“We have a choice, to die of hunger or to die of the virus”.
In Latin America, as elsewhere, the health crisis has exposed the brutal realities of the global capitalist system. Its economic, social, cultural, environmental, as well as sanitary impact has followed the same patterns and exposed the same contradictions: extreme inequality; destruction of social services and public resources in the interests of private capital, euphemistically deemed ‘structural adjustment’; and later, and even more ironically, “the war on poverty” declared by the World Bank.
It was a war that paradoxically enriched all the world’s billionaires while producing new levels of poverty among growing numbers of the planet’s population. In the process these strategies accelerated global warming and ecological destruction, which is the direct origin of this deadly contagion.
In some ways, Latin America exposes the brutality of a global capitalist system in its most naked forms.
Neoliberal attacks and resistance
Neo-liberalism made its first appearance in Latin America with the 1973 military coup which overthrew Salvador Allende’s popularly elected, reforming government in Chile. Allende’s crime was to introduce economic measures designed to take the profits from the production of copper, use them to develop new industries and lay the foundations for a welfare state – improving the health service, democratising education, redistributing land and wealth for the benefit of the majority. It was far from a revolutionary programme, but it was driven by a democratic impulse.
Once Allende was dead, a military dictatorship destroyed workers organisations, obliterated human rights. A constitution was enacted, limiting civil and political rights and imposing a repressive regime that preserved Chile’s status as a paradise for global capital. That constitution remains in place.
It is no accident that the current president, Piñera, made his fortune as the representative of Visa. In October 2019, a militant and combative movement confronted his government. It began with demonstrations against price increases on public transport, but became a countrywide movement denouncing cutbacks, a collapsed health sector, a pension system run exclusively by private capital, as well as the mounting costs of education.
In 2013, mass protests involving up to two million people erupted across Brazil, around the same issues of public transport, inadequate health services and housing provision, as well as corruption throughout the state. Further protests, following a deep political crisis, brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets again in 2018.
In Nicaragua, a mass movement with the same demands emerged in April 2018. It was gunned down by a government headed by Daniel Ortega, who led the 1979 Sandinista revolution and brought down the Somoza military dictatorship. Twenty five years later, Ortega had created his own dictatorship, and his own network of armed thugs who murdered 600 of the protesters and injured thousands more.
In Colombia the mass protests of November 21 2019 (N-21) marched under the same banners.
Latin America today
In the early part of the 20th century the left governments of the so-called ‘pink tide’, led by Hugo Chavez´s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, set out to finance public services by taking control of oil and gas profits. For a period it brought real changes in areas like education and public health, especially in Venezuela. But by the second decade, Venezuela’s popular health programmes were collapsing.
Decades of neoliberalism had decimated public services and financed export-agriculture and mining industries which supply the global market at the expense of local populations. Small farmers and agricultural workers were driven off their land to make way for either plantations of soya and maize for ethanol or cattle to feed richer countries’ endless consumption of burgers. Oil, gas, and copper fed the industrial growth of China, the U.S. and Europe.
The closed factories of the south now sent their immigrants into the vast slums that ringed all of Latin America’s major cities, to join those expelled from the land. There they would enter a precarious economy: selling imitation luxury goods produced by the slave labour of the workshops of the east; casual, unprotected conditions in a construction boom, raising skyscraper blocks and shopping malls for the wealthy minority; or building highways to carry products from the mines and huge agricultural complexes to the ports for export.
Millions crossed borders in search of undocumented, unsafe, ‘illegal’ labour in the United States or Europe, and up to a third of national income came from remittances – money sent back by working emigrants (always at the lowest wages). Many of them now form part of the huge unemployment statistics in the U.S. and can no longer support their relatives back home.
50-60% of the Latin American population are in the informal sector. They live in the mushrooming slum and shanty towns that surround the cities of the region, surviving from day to day, with no access to free health care, with bad housing, and failing public transport systems.
Electricity and water supplies are inadequate and hygiene the first casualty of the overcrowding. Wages for those who have work are low, and there is minimal support for the unemployed. After three decades of neoliberalism, conditions were ideal for the Covid-19 virus to spread at speed.
Enter the virus
Pre-coronavirus, the looming danger of pandemics was already the subject of a growing number of official reports across the world. Yet there was no preparation by governments of the region, even as news of the outbreak filtered out of China early in January.
The first case was officially registered on February 26th in Brazil; within days cases appeared in neighboring countries.
None were in a position to take quick measures to either control it, or monitor or isolate possible sufferers. Mexico, for example, was 200,000 doctors and 300,000 nurses short of what the public health system needed. The low levels of taxation paid by business and the rich had starved the public sector of funds, while the state continued to subsidise their activities in the extractive and agricultural industries.
The most drastic example, poignantly, was Venezuela, where a government still claiming to represent the Bolivarian revolution oversaw the collapse of public health systems, and a catastrophic shortage of drugs, medicines and medical equipment. The alternative government of the right, under Juan Guaidó, had neither the capacity nor the will to address the problem – its social base served by private health which billed in dollars. The humanitarian aid sent to Guaidó by Trump did not reach those in need.
Only Cuba was an outlier. A Cuban report early in 2020 gave a general warning and the Cuban government was the only Latin American country that made any early preparations.
Lockdown was introduced slowly and inconsistently across Latin America, often enforced by the deployment of police and security forces in the streets. Subsidies were introduced and survival packages of food and basic necessities offered – worth around 80-100 euros in local currency.
But if 60% of the population of every country lived on the black economy, in unstable and casual jobs, or depend market stalls on overcrowded city pavements for their income, only a small proportion of them can access the assistance programs, which are in the main one-off payments.
None of them are eligible for unemployment benefits. Access to health resources is limited and difficult. As one market trader in Mexico put it “We have a choice, to die of hunger or to die of the virus”.
By late March, when lockdown was introduced in Mexico and several other countries, the virus had been circulating for over a month. In any event, for workers in the informal sector it was not a serious option. Their meagre incomes had been supplemented by remittances from abroad, but these dried up as immigrants were the first to be hit by the astronomical rise in unemployment, in the US in particular, and trade in the local markets declined.
The main export-earning sectors were immediately affected – tourism on the one hand, and the oil and mining sectors on the other. Oil prices, for example, which had been falling for months, fell below zero in April. The price of copper down by 10% and soya by 6%. The downturn in the Chinese economy was reflected in the decline of its construction industry which had been the main market for copper and other minerals at the beginning of the decade.
The arrival of the virus silenced the protests beginning in 2018-19, which had exposed the impact of austerity on the majority population even before the pandemic. Lockdown demobilised the activist population, especially since it was overseen and enforced by the repressive machinery which they had seen at work just a few months earlier.
The aftermath, whenever it comes
When the lid is lifted on lockdown, what will be revealed is crisis at every level. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that between 160 and 250 million jobs will have been lost worldwide in the course of the pandemic.
Health systems will be exhausted and emptied of resources. The world economy has already shrunk by between 4% and 8%. The cost of emergency programs will be borne by states close to bankruptcy with an angry, desperate and impoverished population that will certainly take to the streets again. Since there will be no resources to offer them it is equally likely that the state will react with repression.
The appalling cases of Nicaragua and Brazil may give us some sense of what that might mean. The election of Jair Bolsanaro threw open the Brazilian economy to the most rapacious global capital. The Amazon rain forest, which had already lost 25% of its area to a deforestation for soya cultivation and cattle raising, was now thrown open to logging operations.
The indigenous peoples, over 300 ethnicities in the Brazilian forest, are now under threat from a government led by a racist who trumpeted praise for a military dictatorship which ravaged the Amazon Basin. New infrastructure projects, like a massive road bridge through the forest, have accelerated the destruction.
Bolsanaro’s response to the pandemic was, like Trump, to deny its dangers. It’s just a bit of flu, he said, as he refused to isolate or test, or to order the closure of factories and workplaces. By late March, even state governors and city mayors who were his ideological allies on the far right began to realise the catastrophic consequences that would follow, and began to impose lockdown and isolation at city and state levels.
Bolsanaro´s Minister of Health, Manetta, insisted on the urgency of lockdown – yet while he sacked many of his cabinet, Bolsanaro delayed firing him for a couple of weeks in order to avoid a clash with the powerful administrations in the states. In late April he fired Manetta, having prepared the ground by reinforcing the military representation in his cabinet.
The refusal of Bolsonaro to close down all but essential industries is revealing. The priority is to limit the damage to capitalism, not to save lives. Every day, the metro of Sao Paulo is packed with workers. About 70% of the assembly plants, the maquiladoras, on the Mexico-US border have finally closed down, but the rest are working and paying 50% of their poverty wages to the mainly women workers crowded together on the production lines of Electrolux and others.
In Nicaragua, the husband and wife dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has plumbed the depths of cynicism and class hatred. Not only did their regime refuse to implement any measures in the face of Covid-19, Murillo, asserting that Nicaraguans don’t get viruses (Bolsanaro said the same) invited government supporters to take to the streets every Saturday in every city and town “to fight Covid with love”.
As things grow more difficult, the gangs of armed thugs claiming the legacy of the Sandinista Revolution with Ortega’s backing will undoubtedly deliver not love but bullets, just as they did two years earlier.
The election of Lopez Obrador (AMLO) to the Mexican presidency last year was seen as a progressive step. His campaign slogan was ‘Primero los pobres’ (‘first the poor’) – and 20 million people have indeed benefitted from the assistance programmes. His response to the pandemic, however, was slow and hesitant; he even descrbed it as “transitory” early on.
By late March schools were closed and social isolation declared. Yet his state of the union speech in early April gave no hint of a strategy. He has been the subject of a virulent campaign by the right and big capital. Ten Mexicans are worth 125 billion dollars between them and one of them owns the powerful TV Azteca chain which has attacked him relentlessly. Yet AMLO called for “solidarity” from capitalists, rather than proposing action and the trade union leaders who support him agreed to to a 50% wage cut across the board. Added to this is the fact that the most powerful capitalist interests are represented in his party and his administration.
The issue is now clear. The priority is either to protect capital and concentrate on the economic crisis, or protect the people and address the health crisis. Every proposal anywhere has to be tested against those alternatives.
Across the world the public support and respect for health workers has left no doubt as to what the priorities are for the vast majority of people. There are policies and decisions that flow directly from that.
In Mexico alone ,15 large corporations owe over two billion dollars in back taxes; that is the pattern across the region. Yet in Ecuador, days before the crisis hit, leaving dead bodies on the streets of Guayaquil, the government elected to pay the foreign debt of over 300 billion dollars.
For the Trumps, Bolsonaros and Ortegas of the world, their priorities are clear. So are those of the millions of people in Latin America and elsewhere who are facing a possible future of deepening exploitation, long term unemployment, disease and death by neglect.
This is a moment to give a sense of how a world ordered around the needs and priorities of the many would look; to take back the wealth that has been clawed from the earth and built with the labour of millions.
Coronavirus has made it obvious that there are two sets of global interests. Our global interests are served by genuine solidarity, by anti-capitalism, and by a system of production that answers to the needs of the majority rather than the greed of the tiny minority who see this global health crisis as just another opportunity for profit and are perfectly happy to see millions die. That is the reality of a class society.