The scarcity of neoliberalism: A Colombian perspective on Covid policies

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By Paola Vargas Arana [1]. Photo credited to Luis Ricardo Castillo

It was early on a sunny morning in April 2020 when I entered the store at the entrance of the compound where I used to live, located in a working-class neighbourhood in Bogota, to buy arepas (maize preparations) for my breakfast. As soon as I entered the old man who runs the store, certainly a migrant from a rural area judging by his accent, asked me behind his mask, ‘so, Paolita, how do you see the situation?’ To which I replied, ‘well Abelardo, we humans created this disaster, we now need to face it’. He then said, ‘the only thing that gives me relief is the fact that we are all suffering from this. Can you imagine if there were no Covid among the gringos (US citizens) or the Europeans? At least as things are evolving, we know that a solution will come earlier than if it was only us living with this chaos.’

Abelardo’s words echoed in my mind for many months, as I reflected on how it would have been if the mistakenly named third-world countries only had seen this virus spread. First, there would have been a radical delay in the development of vaccines; followed by a scandalous programme of possible vaccine testing in populations at risk (probably injected into darker-skinned people living with malnutrition or poverty); then, vaccination programmes would have been achieved after years of begging the mega pharma emporiums for a discount on their patents; a process that would have most likely ended with the Multilateral Development Banks offering ‘generous’ subsidised vaccination programmes, of course, under a new external debt scheme. [2] In addition, the affected countries would have been flooded by severe criticism from academics and media in the Global North about how antidemocratic our countries had been stopping the spread of Covid. These criticisms would be accompanied by the sponsorship of experts, new PhD theses, and the promotion of programmes to once again try to ‘establish control’ over such anti-democratic nations. Of course, all experts would have come from the Global North or from the southern aristocracies and would have arrived to check on the contaminated population from behind their ultra-high-tech protective barriers. Ultimately, the disaster in terms of poverty, disease, the bankruptcy of small enterprises, and even wars, would have been much worse.

The bigger picture today is different. As Abelardo said, this cruel disease that has augmented poverty, death, and bankruptcy, has also provided the world’s ‘rich’ countries with a different reality as they have been experiencing for more than a year how chaotic and authoritarian a State of Emergency can be. The European population now live amidst an ever-changing situation that moves forward into more and more severe crises, one after the other, without any resolution of the preceding problems. In fact, Europe is now experiencing our normal way of life in the Global South. For decades, the right-wing media has presented the European lay public with the false idea that States of Emergency occur in these countries because our nations are chaotic, backward, or even barbaric. Now it has been demonstrated that none of this has anything to do with the mechanisms that impose State of Exception policies. It is now evident that any State that encounters a critical situation of scarcity begins to improvise dynamically by taking advantage of the catastrophe to dispense with democratic means. In other words, for the last 60 years European nations have not lived through any real hardship (the hardship has been mostly shouldered by migrants, refugees, and by outsourcing violence to the Global South), so they have no memory of how authoritarian a situation of scarcity could become. [3]

Conversely, in Colombia over the last 70 years, we have been in an almost permanent State of Emergency or Exception derived from the shaping, persecution, defamation, internal corruption and destruction of the guerrillas, who were originally defending the peasants’ rural land from private and corporate intrusion. [4] Furthermore, since the 1980s, the drug cartel phenomenon overlapped and became interwoven with the guerrilla conflict. In the meantime, the Colombian army strategists were unable to eliminate the guerrillas, so private groups created paramilitaries; militias that used extreme violence to evacuate small-scale agricultural producers from rural areas, including many Indigenous and Afrodescendant traditional communities. [5] In this way, paramilitary groups opened the territory previously defended by guerrillas to the mega-corporations that are mega violators of human rights, to extract coal (such as Glencore); [6] gold, cement, bananas, water for Coca-Cola [7] and now even cobalt and tungsten.

All this positioned Colombia during the last decade as the Western hemisphere country with the largest internally displaced population (7.8 million) according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). [8] This phenomenon has completely changed the face of our cities, creating poverty, inequality, increasing the supply of low-wage workers and worsening police brutality while also supplying urban areas with enormous cultural diversity. As if this were not enough, during the last decade Colombia witnessed the passage of millions of dispossessed Venezuelans, to the point that UNHCR confirmed that around 1.7 million had settled in Colombia, mainly in the shantytowns already occupied by internal forcefully displaced populations. [9] So, how did Covid and the Covid policies, and especially the lockdowns, affect us?

The Covid policies silenced independent voices in Colombia who, amidst violence, denounced the atrocities committed by paramilitaries, guerrillas and corporations, forced displacements, disappearances, the killing of social leaders, and police brutality. This was in part due to a drowning-out effect, where Covid debates were used as a mass media spectacle to distract public attention when they were locked in their houses, while the struggles defending people’s rights grew substantially. [10] Thus, for us, Covid policies did not entail a shift in the relationship between the State and its citizens. This kind of authoritarian State was present in Colombia long before Covid, and Covid policies have only provided justifications for the government to benefit even more from the private mega-corporations, by subsidising their closures instead of backing or employing the working-class population who have lost their jobs. [11] Thus, what the Covid crisis did in Colombia and the so-called ‘Western democracies’ is lay bare the nature of this State while simultaneously expanding its reach. In other words, the State of Exception that has been the reality in a country like Colombia for at least 70 years has now spread and pervaded the northern countries.

At this point, it is worth acknowledging that many of the critical situations that countries in the Global South endure – in this context specifically in Colombia – are due to the massive extraction of raw materials to satisfy the ever-growing demand from European, North American, and global elites’ for industrialised technological products and tourism. Therefore, in a vicious circle, the Global North enjoys the benefits of the exploitation of southern countries’ nature, resources, and workers, composed mainly of displaced populations who labour in near-slavery conditions, who in turn, logically, disrupt the social ‘order’ by revolting. [12] When this happens, State of Exception policies are implemented to continue providing the expected supplies to produce technology for the Global North while their ‘experts’ take the opportunity to criticise and study our countries’ inability to achieve democracy without considering that many of the troubles, inequality, and State of Exception policies that we live with underwrite their high-tech way of living. Until this context changes, the democracies that function as such should be seen as a façade of real democracies, as they conceal their dependency on the antidemocratic practices of countries that are unable to implement democratic policies due to the market requirements of the Global North.

Then we arrived at the Covid lockdowns, a policy that violates citizens’ rights to movement, education, and to purchase and sell what governments vertically deem ‘non-essential’ products. However, the lockdowns cannot be explained on their own without understanding the direct and indirect causes of these regulations. The lockdowns were directly justified by the pressure placed on precarious health systems, and the risk of spreading the infection around health workers’ social circles which would lead to a diminished supply of healthcare staff. Colombia witnessed a dramatic example of this during March 2020, before lockdowns were ruled out, when Guayaquil, a city in neighbouring Ecuador, suffered a huge rise in Covid patients that completely overwhelmed the existing healthcare infrastructure leaving them without any care. This was followed by a logarithmic growth of deaths, to the point where hundreds and then thousands of dead bodies were left abandoned, even stacked, not in cemeteries, but along the sidewalks and in parks in one of the most dramatic spectacles of recent times. [13]

While the direct cause of the health emergency may be clear, it is surprising to see how the governments of the so-called ‘advanced world’ with supposedly developed healthcare systems imposed such radically anti-democratic measures. This brings us to the indirect cause of lockdowns, and it is here that we must understand the precarious neoliberal State model that the northern countries have been designing, applying, and preaching for at least forty years. This model intends to diminish, day by day, State investment in public services such as education, health, or communication infrastructure, by outsourcing it to private hands. Consequently, during the last few decades, payment for health services has become the responsibility of citizens who are compelled to invest enormous sums of money in an increasingly precarious service. At the same time, physicians and health workers have shifted to employment by agencies in the private sector, under precarious short-term contracts and with expanding amounts of work. Paradoxically, the advancement of neoliberal policies has been justified during this period by a concept of ‘freedom’ associated with the least possible State intervention in the lives of citizens.

Accordingly, it is easy to understand why the countries that were proudly exhibiting their democracies until a year and a half ago entered a situation of anti-democratic rule: they no longer have the public infrastructure, the public budget, or the cadre of government leaders required to manage the situation in a more participatory way that is less destructive of the economy and citizens’ freedoms. Instead of decreeing lockdowns and the enormous subsidies that have created vast public debt, governments could have engaged the hundreds of thousands of young adults who lost their jobs and had turned them into a battalion of health workers and State officials at airports and around the cities to check the health status of newly arrived foreign nationals. If they had decreed the construction of more hospitals, and the technological apparatus to manage symptomatic cases, lockdowns would not have been necessary. However, under neoliberalism, all governments suffer from scarcity and are poorly prepared for an emergency of this scale, as these services had already been outsourced to private corporations that are taking advantage of Covid, designed as they are to increase profits regardless of the conditions.

So, as Europeans experience a new level of intervention derived from the neoliberal State, critics of this authoritarianism are much welcomed by the critical thinkers of southern countries like Colombia. Not just voices that criticise lockdowns as such, but those that understand how and why contemporary democratic States arrived at vertical policies of this kind due to their decades of dependence on authoritarian governments in the Global South. Thus, returning to Abelardo’s vision of Covid, we can agree that while the current changes are dangerous, they could bring the hope of a deep change in the neoliberal State model by exposing the violence and control of freedoms that it requires – a model to date that has been designed by Europe and the US and followed by countries previously occupied by European forces.

References

[1] British Academy Newton International Fellow, Department of Spanish, Portuguese & Latin American Studies, King’s College London.

[2] Multilateral Development Banks is a concept which includes the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Andean Development Bank, among others dedicated to investment on development programs in so-called poorer countries.

[3] The 60 years during which Europe has not suffered scarcity is an estimate that considers the end of the reconstruction after the Second World War.

[4] This estimate takes as a turning point El Bogotazo, when, in 1948, the political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was killed. This event resulted in enormous violence throughout the country and in the formation of the modern guerrillas, a process that has not ended until today. Yet, as Europeans violently seized Colombian territory 500 years ago from Indigenous Native Americans and violently introduced hundreds of thousands of Africans under conditions of slavery, this territory has had subsequent episodes of warfare, civil wars, and armed conflicts.

[5] The forced migration of Afrodescendants and Indigenous populations from traditional communities to Colombian cities is massive. An example is the exodus to the Cartagena shantytowns of population from the Montes de María region, mainly inhabited by the descendants of African maroon communities. There is an ongoing legal process against the cement transnational company Argos that is now exploiting the region, for its possible links with the paramilitary forces that harassed these populations to move. See Ojeda, Diana, Jennifer Petzl, Catalina Quiroga, Ana Catalina Rodríguez, and Juan Guillermo Rojas. Paisajes del despojo cotidiano: acaparamiento de tierra y agua en Montes de María, Colombia. Revista de Estudios Sociales 54, 2015, p. 107-119, https://journals.openedition.org/revestudsoc/9499

[6] For the nexus between the transnational Glencore and paramilitarism see, for instance, Observatorio de la Deuda en la Globalización, IMPUNIDAD S.A., 2010, https://www.tni.org/files/download/impunidad_sa.pdf.

[7] Although the courts have not yet recognized the links between transnational corporations and paramilitarism, various legal processes account for the role that these corporations have in rural violence and forced displacement. For information on Coca-Cola’s association with paramilitarism see Request for Comments Concerning the Free Trade Agreement with the Republic of Colombia, Docket # USTR-2009-0021, from 2009, https://laborrights.org/sites/default/files/publications-and-resources/Comments%20from%20ILRF%20re%20labor%20rights%20and%20the%20Colombia%20FTA%20Docket%20no%20USTR%202009%200021%20FINAL_0.pdf. This legal procedure against Coca-Cola was documented by García Carmen and Gutierrez Germán in L’Affaire Coca-Cola, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXf_4gNH6XE&ab_channel=MalTube.

[8] El Tiempo, Colombia, primera en desplazamiento interno por cuarta vez, 2019, https://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/conflicto-y-narcotrafico/colombia-es-el-pais-con-mas-desplazados-internos-informe-acnur-378716

[9] UNHCR ACNUR, Informe Tendencias Globales, Desplazamiento Forzado en 2019, June 18 of 2020, https://www.acnur.org/5eeaf5664.pdf

[10] A paradigmatic case illustrating how the Covid phenomenon distracted public attention was the now called La Masacre en Bogotá, an event that happened on September 2020 when a young man was killed by the police. As the young population went to the streets to protest, the police attacked furthermore, resulting in the assassination of 13 young adults and 305 wounded in two days, while the media concentrated on reporting Covid news. See Ávila, Ariel, La masacre de Bogotá, El País, September 15, 2020 https://elpais.com/opinion/2020-09-15/la-masacre-de-bogota.html. Another coverage in Novoa Diana, La masacre el 9 de septiembre de 2020 en Bogotá, Diario ANRedhttps://www.anred.org/2020/09/25/dictadura-abierta-en-colombia-la-masacre-el-9-de-septiembre-de-2020-en-bogota/

[11] Herrera, Paola, Los grandes grupos económicos que recibieron ayudas durante la pandemia, La W Radio, 22 of February, 2021 https://www.wradio.com.co/noticias/actualidad/los-grandes-grupos-economicos-que-recibieron-ayudas-durante-la-pandemia/20210222/nota/4111515.aspx

[12] Besides revolting, the subjected populations from the southern countries also opt to migrate to the northern hemisphere and, although generally they engage in the lowest paid services, the rate of exchange of the southern devaluated currencies allows them to send remittances in strong currencies, upgrading their families’ income in their countries of origin. This is another complex vicious circle, as the demands of the northern hemisphere create refugees and migrants from the southern exploited countries.

[13] José María León Cabrera and Anatoly Kurmanaev, Ecuador’s Death Toll During the Outbreak Is Among the Worst in the World, The New York Times, April 23 of 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/world/americas/ecuador-deaths-coronavirus.html

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PatriciaSpencer
PatriciaSpencer
26 days ago

Thank you for this article. A most humbling and necessary read..

Voz 0db
Voz 0db
25 days ago

The scarcity of neoliberalism
Scarcity is a FEATURE of the MAIN SYSTEM, not of the sub-systems (like neoliberalism) that operate under the RULES of MONETARY SYSTEM.

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