Coronavirus in the Two Latin Americas

Alborada’s recent coverage shows how Latin American countries have tackled the coronavirus in very different ways – some effectively, others not so effectively.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Anglo media has always insisted that there are two Latin Americas. It is difficult to take issue with this simplification. Travel to pretty much anywhere in Latin America, including some of the places that have seen massive advances in recent years, and this is immediately obvious. There are the rich and there are the poor. This gives rise to predictably polarised political formations. There is a Left and there is a Right. Those of us in western Europe, sick of political centrists posing as honest brokers between the haves and the have-nots, look to Latin America with some solace. They are at least spared this guff. We readers of the English-language media are not even spared it when reading about Latin America!

The Wall Street Journal‘s justification of the ‘two Latin Americas‘ thesis is somewhat dated (it was written in 2014; the continent has seen numerous changes since then) but it is worth returning to because it perfectly distils the assumptions informing so much of Western reporting on the region. In brief, Latin America, we are told, is in the grip of a culture war. A culture war between an outward-looking side that supports freedom, globalisation and the invisible hand of the market; and, on the other, an insular side that opposes freedom and globalisation, and is hell-bent on clamping down on both with a very visible iron fist.

Keep this distinction in mind as we review the different ways that Latin American countries have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, as reported here in Alborada. At the same time, try to guess which side the WSJ and other corporate media outlets would have you believe is which.

In our first article, Federico Fuentes of Green Left, compares the responses of the Bolivian and Venezuelan governments. In Bolivia, the governing regime was slow to react to the virus but fast to react to the political opportunities it created. Internally this has meant instituting mass arrests of the population not adhering to the lockdown and cracking down on its main political rival, the Movement Towards Socialism (the party of deposed president Evo Morales), for distributing food and medical supplies to the needy. In the meantime, it rejected Cuba’s offer of assistance – this after having expelled hundreds of Cuban doctors following the coup d’etat the democratic revolution (as Anglo media likes to protray it) that brought the current regime to power in November 2019. The Venezuelan government, meanwhile, wasted little time contacting China to obtain details of how it had dealt with the pandemic. Imports of COVID-19 testing units and personal protective equipment (PPE) followed not long after. In stark contrast to Bolivia’s punitive (iron fist) approach, the Venezuelan government has sought innovative ways of mobilising civil society (the invisible hand?) to fight the virus through community action initiatives.

The Grayzone‘s Denis Rogatyuk and Alborada‘s Marcella Via paint equally macabre pictures of the government responses of Ecuador and Chile respectively. In Ecuador, a country in the grip of widespread ferment, it has been one primarily of containment. The president, Lenin Moreno, has used the crisis to embark on severe repression both of longstanding political opponents on the Left and of medical staff – terrorised into silence about the country’s collapsing health sector. We should not be surprised if the Moreno government effectively sees these two constituencies as one given that the massive austerity programme it embarked upon was a direct attack on both. The situation is bad, with even the New York Times suggesting the death toll from COVID-19 is 15 times higher than officially reported. In an apparent confirmation that Ecuador is run by a cabal of compradors, the vice-president, Otto Sonnonholzner, recently issued a public apology for the ‘worsening of Ecuador’s international image’. Presumably the WSJ would consider this pro-globalisation.

In Chile, the crisis has been used to extend its attacks on working people; extending the working day and weakening the rights of workers. Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that the Piñera government is literally weaponising the COVID-19 virus as it embarks on severe lockdown measures in rich districts while encouraging the poor to keep working. ‘As people need oxygen to survive, business needs liquidity’, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera insists. The irony, maybe not lost on Piñera, is that COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. People are dying precisely from a lack of oxygen. Presumably the WSJ would consider this the invisible hand?

Brazil makes for by far and away the most depressing reading. President Jair Bolsonaro’s response has been so absurd, so psychotic, that even his political allies are turning on him. For many (including for Sergio Moro, perhaps with his own designs for office), the final straw came when Bolsonaro began organising rallies and shaking hands with his supporters when he was suspected of having the virus. Comparisons with Trump’s America are valid with the vast majority of governors in Brazil taking it upon themselves to institute lockdown and social distancing measures in their respective states. The conflicting messages at a national level mean, however, that only 60 per cent of Brazilians are abiding by them.

If anyone in western politics should have the temerity to ever compliment Cuba, standard discourse insists that said compliment should be appended with a giant asterisk. Bernie Sanders recently found this out to his cost when praising the Cuban education system, as mainstream commentators went into overdrive to attack Sanders over his recognition of Cuban achievements. A condemnation of Cuba’s ‘Socialism in one Country’ system quickly followed. However, while political commentators might quibble over which country responded quickest to the pandemic, Helen Yaffe documents how Cuba’s response began in 1981! Today, Cuba exports its antiviral drugs and doctors to over 50 countries. Cuba’s health system in general, and its bio-tech industry in particular, serves as a perennial reminder of what can be achieved with global cooperation and mutual support. Oh – and a dose of state socialism*.

*Insert appropriate caveat here.

Alborada’s recent coverage shows how Latin American countries have tackled the coronavirus in very different ways – some effectively, others not so effectively.

Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Anglo media has always insisted that there are two Latin Americas. It is difficult to take issue with this simplification. Travel to pretty much anywhere in Latin America, including some of the places that have seen massive advances in recent years, and this is immediately obvious. There are the rich and there are the poor. This gives rise to predictably polarised political formations. There is a Left and there is a Right. Those of us in western Europe, sick of political centrists posing as honest brokers between the haves and the have-nots, look to Latin America with some solace. They are at least spared this guff. We readers of the English-language media are not even spared it when reading about Latin America!

The Wall Street Journal‘s justification of the ‘two Latin Americas‘ thesis is somewhat dated (it was written in 2014; the continent has seen numerous changes since then) but it is worth returning to because it perfectly distils the assumptions informing so much of Western reporting on the region. In brief, Latin America, we are told, is in the grip of a culture war. A culture war between an outward-looking side that supports freedom, globalisation and the invisible hand of the market; and, on the other, an insular side that opposes freedom and globalisation, and is hell-bent on clamping down on both with a very visible iron fist.

Keep this distinction in mind as we review the different ways that Latin American countries have responded to the COVID-19 crisis, as reported here in Alborada. At the same time, try to guess which side the WSJ and other corporate media outlets would have you believe is which.

In our first article, Federico Fuentes of Green Left, compares the responses of the Bolivian and Venezuelan governments. In Bolivia, the governing regime was slow to react to the virus but fast to react to the political opportunities it created. Internally this has meant instituting mass arrests of the population not adhering to the lockdown and cracking down on its main political rival, the Movement Towards Socialism (the party of deposed president Evo Morales), for distributing food and medical supplies to the needy. In the meantime, it rejected Cuba’s offer of assistance – this after having expelled hundreds of Cuban doctors following the coup d’etat the democratic revolution (as Anglo media likes to protray it) that brought the current regime to power in November 2019. The Venezuelan government, meanwhile, wasted little time contacting China to obtain details of how it had dealt with the pandemic. Imports of COVID-19 testing units and personal protective equipment (PPE) followed not long after. In stark contrast to Bolivia’s punitive (iron fist) approach, the Venezuelan government has sought innovative ways of mobilising civil society (the invisible hand?) to fight the virus through community action initiatives.

The Grayzone‘s Denis Rogatyuk and Alborada‘s Marcella Via paint equally macabre pictures of the government responses of Ecuador and Chile respectively. In Ecuador, a country in the grip of widespread ferment, it has been one primarily of containment. The president, Lenin Moreno, has used the crisis to embark on severe repression both of longstanding political opponents on the Left and of medical staff – terrorised into silence about the country’s collapsing health sector. We should not be surprised if the Moreno government effectively sees these two constituencies as one given that the massive austerity programme it embarked upon was a direct attack on both. The situation is bad, with even the New York Times suggesting the death toll from COVID-19 is 15 times higher than officially reported. In an apparent confirmation that Ecuador is run by a cabal of compradors, the vice-president, Otto Sonnonholzner, recently issued a public apology for the ‘worsening of Ecuador’s international image’. Presumably the WSJ would consider this pro-globalisation.

In Chile, the crisis has been used to extend its attacks on working people; extending the working day and weakening the rights of workers. Indeed, it is difficult not to conclude that the Piñera government is literally weaponising the COVID-19 virus as it embarks on severe lockdown measures in rich districts while encouraging the poor to keep working. ‘As people need oxygen to survive, business needs liquidity’, Chilean president Sebastián Piñera insists. The irony, maybe not lost on Piñera, is that COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. People are dying precisely from a lack of oxygen. Presumably the WSJ would consider this the invisible hand?

Brazil makes for by far and away the most depressing reading. President Jair Bolsonaro’s response has been so absurd, so psychotic, that even his political allies are turning on him. For many (including for Sergio Moro, perhaps with his own designs for office), the final straw came when Bolsonaro began organising rallies and shaking hands with his supporters when he was suspected of having the virus. Comparisons with Trump’s America are valid with the vast majority of governors in Brazil taking it upon themselves to institute lockdown and social distancing measures in their respective states. The conflicting messages at a national level mean, however, that only 60 per cent of Brazilians are abiding by them.

If anyone in western politics should have the temerity to ever compliment Cuba, standard discourse insists that said compliment should be appended with a giant asterisk. Bernie Sanders recently found this out to his cost when praising the Cuban education system, as mainstream commentators went into overdrive to attack Sanders over his recognition of Cuban achievements. A condemnation of Cuba’s ‘Socialism in one Country’ system quickly followed. However, while political commentators might quibble over which country responded quickest to the pandemic, Helen Yaffe documents how Cuba’s response began in 1981! Today, Cuba exports its antiviral drugs and doctors to over 50 countries. Cuba’s health system in general, and its bio-tech industry in particular, serves as a perennial reminder of what can be achieved with global cooperation and mutual support. Oh – and a dose of state socialism*.

*Insert appropriate caveat here.

2020-05-20T20:58:24+00:00 20/May/2020|Categories: Articles|Tags: , , , , , , |
Samuel Grove is a contributing editor of Alborada.

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