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13th May 2022

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Pandemic, protests, and politics; a Latin American overview

It is estimated that there are approximately a hundred and fourteen million students in the region and about eighty percent of them have been forced out of their schools due to the pandemic. (Image: Reuters)

Dr Aparaajita Pandey

In October 2020, a report taking cognizance of the Latin American situation and speculating on what the region has to look forward to was optimistically titled – ‘A less Apocalyptic Case for Latin America’ by Brian Winter at Americas Quarterly. The title seems like a convenient point of beginning for an attempt to understand Latin American economics, politics, and society at present.

Presently Colombia is facing massive protests against tax reforms and brutal repression of those protests, Chile is also seeing protests by people for access to their pension funds, there are demonstrations in Argentina and blockading of the oil and gas production fields for the want of better working conditions, sanitary equipment and retroactive payments, there are violent clashes in Brazil between the police and the drug cartels that has led to about 30 deaths in total in the past fortnight and an atmosphere of increased fear and uncertainty in favellas, and an armed skirmish between the Venezuelan military and the FARC on the Colombia- Venezuela border.

The protests in Colombia are emblematic of not just an administrative and taxation system that is in dire need of an overhaul, but also a much greater problem not just in Colombia but within the region itself. The protests across the region that began in 2019, slowed down in 2020, have now started to slowly awaken in 2021. Colombia is the prominent instance of popular dissatisfaction and frustration with the administrative set up at present, however, such sentiments are echoed across the region albeit with different levels of intensity.

The spread of the Covid -19 Pandemic in Latin America and the apathy and nonchalance of some of the leaders has had a devastating impact on the region. The already overworked health infrastructure was exposed to a tsunami of patients and a dire need for doctors, nurses, medical equipment, and medical staff. While the health infrastructure in the region has reached its breaking point, the economic impact of Covid – 19 has left in its wake a trail of glaring fallacies in the economic structure of Latin America that have been a visible problem for decades but has never been highlighted to such an extent. It is a well known and accepted fact that Latin America is the most economically unequal region in the world. While there have been Conditional Cash Transfer programmes like Opportunidades in Mexico and Bolsa Escola and Bolsa Familia in Brazil in the past aimed at bridging the gap between the rich and the poor; these programmes have had limited success.

The economic recession that the region has suffered from in the past half a decade and now the pandemic has undone not just the work done by such social programmes but also the progress made towards racial and gender equality. Another sector that has now taken a severe hit is that of education. It is estimated that there are approximately a hundred and fourteen million students in the region and about eighty percent of them have been forced out of their schools due to the pandemic and a little over three million of them would never return to continue with their education. The statistics are unclear in context of the access to online education in schools and/or universities. It is foreseen that such a break in education would have an adverse impact on the development of human resources in the region in the long term. Studies show that students who are in their formative stages of education have begun to unlearn their basic math and reading abilities. The World Bank has predicted that in another thirty years, such a break in steady and regular education would lead to a loss of about 1.7 trillion USD which is about ten per cent of the Latin American income.

It has been mentioned that the Latin American region is one of the most unequal in the world, and this inequality, while most easily manifested in economic terms; finds its roots in the Latin American history. The colonization of the region and then the waves of slaves brought in from Africa and indentured labour from India, and later from Java; and their interaction with the indigenous communities has led to a racially diverse and often divided Latin America. The inequality is also conveniently congruent to the racial fault lines. The pandemic has certainly accentuated this situation; the socio-economic impact of Covid is also concentrated among the already underprivileged and people of colour, which has in-turn stymied decades of progress that the Conditional Cash Transfer Programmes had made in certain communities.

The inequality in the region has allowed the elite to escape unscathed economically and therefore there seems to be a gross underestimation of the situation with regards to the pandemic and its impact. 2021 would be the year for elections for many Latin American countries but the politicians need to understand that their focus must be on healing and rebuilding and not just winning.

(The author is an Asst Professor at the Dept. of Public Policy, Amity University, NOIDA and a PhD in Latin American Studies, from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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2021-05-08 08:33:00

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