Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront
With the relatively recent arrival of the ‘Coronavirus’ to the region, the chronic failure of neoliberal economic and social planning and development models and strategies to reduce poverty and provide sustainable and equitable, or even remotely viable, development paths has surpassed critical levels. The severe inequalities in wealth, land ownership, political representation and economic opportunities which have been endemic throughout the evolution and development of almost all countries in the region have arrived to extremes of historic proportions.
The dramatic impact of the virus on political, economic and social systems and activities, in many cases leading to their complete breakdown and collapse – it remains to be seen for how long – has thrown into sharp relief the multitude of unresolved social, economic and political crises and catastrophes. It has also resulted in the accelerated proliferation of autonomous alternative economic and community development projects and deepened social resistance and solidarity across the region as communities have realized that in many cases they cannot count on any assistance from the government or the ‘free market’ to meet their most basic and pressing needs and elaborate and execute adequate responses to contain the spread of the Coronavirus and deal with the devastating consequences.
In most countries the traditional ruling political and economic elites continue to follow the same basic strategies and objectives, formulated within exclusive and privileged sectors and networks and then imposed from above with increasingly oppressive methods by almost all governments in the region in collaboration with the political and financial power centres in the US and Europe. This has provoked an exponential growth in the quantity, complexity and scope of alternative economic and social development plans and projects at all levels – local/ community, national and regional/ international. Emerging networks of international solidarity, mutual support and cooperation amongst community and other civil society organizations, sectors and social movements have also become much more proactive and determined.
While each country has its own particularities and balance of internal and external forces, all are struggling to adjust to the latest and probably the gravest external shock in modern times. The abrupt interruption and subsequent collapse of grossly overextended and cumbersome globalized systems and supply chains that underpin almost all of the most essential functions in each society, and the consequent scarcity of even the most basic and essential goods and services within a very short period of time, has demonstrated most emphatically their vulnerability and inadequacy.
In addition to the distinctive political, social and economic features and dynamics that characterise each country in the region and will influence how future developments play out, the underlying geopolitical situation cannot be ignored. Since the Second World War the United States has systematically cultivated institutionalised relations of political, economic, military and technological dominance throughout the region, in part by emphasizing bilateral relations with each country and at the same time discouraging any form of regional integration and cooperation other than in the form of agreements and institutions that are constituted in accordance with the interests and objectives of leadership of the United States.
Socorro Ramírez (“The Colombian Conflict and its interaction with the crises of its neighbours”, in RET, 2004, “Dimensiones territoriales de la guerra y de la paz”) has examined the characteristics and consequences of this strategy in the context of the social and armed conflict in Colombia, concluding that the hegemony of the United States in the region has been facilitated and empowered by the tendency of the traditional ruling classes in each country to view relations with their neighbours in zero sum terms.
“Far from seeking to establish a joint response to the Colombian conflict, each country has limited itself to protecting itself from the impacts of the conflict and denouncing its effects within and beyond the region… Expecting a different attitude from the governments or the states of neighbouring countries is highly improbable, as each of them are faced with their own problems which tend to prevent international solidarity, such as economic instability, political uncertainty and social turbulence. This has contributed to the fragmentation of their societies, the weakness of their States and governments and the drastic reduction in their already limited margins of external action and cooperation; moreover, the problems in any one of the countries could encounter unexpected resonances in neighbouring countries. These national crises and the crisis in regional integration and cooperation have to do with the difficult and precarious nature of insertions into international relations. Each country tried to transfer some of its costs to its nearest neighbours. Rather than interesting themselves in supporting their counterparts in the region or opposing situations that could affect them, the difficulties of others are perceived as opportunities to take advantage of the vulnerability of the competitor.
There still don’t exist reciprocal interdependencies between the Andean countries sufficient to pressure the search for joint solutions, even if they don’t necessarily generate coincidence in interests and objectives. Globalization has generated greater competition rather than the establishment of complementary relations, even among countries that have been members of agreements and organizations promoting regional integration for over thirty years. Furthermore, in terms of topics and activities of shared concern – such as drugs – each country is implicated in a different manner and has distinct interests and perspectives; there are few loyalties in dealings among economic and security rivals.
Rather, each one has tried to take advantage of its bilateral relations with the United States, even knowing how counter-productive such bilateral efforts confronting the drug phenomenon have been and that they can generate effects on their neighbours. Nor have the efforts to promote integration among the Andean countries generated social, cultural or political bonds capable of projecting joint actions in response to shared medium and long term interests and objectives or developing pressure for new perspectives that enable the problems of all to be addressed in an effective manner. The sub-regional accords and organizations for integration or the elaboration of common regional policies have not managed to identify or construct common visions, objectives or agendas, much less develop forms of interaction more in accordance with the emergencies affecting the region. Above all, the United States continues to be the priority economic and political partner of all of the Andean countries, which limits the construction of meaningful cooperation between neighbouring countries in order to resolve their common problems or to establish a joint international presence and strategy.
As a result, the effects that the conflict in Colombia has had on its neighbours, its interactions with the crises that have occurred in the other Andean countries, the defensive responses of these countries and the priority conceded by the governments of Andres Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe to seeking the support of Washington have permitted the United States to establish a unilateral form of control over all initiatives taken in relation to the national armed confrontation. This strengthens the successful efforts of Washington to confront and respond to the crisis in the region from its own perspective, to put in place its own plans and objectives in relations with each country, secure extensive military involvement in the anti-drug combat, generate differences between neighbouring countries and impede the development of a common policy with respect to the Colombian and regional crisis, internationalize the Colombian conflict and other crises affecting the region with Plan Colombia and the Regional Andean Initiative, and impose a unilateral/ bilateral policy in relation to drugs, access to NAFTA and, to some extent, to the creation of ALCA…”
Ramirez’ analysis remains as valid today in relation to responses to the latest crises in the region as when it was written. Following the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998 many countries throughout the region experienced a decade of growing independence from the dictates of the United States and instead pursued regional integration based on cooperation and mutual benefit, before the US succeeded in neutralizing and reversing the phenomenon. Hector Bernardo (“Análisis. América Latina y la avanzada neocolonial” – “Analysis: Latin America and the neo-colonial advance”, Resumen Latinoamericano, 8 September 2018) summarizes the rapid advance of a revitalized national and regional liberation movement in the region and its subsequent demise:
“The permanent focus of popular resistance represented by the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel and Raúl Castro, was reinforced in the first decade of the twenty-first century by the arrival of Hugo Chávez (Venezuela, 1998), Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva (Brazil, 2003), Néstor Kirchner (Argentina, 2003), Tabaré Vázquez (Uruguay, 2005), Manuel Zelaya (Honduras, 2005), Evo Morales (Bolivia, 2006), Rafael Correa (Ecuador, 2007), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua , 2007), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay, 2008) and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (El Salvador, 2014). Popular processes that, in many cases, would find continuity and deepening with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (Argentina, 2007), José ‘Pepe’ Mujica (Uruguay, 2010), Dilma Rousseff (Brazil, 2011) and Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela, 2013).
The corner stone of this new era was laid on 5 November 2005, when in the Argentine city of Mar del Plata Hugo Chávez, Néstor Kirchner and Lula da Silva led the rejection of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)…
Regional integration began to materialize with the reformulation of the logic of the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR), the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of America (ALBA) was created in 2004, which would later be reformulated as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Treaty of Commerce of the Peoples (ALBA-TCP). In 2005 the Mercosur Parliament (PARLASUR) was founded, in 2008 the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and in 2010 the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)…
The failed attempts to carry out ‘regime change’ in Venezuela against Hugo Chávez (2002), in Bolivia against Evo Morales (2008), and in Ecuador against Rafael Correa (2010), were a demonstration and a forewarning of the coup d’états that would be executed in Honduras against Manuel Zelaya (2009), in Paraguay against Fernando Lugo (2012) and in Brazil against Dilma Rousseff (2016)…”
In both Mexico and Argentina the national government is in the early stages of its tenure and both have indicated their intention to pursue a more independent path (from the dictates of the US and the continued implementation of neoliberal policies). The government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico is attempting to rebuild national capacity and political and economic sovereignty after several decades of strict adherence to the Washington consensus and neoliberal policies that have systematically privatized and asset-stripped the country’s economy, infrastructure, land and natural resources and that embraced the ‘War on Drugs’ resulting in extreme levels of militarization, violence, corruption and the criminalization of broad swathes of society that have decimated State institutions and shredded the social fabric.
In Argentina the recently installed government of Alberto Fernandez is adopting a similar course, returning to the strategic foundations, policies and objectives that characterized the governments of Nestor Kirchner and Christina Fernandez (who is now vice-president) after four years of neoliberal policies and total submission to US policies and objectives (during the presidency of Mauricio Macri) which left the economy in ruins and a massively inflated foreign debt. In both cases available reports indicate that the new governments are attempting to implement these policies without directly confronting and provoking the economic elites in order to secure their cooperation and harness their financial and industrial capacity, and notwithstanding numerous flashpoints of confrontation and tension it seems that they enjoy substantial levels of popular support and approval for the moment.
In Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil the political, economic and social situations are particularly turbulent and threaten to spiral completely out of control. In Bolivia, the considerable gains achieved in terms of poverty reduction and building institutional and economic capacity and sovereignty during the presidency of Evo Morales dissipated within a few short months following his resignation at the insistence of the head of the armed forces, Williams Kaliman. The nominal head of the junta that subsequently assumed power (Jeanine Añez), sworn in in a ceremony presided over by Kaliman in absolute violation of all constitutional requirements and norms, was previously a senator in the national assembly, member of a political party that received less than 10% of the vote in the previous election (Unidad Demócrata – Democratic Unity). The interim ‘government’ of usurpers has indefinitely postponed elections that were to be held this month and is ruling arbitrarily by brute force.
At least six of the principal military collaborators in the coup were graduates of the School of the Americas. Similarly several of the commanders of the police forces, whose actions also directly enabled and subsequently actively supported the coup, had previously participated in the police exchange program APALA with their counterparts from the US. Kaliman, one of the former School of the Americas students, resigned within days of the coup d’état and immediately moved to the United States, reportedly after receiving one million dollars for his services from an official at the US Embassy (see “Bolivia. El golpista Kaliman se fue a los Estados Unidos con un millón de dolares”, Resumen Latinoamericano, 17 November 2019, and “Bolivia. Cúpula golpista recibió entrenamiento en la Escuela de las Américas”, Resumen Latinoamericano, 21 November 2019).
Chile, one of the staunchest US allies/ satellites in the region since the military coup and assassination of President Salvador Allende in 1972, has been in a state of social upheaval and rebellion against the government of Sebastian Piñera – and the prevailing neoliberal economic and elitist political models and conditions of the country more generally – for over five months. A constitutional assembly which was to have been convened to try to chart a solution to the social and political crisis has been indefinitely postponed due to the virus.
Although the situation in Ecuador has receded from the period of outright social rebellion provoked last year by an austerity package negotiated by the government of Lenin Morin with the IMF, it appears to be a temporary truce as the opposing forces are wary that escalating the simmering social conflicts could send the country over the abyss into complete social and economic breakdown. In each of these three countries (Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador) it appears that what remains of the State institutions are grossly unprepared and unequipped to deal with the pending outbreak of the Coronavirus.
The erratic response of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to the arrival of the virus in that country also has the potential to provoke a grave social and political crisis. Bolsonaro has denied the gravity of the threat posed by the virus and has repeatedly called on Brazilians to ignore the demands of some provincial governors to observe social isolation and quarantines, rejecting the adoption of such measures at the national level and raising the prospect that the virus could rapidly propagate to devastating proportions. His disparaging and provocative statements and actions have alienated many of his most important colleagues and allies, to the extent that some are suggesting there is a real possibility that he could be replaced by the vice-president Hamilton Mourao, a career military officer, notwithstanding the reluctance of the military.to intervene in a manner that would require them to assume direct responsibility (and therefore culpability) for the government’s actions. Several reports have suggested that Bolsonaro may have already been unofficially sidelined from taking any major policy decisions.
In Colombia, the government is taking the potential threat posed by the virus seriously and attempting to devise and implement comprehensive counter-measures, steps that most people are readily adopting, permitting cautious optimism that the virus can be contained notwithstanding the dilapidated condition of essential services and infrastructure in most parts of the country. The Colombian people have many generations of experience in responding to adversity and surviving sudden calamities. Although as in many other countries the first to receive support from the State were well-connected corporate interests, belated measures are being devised to assist less privileged Colombians and food packages are arriving to some communities. However, the government has rejected calls from the Venezuelan government to urgently establish bilateral mechanisms to jointly monitor and combat the spread of the virus, and remains an active and enthusiastic collaborator in the threats and provocations waged by the US government against Venezuela.
Counter-insurgency and forced eradication military activities continue in some parts of Colombia notwithstanding a unilateral ceasefire proclaimed by the ELN in order to facilitate preventing the spread of the virus, and the assassinations of social leaders have not diminished. (I had been conducting a low-key lobbying campaign for several years for a unit of the army corps of engineers to be deployed in the Tumaco region to modernise the water supply system – raising the possibility in numerous regional forums on land, development or politics – but it seems they are already over-extended building new fortifications around their already heavily fortified barracks. However, the World Bank has kindly stepped in and contracted a consortium from the US to upgrade and take over control of the aqueduct with a loan that Colombians will no doubt be paying back for many years to come).
The embattled government of Ivan Duque has gained a reprieve from the numerous scandals that were beginning to threaten the viability of his presidency – the proliferation of evidence suggesting widespread vote buying campaigns conducted by criminal groups in support of his presidential campaign, the investigation being conducted by the Supreme Court into allegations of criminal conduct by former president Alvaro Uribe – patron and mentor of the young president who has spent much of his adult life in the US (albeit very reluctantly it would appear – the reluctance of the Supreme Court is not surprising, as among other ominous related developments the magistrate responsible for the preliminary stage of the investigation into some of the allegations against Uribe has been subjected to a persistent and extremely menacing campaign of intimidation with several attempts by groups of heavily armed men to enter the apartment complex where he resides with his family, as well as the discovery of surveillance devices in his office, suggesting the involvement of elements within military intelligence or some other extremely well-equipped and connected group). These and other mounting scandals and challenges have been swept away for the moment as the mass media obsesses over every minor detail of the Coronavirus to the exclusion of anything else. The national strike and mass mobilization convened for the 25th of March was cancelled and almost all forms of social protest have been suspended for the moment.
With the controlled demolition of the efforts to build regional forums and institutions to promote measured steps and projects of cooperation and integration between countries throughout the region (in particular CELAC, UNASUR, MERCOSUR and ALBA) so that each country’s bilateral relationship with the United States remains determinative, there are great disparities in the commitment and capabilities of each country to confront the looming crisis, and efforts to elaborate a comprehensive and integrated regional strategy remain at point zero.
Throughout Latin America, many communities are rallying to find solutions in spite of rather than within the scope of the responses and actions of their national governments and other formal institutions. The chronic shortages, and the abject failure of governments and corporations to provide solutions to the most pressing needs of the vast majority of their people, has forced communities and social organizations to elaborate their own solutions with the utmost urgency. It has also refocussed attention on medium and long term measures to ensure that they are better prepared to confront such contingencies in the future: in particular shortening over-extended supply chains and increasing local and regional self-sufficiency, re-building the capacity of the nation to meet its own basic needs, as well as strengthening nascent bonds of solidarity, cooperation and mutual support and assistance at all levels.
In this context, social movements and popular organizations have proclaimed a declaration demanding their governments take comprehensive measures to confront the latest crisis and announcing their intention to take their own measures irrespective of how the governments react. The following text is a translation of the declaration which has received the support of a very large and diverse range of social organizations and movements throughout the region, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina (most of the organizations and agglomerations of social sectors and movements involved in the massive social mobilizations in Colombia over the last few years have signed on to the declaration):
“Latin America. Important declaration by the original peoples, Afro-descendants and popular organizations of the continent” (“América Latina. Importante llamamiento de los pueblos originarios, afrodescendientes y las organizaciones populares del continente”), Resumen Latinoamericano, 1 April 2020
“The global crisis caused by the COVID-19 represents a crossroads for the peoples of Abya Yala – Latin America. Popular organizations are the first line of resistance against the worst manifestations of the decomposing system:
We are going through a systemic crisis that threatens life in all its forms. COVID-19 became a pandemic at a time of deepening of the capitalist crisis and of repeated attempts by the economic elites to make the working class bear the cost of measures to compensate for the decline in corporate profit rates.
Its arrival comes after many years of neoliberal policies which have resulted in the weakening of health systems, the deterioration of living conditions and the dispossession of the public. The suffocation to which we have been subjected by the burgeoning external debt, facilitated by the actions of unaccountable international organizations, and the permanent oppression of our sovereignty by imperialism have given rise to a scenario that portends grave consequences.
In an America where we refuse to accept structural adjustments and the imposition of new imperialist policies, and where our peoples have realized important popular uprisings in recent months, the pandemic has become an excuse for governments to legitimize the presence of the armed forces in our territories, implement austerity measures and further deteriorate the living conditions of the working class. Furthermore, this crisis has once again highlighted the brutality of patriarchal violence against women, as well as the historical exclusion of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples who must face the pandemic in conditions of extreme vulnerability.
In accordance with the best traditions of our people, we are the organizations of the people, of workers, farmers, Indigenous peoples, feminists, Afro-descendants, students and others, which are dedicating our bodies, minds and hearts to developing immediate responses to the most urgent needs, but also to strengthening community ties and our social, territorial and regional unity, essential parts of the fabric that represents the horizons of the possibility for transformation in Abya Yala.
In the absence of housing, we have occupied territories and built houses; In the absence of work, we organize cooperatives, recover factories to confront closures, layoffs and suspensions; in the face of the corporate executives’ attacks we fight for better working conditions; in the absence of education we establish schools; In the face of oppression of women we build popular feminism; In the face of exploitation, we build grassroots trade union organizations and fight against job insecurity and for decent wages; Against hunger we build communal soup kitchens; In the face of the climate crisis we develop agro-ecology; In the face of monocultures and food monopolies, we build diversified communal farming territories to guarantee food sovereignty and autonomy; In the face of militarization, paramilitarism and drug trafficking, we replace illicit crops and fight for peace. Our alternative proposal is life against those who propose death to us.
Faced with the policy of closed borders and fragmentation, and against the xenophobia and neo-fascism that the ruling elites propose from above, we return to the horizon of continental solidarity and the unity of peoples.
Faced with the policies of the capitalists, to use the crisis as a cover for yet more structural adjustment and austerity, let us deepen and re-evaluate our historical struggles for the defence of our territories, our lives, and the socialization of wealth, by constructing direct forms of popular and community power.
For these reasons, we demand action from our governments and we call on our peoples: we must find a way out of this crisis that is not a return to capitalist normality, but a path towards a more just and equitable society. This will be possible if we take the best of ourselves as peoples,
- Prioritize life over debt. No to the payment of the external debt, exhaustive investigation and cancellation of it. It is criminal that funds are denied from health and other fundamental rights, in order to pay the obligations with the IMF and other creditors. Health and social protection systems to deal with the pandemic must be the priority.
We need to recover our strategic wealth and the management of our banks and foreign trade, a permanent source of the economic bleeding of Latin American countries. Only a policy of economic sovereignty, founded upon the development of popular power, can alleviate the economic and worldwide crises that we are beginning to experience.
- Combat inequalities. Extraordinary tax on the wealthy, on the profits of banks and large companies, on those responsible for capital flight. That the governments assume the role of compensating the inequalities generated by the market, that the necessary investments in emergency policies are financed by taxing the concentration of wealth, not by lowering wages to the workers. Reorient the production lines of large companies for the production of supplies intended to combat the Coronavirus, as well as the diseases that we have permanently born without State attention such as malnutrition, dengue and tuberculosis.
- Urgent strengthening of public health systems: urgent and priority investment in the public health system, nationalization of private health and strengthening of pandemic containment measures by the State. The pandemic reaffirms the need for everyone to receive universal health care, strengthening the public promotion of these services. That the State take control of the production and administration of all the necessary inputs to face the crisis with the participation and control of the workers. Elimination of the patent system on medicines to fully develop scientific research and development to solve human problems, and recognition of original and ancestral medicines.
- For work with all fundamental rights protected. Guaranteed universal income for all unjustified layoffs and suspensions. It is essential to recognize the rights of workers to meet their basic needs during the quarantine. That this emergency not become the excuse to continue advancing in the precariousness of work. No to the closure of companies, State support for their occupation and recovery by the workers.
- Housing and decent habitations as a social right, quarantine can only be done under a roof, with guaranteed basic services and in a healthy neighbourhood. It is imperative to suspend evictions, rent and service payments; Habitation policies should be directed towards a comprehensive urban reform that guarantees access to housing in decent neighbourhoods for all working families.
Universal access to water, electricity and gas and urban planning for popular neighbourhoods: there can be no fight against the pandemic without everyone having access to clean water, gas and access to electricity in the home, neighbourhood or community. Neither houses without people nor people without houses. Requisition of empty properties for the homeless and the urgent establishment of communal shelters.
- Confronting hunger and guaranteeing universal access to food, prioritizing financing and the role of cooperative, community and agro-ecological family agriculture in providing food for the people, communal cafeterias, areas and community kitchens: it is necessary to advance in promoting access to food, as a way to boost the economy and prevent a supply crisis. Guarantee a basic food basket with regulated prices and tax exempt. Demand penalties for price speculation or hoarding by supermarkets and intermediaries. Forgiveness of farmers’ debts, the redistribution of productive land and implementation of protective schemes for agro-ecological communities with State financing.
- Against the commodification of nature, we must recover sovereignty over our common resources such as water, gas, oil, land, a strategic wealth that is usurped by economic scavengers and parasites with the complicity of national and local governments and businessmen. Full respect for the territories of the peoples and re-consideration of the economic and extractive model. The exploitation of natural resources must respect Mother Earth as well as the peoples that inhabit it.
- Strengthening of the sanitary cordons and humanitarian assistance with guarantee of sovereignty of the territories of Indigenous peoples, and Afro communities, especially those who inhabit vital ecosystems such as the Amazon, for whom the epidemiological threat may mean ethnocide. Strengthening of self-government for the territorial and cultural survival of Indigenous and Afro peoples. Prohibition of evictions and actions that violate the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.
- Real policies to confront violence against women: With social isolation measures, there is the possibility of increasing domestic violence and other forms of violence against women… Shelters for people in situations of violence, delivery of a special economic subsidy to survivors. Employment and education plans geared towards women and sexual minorities and dissidents.
- More prevention, not oppression: the coronavirus context has been used by many governments to intensify the logic of oppression and universal surveillance and to increase the imprisonment of the poorest social sectors, community leaders, human rights defenders and defenders of Mother Earth. It is time to reduce the prison population and elaborate other measures as a social and public health problem. We must also recognize and appreciate the roles of community authorities and guardians who take care of ancestral territories and are an effective and organic community element to nurture and protect life in all its diversity.
- No to imperialist political, economic and military intervention: we categorically reject the use of the crisis as an excuse for a military intervention in Venezuela by Yankee imperialism and its collaborators, the systematic assassination of Indigenous and popular leaders of Colombia, the fierce oppression by the coup regime in Bolivia and the anti-popular government of Piñera in Chile, the prolific expansion of extractive projects in Indigenous and farming territories. We demand that the blockades against Cuba and Venezuela be lifted.
- Internationalist Humanitarian Aid: We demand that governments accept humanitarian aid from Cuba and other countries that have developed technical expertise to deal with the pandemic and that can help contain the Covid-19 outbreak in cities where the pandemic has spread more rapidly, like Guayaquil and San Pablo.
Against the wealth of the few, for the sovereignty of the people. For life, not the IMF!
How Latin American peoples fight: Saying-doing, saying-doing, saying-doing – damn it!