being severely hit by the pandemic. Its “new normality” includes a gasoline shortage, with the direction of contraband now reversed – from Colombia to Venezuela, a de facto dollarization of the economy and new opposition adventures against it like the attempt at invasion by sea of the 3rd and 4th of May, a bizarre operation carried out by a Miami outfit with deserters from the Venezuelan Armed Forces whose death throes further eroded the credibility of the self-proclaimed president in charge Juan Guiado.

In a setting of fragmentation and uncertainty, South America is faced with a shortage of leaders with regional aspirations as well as political vision directed toward the future. In a world where, one way or another, ways of adapting to the post-pandemic environment must be discussed, the exhaustion of the “swing to the Left” and the failure of the neo-liberal Right-wing make possibly make this a situation where the ‘new normality” in South America consists of temporary and improvised responses to the total crisis, with renewed risks of political instability and “firefighter presidents” who try to put out the fires.  A lot depends on how the global “great plague” develops in our region, which depends on many variables and a little bit of luck, as we have seen.

Source: Rebelion, translation, Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau