Venezuela and COVID-19

For years Venezuela has been in the midst of a dire economic and political crisis, but the newly arrived health crisis of COVID-19 could see the country spiral into chaos. 

Venezuelans wear masks as they try to enter neighboring Colombia on Sunday.
Photo: Schneyder Mendoza AFP via Getty Images
Source: The Washington Post

The context 

The people of Venezuela are enduring hyperinflation, severe shortages of food and medicine and a sharp increase in violence. About 5 million people, more than 10% of the population, have fled the country in recent years attempting to escape these brutal realities and secure a better life elsewhere in the region. 

There’s also a crisis of leadership as Nicolás Maduro continues to claim the presidency, backed by the military and supported by Russia and China. National Assembly leader, Juan Guaidó declared himself president in 2019 and has been recognized as the rightful ruler by the U.S. and 50 other countries, although he wields no real power. 

Now in the face of COVID-19, Venezuelans are being forced to return to a broken nation that’s uniquely ill-equipped to deal with the global pandemic. 

An already broken system

Last year a report concluded that the health system in Venezuela has “totally collapsed.” Meaning the country was already in dire need before any news of the virus hit. Not only are hospitals and clinics lacking basic necessities like masks, gloves and gowns, there’s also limited access to soap and running water. 

The gradual collapse of the Venezuelan water system has left people at home and in hospital without the ability to follow the basic, but crucial health advice, “wash your hands.” It also means that people will be congregating at water trucks and stores to secure their supply, potentially hastening the spread of the virus. 

People wear face masks as a preventive measure against the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as they queue to collect water from a street pipe in Caracas, on March 21, 2020.
Photo: Cristian Hernandez AFP via Getty Images
Source: U.S. News

Consistent electricity is difficult to secure and in 2019, 164 people died as a result of complications linked to Venezuela’s frequent electricity cuts. Intermittent access to electricity also poses severe challenges in terms of refrigerating important medicines like insulin.

In a country with a population of 30 million, there are only 84 ICU hospital beds nation-wide, and 90% of hospitals don’t have protocols for respiratory virus care. 

However, speaking out about how bad the situation is has consequences under the Maduro regime. Doctors have been directly or indirectly silenced, intimidated, threatened for reporting suspected cases and exposing that there is not enough PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for medical staff.

Forced to return home

Millions of Venezuelans have flooded into neighboring countries in recent years to escape hardship; about 1.8 million were able to find work and make a meager living in Colombia. But Colombia’s lockdown forced curtailments in nearly every sector of the economy and many lost their jobs and were unable to pay rent. Those employed in the informal sector selling their wares on the street corners saw their customers evaporate as police ordered everyone inside.

With shelters, migrant centres and soup kitchens all forced to close, and announced Colombian supports excluding Venezuelans, there was nowhere else for people to turn. This has forced many to make the difficult decision to return to their home country, most travelling for 15 days or more on foot since they can’t afford a bus ticket. 

While both Brazil and Colombia have closed their borders, Colombia has maintained a humanitarian corridor to get Venezuelas home. Venezuelans are returning at a rate of around 500 per day, Maduro says 15,000 people are on their way home. This is relatively small when considering that before the virus struck around 4,000 to 5,000 were leaving the country every day, but with a deeply broken medical system, any population influx is already an overload. 

What this means for the Maduro regime

Venezuela’s economy is oil-dependent and U.S. sanctions have significantly hindered its ability to leverage this resource. Additionally, the recent downtown in the price of oil, attributed to the drop in demand related to the coronavirus, as well as the price war between top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, threaten to further dismantle the economic tools available. 

In a surprising turn of events, Maduro asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in assistance but they turned him down citing a lack of clarity in leadership. Maduro has repeatedly criticized the IMF as a tool of U.S. imperialism, so his plea for help could mean he is not receiving assistance from his traditional sources of Russia and China. 

Source: BBC

Despite being denied aid, Maduro’s grasp on presidential power will likely remain as military measures are being implemented to uphold the national quarantine and anti-government protests are halted to avoid mass gatherings.

Unfortunately this means that the grossly underfunded and under-resourced healthcare system, coupled with the poorly controlled movement of people to and from the nation, will likely result in COVID-19’s estimated mortality rate of 3% being much higher in Venezuela. 

Bolivia’s 2019 Presidential Crisis

Bolivia saw a political crisis in the Fall of 2019, President Evo Morales was ousted in what his supporters termed a coup d’etat. But others called this power switch a return to democracy.

Evo Morales grew up in a poor rural area of Bolivia and began his political career as the leader of the union of coca growers. Coca has been grown and utilized by indigenous people for centuries for religious purposes, to combat altitude sickness and as a mild stimulant. The continuation of coca cultivation for sustenance farming is something Morales fought for in spite of U.S. opposition given their War on Drugs and coca’s use in the production of cocaine.

Evo Morales
Source: Wikipedia

In Bolivia at least 40% of the population belongs to one of 36 indigenous groups, the highest percentage out of any South American nation. So it was significant that when Evo Morales came to power in 2006, he became the first indigenous president. He oversaw strong economic growth, a massive reduction in poverty, and an improved literacy rate. In 2006 poverty was at 38% and in 2018 it had decreased to 17%. However, critics point out that poverty has been on the rise in the past two years. 

His regime is situated as part of the “pink tide,” a wave of leftist governments that came to power in the early 2000’s, including leaders like Hugo Cháves in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. The pink tide has since ebbed as a wave of conservatism has washed over the region. 

Evo Morales supporters carry Wiphala flags in Law Paz on November 18, 2019
By Jorge Bernal via Gerry Images.

In 2019, Morales ran for his fourth term as president, confident that he needed to remain in power to complete what he set out to do. He claimed victory even though critics said the result should have resulted in a run-off against his opponent, former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa. 

The election was held on October 20th, 2019 and weeks of protests followed with demonstrators accusing Morales of being a dictator, saying he was violating the constitution by running for a fourth term and complaining about increased corruption. The protests became more and more violent, as residents clashed with police in clouds of tear gas.

PBS NewsHour

The Organization of American States (OSA)  stated that Morales rigged the vote and on November 10th military commander Williams Kaliman held a press conference calling on Morales to step down. On the same day, he resigned, claiming he was the victim of a civic coup d’etat. A few days later he left for Mexico, where he was granted political asylum.  

After Morales resigned so did his vice president, the senate president and the lower house president, all in line to take over, leaving a power vacuum. New Senate President Jeanine Áñez assumed the interim presidency as she was next in line under the constitution. Morales called it “the sneakiest and most nefarious coup in history” while Áñez, denied it was a coup at all saying he left voluntarily. 

VOA News

Áñez is a conservative Christian who proudly brought a bible into the presidential palace for her swearing-in. This was in direct contrast to Morales who banished the book in favour of recognizing Pachamama, or Mother Earth of the Andes, as the official Bolivian diety in the constitution instead of the Catholic church. 

Jeanine Áñez acted swiftly to break all diplomatic ties with Venezuela and moved to recognize  Juan Guiadó as the president, overturning Bolivia’s support of Maduro under Morales. The U.S. and Brazil recognized Áñez’s presidency quickly, confirming both nation’s preference for a more conservative administration. 

Since then, Áñez has been accused of overseeing the detention of political opponents and silencing journalists, as a part of her campaign to “pacify the nation.”

Jeanine Áñez
Source: Valor

When she assumed power Áñez was clear that free and fair elections needed to take place as soon as possible but she took her time getting them arranged. Elections were scheduled for May 3rd, 2020 but have since been postponed due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. 

In Bolivia the debate still surges over whether this was democracy denied or democracy restored. Evo Morales was clinging to power by questionable means and by overstaying his welcome he paved the way to Jeanine Áñez’s conservative take over. 

However, Latin America has a complicated history with regime change with many instances of left-wing governments being overthrown to instate military dictatorships. It is still unclear whether that is what could happen here and only time will tell what direction this deeply divided nation will travel in. But one thing is certain, the outcome will undoubtedly have broad implications for democracy in the region. 

Brazil’s response to COVID-19

We are in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has spread throughout the world but developing nations with limited resources are more at risk. 

All Latin American countries have reported cases but some countries are weathering the storm better than others. Many countries are taking proactive measures including closing borders, imposing curfews, deploying the military and restricting international flights

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been criticized for not taking the public health emergency seriously. He has previously dismissed the pandemic as “hysteria” and “fantasy” while numbers of cases in the country rise. 

He travelled to Florida to meet with US President Donald Trump the first weekend of March. Upon returning to Brazil, 14 members of Bolsonaro’s team tested positive for the virus. He says he has been tested twice and was negative both times. 

Despite advice from his own health minister he left self-isolation on March 15th to fist-bump and take selfies with his supporters who were rallying in protest of Brazil’s Congress and judiciary system.

Bolsonaro greeting supporters
Photograph: Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images
Source: The Guardian

Now, on March 22, he continues to downplay concerns surrounding the virus despite the infection rate exceeding 1,500 cases. While his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has warned of the impending collapse of the Brazilian health care system, Bolsonaro counters that this is too strong of a word. He’s expressed frustration over states limiting commerce and movement, voicing concerns that this will damage the economy. 

Bolsonaro has also been critical of the decision of churches to suspend their services, which makes sense given his rise to power was heavily supported by the evangelical right. In one of my previous blog posts I explore more who Jair Bolsonaro is: a right-wing political veteran who has a history of praising military measures and spouting hateful comments towards women, LGBTQ individuals and Afro- and Indigneous Brazilians. Some have dubbed him the “Trump of the Tropics” for his habit of governing via Twitter and tendency to dispute facts and distribute fake news. 

But some experts are on the same page as Bolsonaro, saying that the warmer climate of South America will help beat the disease and that the nation’s demographics are in their favour. Brazil has a young population, the median age is just under 30, and younger people are known to not be as seriously impacted by COVID-19 compared to the elderly. 

Prof Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, a Colombian immunology expert, says that cross-contamination is not as much of a concern in South America as in Europe, since communities are not as concentrated. 

Others disagree and point to Brazil’s favelas, slums where low-income people are literally stacked on top of each other with entire families sharing one bedroom. It’s in places like these that diseases spread quickly and without intervention as resources are scarce. 

Sonia Maria de Oliveira, 50, stands at the entrance of the Rio de Janeiro favela of Santa Marta shortly after doctors told her they suspected her grandson had the novel coronavirus. 
Photograph: Heloísa Traiano 
Source: The Guardian

On March 18, when cases in the country were only at 500, millions of Brazilians took to their windows and balconies to bang pots and pans (a traditional style of Latin American protest), to voice their discontent over Bolsonaro’s presidency. This was the largest demonstration calling for him to step down yet. 

Jair Bolsonaro is a polarizing leader at the best of times. Will his response to COVID-19 have detrimental impacts on his administration or will this be dismissed as merely another one of his inflammatory comments? Only time will tell. 

Mexican Women Protest Femicide

Women in Mexico are sick of being raped, tortured and killed.

On March 9, 2020 women in Mexico City vanished from the streets as they took part in a 24-hour strike to protest femicide. It was called “A Day Without Us” or “UnDiaSinNosotras” as women stayed home from school, work and public life to raise awareness of gender based violence and the inaction on the part of the government and justice system.

The strike took place the day after 800,000 women took to the streets for International Women’s Day, signifying the widespread discontent over the ingrained culture of violence against women in the country. 

The protestors were mostly peaceful but there was a violent contingent. Masked women broke barriers, smashed windows and spray painted messages. There was criticism that these deviant acts took away from their cause but this is just a way to undermine feminist frustrations. In many ways this is a last resort, “we shout and shout and nothing happens,” activist Carolina Barrales puts it.

An estimated 10 women are killed each day in Mexico and police are investigating more than 700 cases of femicide, the killing of women because of their gender, often by someone they know. According to the National Human Right Commission in Mexico, around 90% of femicides in the country go unpunished.  

Source: The Guardian

These days of action followed outrage over two particularly brutal murders in February. Police arrived at a home in northern Mexico City to find a 46-year-old man covered in blood. He confessed to killing, skinning and mutilating his 25-year-old partner Ingrid Escamilla. 

Pictures of her disfigured corpse were leaked to the media and one paper, Pasala, printed the photo with the caption, “It was cupid’s fault.” This sparked outrage from activists as the image swirled around online. Feminists uploaded photos of landscapes tagging her name so that when people went looking for the gruesome photo they’d be met with sunsets and starscapes instead. 

People made jokes and memes about her death on social media, even going as far to call it a “cabrito” – a north Mexican dish of roasted young goat cut open down the middle with the insides exposed. The commentary on her murder proved victim-blaming is alive and well.

Harder to blame was a 7-year-old girl named Fatima Aldrighett who was abducted outside her school. She was abused and tortured before her body was found four days later in a garbage bag by the side of the road. 

Hundreds gathered on Valentines Day to protest the murder of Ingrid Escamilla
Source: BBC

Unfortunately this form of gruesome violence has a long history in Mexico. The border city of Ciudad Juarez is known to be a hub for the systematic killing of women. Hundreds of women have died due to femicide there since 1993. 

But cases of femicide in the country have more than doubled over the last five years to more than 1,000 in 2019, according to Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security. 

This increase is cause for these ramped up days of protest but it’s important to situate these events within the wider context of feminist resistance some are terming a “feminist spring.” In recent months the feminist anthem, Un Violador en Tu Camino (A Rapist in Your Path) exploded out of protests in Chile and has been performed in over 50 countries. 

This follows the North American #MeToo movement that saw women worldwide sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault on social media. And before there was #MeToo there was #NiUnaMenos which has been used in feminist actions across Latin America including alongside #UnDiaSinNosotras.  

Source: BBC

“Ni Una Menos” means “Not One Less”, recognition that we can’t afford to lose even one more girl to gender-based violence. The phrase originated out of the systematic killings in Ciudad Juarez in 1995 but gained traction as a movement in Argentina in 2015 following femicides in the country. 

So while Mexico has been in the feminist protest spotlight the past week, it’s part of something much larger. Without taking away from the regionality of the protests, it seems like the world is finally listening to the plight of women. 

But change will likely be slow. Following the march and strike, Mexican president López Obrador, known as Amlo, called women’s movements “very important” but at the same time offered no specific policy change to address femicide. 

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Source: Wikipedia

Almo has blamed gender-based violence on a legacy of neoliberal governments before him, completely missing the point that the current frustrations are about the ingrained culture of machismo, not about rival political regimes. He’s also cast himself as the victim of conspiracy, saying conservatives are co-opting the feminist movement in the country to make his administration look bad. 

With this disappointing response,  it is clear that Mexican activists cannot and will not stop fighting. Women are fed up that rape, torture and murder is met with relative impunity. While progress is proving to be slow and strenuous, feminists have managed to garner significant momentum. 

The world cannot afford to ignore them any longer. 

The 2019 Wildfires in Brazil

The Amazon rainforest is unlike anywhere else. It functions as a massive carbon sink, is the most biodiverse region in the world, and is home to several indigenous populations. This rainforest’s existence and preservation is integral to maintaining the quality of life on earth, especially in the face of climate change. 

But in August 2019 the hashtag #PrayForTheAmazon swept social media. Wildfires had broken out over great swaths of the region showing no signs of stopping. The Amazon stretches across 9 countries but the majority of the forest is contained within Brazil. That month, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there were over 75,000 wildfires burning, an 85% increase from the same time the year before. The city of São Paulo was overtaken with smoke even though it was thousands of kilometres away. Brazilians staged protests and international pressure mounted to get the fires under control as trees were being cleared at the rate of five football pitches every minute. 

Locations of fires, marked in orange, which were detected by MODIS from August 15 to August 22, 2019
Source: Wikipedia

How did it reach this crisis point? 

While it is normal for fires to take place during the dry season, naturally occurring wildfires are less common in the Amazon than in places like California and British Columbia. Much of the fire is human-caused, people intentionally set the blazes to make way for agriculture, livestock, mining, and logging. Typically trees and plants are felled and removed by bulldozers and heavy equipment during the wet season (November-June) and the remaining stumps are torched during the dry season (July-October). 

While this slash-and-burn method has been used for thousands of years, there are rules and regulations in place in order to mitigate deforestation. In fact, deforestation was reduced by 80 percent between 2004 and 2012 and Brazil was positioned as an environmental leader. But since then the political discourse has changed, environmental protectionism has been poised as the enemy of economic opportunity. This is in large part thanks to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who dubbed himself “Captain Chainsaw” in reference to his support of Amazon resource extraction. His rhetoric has emboldened farmers to ignore the regulations and organize “days of fire” where they intentionally set fires to their property to show that they agree with his message. They often don’t have the skill-set to contain the blaze and the fires grow out of control. But you can’t place too much blame on the farmers, most of them are economically disadvantaged and just trying to make a living. 

So who is Jair Bolsonaro?

Jair Bolsonaro came to power in January 2019 promising to clamp down on corruption and reduce violent crime. Preceding Bolsonaro’s rise to power, a massive corruption scandal dubbed “Operation Car Wash”, implicated many business and political actors, shaking Brazil’s perception of democracy to its core. Bolsonaro managed to position himself as the leader who would solve these problems, but since the election he has also been accused of corruption. 

Source: Wikipedia

Bolsonaro is a political veteran and former military officer who is well known for standing by his controversial opinions having firmly positioned himself on the far right. He has long praised the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985, claiming that it’s only problem was that “it didn’t kill enough of its opponents”. He has made hateful comments towards women, once telling a female political rival “she wasn’t even worth raping”. He’s said he’d be “incapable of loving a homosexual son,” and there was a rise in hate crimes against LGBTQ individuals during his campaign. He’s made offensive remarks about Afro- and Indigneous Brazilians, and has little regard for aboriginal rights. 

Bolsonaro has a habit of governing via Twitter and has a history of disputing facts and distributing fake news. Some have dubbed him “The Trump of the Tropics.” Like Donald Trump, he rejects the urgency of climate change and promised to take his country out of the Paris Accord, although he reneged on that promise. He campaigned on a pro-business and pro-development platform focused on opening the Amazon to more economic activities. 

What was Bolsonaro’s response to the wildfires?

When Ricardo Galvão, the director of the Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) presented satellite data showing the rise in Amazon deforestation, Bolsonaro dismissed it as “lies” and then he fired him. Bolsonaro claimed Galvão was using the data to lead an “anti-Brazil campaign.”

Despite zero evidence, Bolsonaro accused NGOs of starting the fires in order to embarrass his government. Environmental activists argued this was just a way for him to deflect attention away from how his regime allowed for erosion of oversight. He has slashed the budget of Brazil’s main environmental agency by 24%.

When French President Macron made collective action for “our Amazon” a priority of the G7 summit, Bolsonaro accused him of having a “colonialist mentality.” The two got into a war of words with Bolsonaro demanding an apology before he would accept foreign aid to fight the fires. 

Where does this leave us?

Over the past 50 years approximately 17% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed and scientists warn we could reach an irreversible tipping point if we reach 20-25%. At that point the ecosystem will turn from a rainforest to a dry savanna. A lot is at stake, the Amazon is a reservoir of fresh water and the trees capture an immense amount of carbon, it’s an important tool in our fight against climate change. Additionally, the biodiversity could contain resources for food and new fabrics and building materials, as well as potential medical advancements like cures for cancers. 

Experts are calling for collective action to refuse products that rely on slash-and-burn methods as a way to start to steer the global economy away from deforestation. While I’m sceptical that a product boycott could make a meaningful impact, it is undeniable that Bolsonaro’s international reputation took a hit because of his position on the wildfires and environmental protections more broadly. It’s clear that the global community must continue to loudly advocate for meaningful climate action and specific protections of the Amazon from all world leaders. Our future depends on it. 

The Crisis in Venezuela

There continues to be a mass exodus from Venezuela, which has seen about 5 million people, more than 10% of the population, flee the country. They are attempting to escape hyperinflation, severe shortages of food and medicine, a sharp increase in violence, among other terrors. This economic and political crisis didn’t happen overnight, we have to go back at least as far as the presidency of Hugo Cháves. 

Cháves came to power in 1999 and his tactics were characterized by populism: big, sweeping ideas people could get behind as he promised to improve the lives of the poor. He was a big fan of Simón Bolívar, the military and political leader who led several South American states to independence in the 1800’s. Bolívar had a dream of a Pan-American future, something Cháves wanted to emulate in what he termed the Bolivarian Revolution. 

The aims of the Bolivarian Revolution were to create a Latin American coalition, champion nationalism and encourage a state-led economy. Cháves was able to spend liberally because the oil industry was doing well at the time. He made investments in social programs improving access to healthcare, increasing literacy rates, and contributing to an overall reduction of poverty. His presidency was situated as part of the “pink tide” of the early 2000s, a wave of socialist styles of government that swept the continent including leaders like Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Hugo Cháves
Source: abc news

But the good times didn’t last as the oil industry declined and his measures like price caps on consumer goods and currency controls began to backfire. Sanctions by the U.S. also contributed to the worsening economy. In 2010, Cháves declared an “economic war” on the bourgeois of Venezuela following a decline in government revenues, marking the beginning of the crisis. In 2013, he abruptly died of cancer and his successor, Nicolás Maduro came to power. Maduro continued on with many of his policies but discontent among people started to rise with inflation skyrocketing, people starving and violence escalating. 

A helpful way to understand how quickly things have been changing is the Bloomberg Cafe con Leche index, which has been tracking the price of a cup of coffee in Caracas. Its price has jumped to 90,000 bolivars from 2,000 bolivars over the past 12 months, an increase of 4,400 percent.

In 2017 Maduro denounced the National Assembly, mostly made up of opposition members, and instead created a Constituent Assembly. Constituent Assemblies are meant to overhaul the constitution and when Cháves made one back in 1999, he did so following a referendum. Seeing this move merely a way for Maduro to maximize his power, opposition members abstained from participating in the election, as such it was filled with government loyalists.

The UN has stated that Maduro’s government has repeatedly used violence to silence opponents and instill fear in the population in order to solidify power. There have been multiple protests and many deaths and opposition members have effectively been barred from participating in democracy. Many are in exile, some are in prison, while others have been subjected to violence, torture, and extrajudicial killings. 

Nicolás Maduro
Source: Stabroek News

In 2018, Maduro entered his second six-year term following widely contested elections. In January 2019, Juan Guaidó, the leader of  the National Assembly declared himself president citing various articles in the constitution. While he wields no real power given the existence of the Constituent Assembly, and while the military still backs Maduro, he has the support of the United States and 50 other countries, while China and Russia continue to support Maduro. 

More recently, in January 2020, Guaidó’s leadership was challenged. An election to make Luis Parra speaker was held without quorum, and later Juan Guaidó was sworn in by torchlight at a different location as he was blocked by police from entering the National Assembly. 

Juan Guaidó
Source: Axios

We seem to be entering a new era with the hopeful progressive policies of the pink tide an almost distant memory, while we forge ahead into a time of heavy-handed, authoritarian style tactics. While Cháves briefly brought prosperity and hope, the economy has imploded under Maduro resulting in a man clinging to power via illegitimate means. His human rights abuses are inexcusable and it’s clear he must leave office in order for free and fair elections to take place. 

But is that likely to happen? Or will we see Juan Guaidó thrust into power with the backing of the United States? While I’m not arguing for the continuation of the tragedy that has been endured under Maduro, I am cautious of any figure that is backed by the U.S. 

The U.S. has a long and devastating history of overthrowing left-wing governments that don’t serve their economic interests. A key historic example is the ousting of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 after he moved to nationalize the copper industry. Instead the U.S. established the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that committed egregious human rights abuses against its own people until it ended in 1990. 

U.S. military intervention is something Latin American nations have dealt with since their emancipation from Spain. 

Like many, I want to see socialist policies that improve the lives of the poor in Venezuela, and it’s obvious that Maduro can’t be that. But I am cautious and watching intently as to what sort of leader Juan Guaidó will be as he’s backed by the United States, who has a habit of removing socialist presidencies and implanting right-wing governments that serve their specific interests. 

The Chilean Feminist Anthem

In November 2019, during the Chilean protests, “Un Violador en Tu Camino, (A Rapist in Your Path), erupted as a feminist anthem. This song, which was created as more of a performative art piece, was adopted by demonstrators and after being shared on social media, took off world-wide.

The chant is a powerful commentary on rape. Created by the feminist collective, Las Tesis, the lyrics were informed by Argentinian-born anthropologist Rita Segato’s teachings on how to tackle gender-based violence by dismantling power structures that place men above women.

The words identify that patriarchy is embedded in and perpetuated by the system. The lyrics state, “The rapist is you. It’s the cops. It’s the judge. It’s the system. It’s the president.” Then, “This oppressive state is a macho rapist.” During the chorus they shout, “It’s not my fault, not where I was, nor what I wore,” fighting back against victim-blaming.

Performers in Chile donned “club wear” to express autonomy over their bodies no matter how they’re dressed. Others wore green scarfs, a sign for the fight for access to legal abortion. Many wore black blindfolds to symbolize the blindfolding by Chilean police. About three times during the chant performers squat down to mimic the position women are forced to take during arrest and for body cavity searches, often stripped naked. The title is also a play on the police slogan, “a friend in your path.”

One of the most powerful performances of the chant was the one organized by older Chileans outside the national stadium in Santiago. This facility was utilized as a prison camp during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet from 1973-1990 and many were brought there to be tortured and killed. Some of the performers were survivors of the dictatorship and the demonstration drew a large crowd that blocked traffic. 

This song which has been called a slogan for dignity, a battle hymn, a war chant. was swept up and adopted by the North American #MeToo movement

#MeToo gained traction in 2017 after allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Wienstein came to light and celebrities urged women to post #MeToo if they had ever been a victim of sexual harassment or assault, as a way to raise awareness over how widespread the problem is. 

In January 2020, Un Violador en Tu Camino was performed outside the New York courtroom where Harvey Weinstein was on trial for rape. They performed it again at Trump Tower, a building owned by the U.S. president who has over 20 allegations of sexual assault against him.

Soure: Elle

#MeToo was a powerful viral trend as many women felt supported enough to speak out for the first time. But to situate the proliferation of Un Violador en Tu Camino as simply a part of the #MeToo movement would be an affront to Latin American women everywhere. Because 2 years before there was #MeToo there was #NiUnaMenos. 

The UN has stated that Latin America is the world’s most violent region for women. The cultural complexity that is machismo results in ingrained sexism that permeates nearly every aspect of daily life leading to extreme forms of oppression and inequality. This manifests in some of the highest rates of femincide and sexual violence in the world, as well as draconian anti-abortion laws. 

“Ni Una Menos” means “Not One Less”, recognition that we can’t afford to lose even one more girl to gender-based violence. The name came from the Mexican poet and activist Susana Chávez, who first coined the phrase, “Ni una menos, ni una muerta más” (not one less, not one more [woman] dead) in 1995. She was one of the first to report on the systematic killings in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city where hundreds of women have died due to femincide since 1993. Chávez herself was assassinated in 2011. 

Eight crosses where eight victims of femicide were found in Ciudad Juárez in 1996.
Source: Wikipedia

Then in Argentina in 2015, a 14-year old pregnant girl named Chiara Paez was found buried in her boyfriend’s yard. He confessed to beating her to death after forcing her to take pills to terminate the pregnancy. A few months earlier the remains of Daiana Garcia, who was 19, were found in a garbage bag by the side of the road. These atrocities, among others, were the catalyst for the first protest of Ni Una Menos which took place in Buenos Aires. But it wasn’t just this single event, Ni Una Menos is a movement that’s alive and well, and is a phrase still used in feminist demonstrations across the region.

Illustration by Liniers in 2015, one of the most prominent visual icons of the movement

The performance of Un Violador en Tu Camino across the globe has put a spotlight on the issue of sexualized violence. It’s encouraging to see South American influences in North American movements as historically ideas haven’t always flowed in that direction. But it’s also important to remember these events are never isolated incidents but rather, they take place in a constellation of resistance. 

Protests in Chile

In October 2019 protests exploded in Chile over a rise in metro fares. Now in February 2020, protestors are still gathering every weekend. Why?

Metro fares were going to rise by 4% making them among the highest in Latin America. Students hopped over the turnstiles in defiance of the new fee, and were met with police opposition. Protests spilled into the streets, metro stations were vandalized, shops were looted and gas stations were burned, leading the president to call for a state of emergency. In response to the protest, president Sebastián Piñera said “We are at war against a powerful enemy, willing to use violence with no limits.” As one would expect, vilifying the protestors didn’t exactly encourage dialogue and only served to stoke the anger of participants. 

But the fare increase was really just a breaking point as the students were joined en mass by Chileans demanding social justice, their frustrations stemming from a high cost of living and growing inequality. Since the initial protests, participants have called for higher wages and larger pensions, free education, a new constitution and for the conservative billionaire president, Piñera to step down.

The protests are the most violence Chile has experienced since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that tortured, disappeared and murdered thousands from 1973-1990. Perhaps one of the reasons the tensions in Chile have reached this boiling point is because older Chileans remember the oppression suffered under Pinochet’s regime and were therefore cautious to protest. Since younger Chileans don’t remember these horrors first-hand they are more willing to enter the streets.

Source: Wikipedia

Many of the economic concerns coming to light through the protests stem from the legacy of Pinochet. Chile was the first Latin American country to adopt neoliberalism under Pinochet, becoming the “poster child” for this economic model in the region. The tenets of neoliberalism as agreed upon in the Washington Consensus include the privatization of industry, the removal of trade/tariff barriers, minimal government regulation in the economy, and the cutting of spending on social programs, amongst other provisions. 

Additionally, Pinochet privatized health care, education and the pension system, and enshrined the legal basis for this market-driven economic model in the constitution

This mass privatization occurred during a recession sporting an elevated interest rate, making the only people able to purchase companies and property those with excess wealth. This event was an instance of the reproduction of the large socioeconomic void in Chilean society between the elite and working-class and a direct reason these tensions still exist. 

Source: BBC

Today, Chile has the biggest gap between the rich and the poor among OECD countries. Countries a part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have high performing economies and a very high Human Development Index, meaning that among developed nations, Chile’s inequality is the most stark.

More than 20 people have been killed in 4 months of protests and 50,000 others arrested. The military and police have been criticized as using unreasonable amounts of force. The UN Human Rights Commission has documented 140 cases of abuse, torture and sexual violence used against protestors as of December 2019.

Source: TRT World

Since the start of the protests, Piñera has made concessions, he suspended the subway fee hike, agreed to raise pensions and the minimum wage, and reshuffled his cabinet. He has also agreed to begin the process of overhauling the constitution, and enshrining basic health care and education as human rights. In April 2020, Chileans will vote on whether or not they want to throw out the constitution drafted by Pinochet in 1980, and how they want to create a new one. The vote is likely to pass but it won’t be until late 2021 before a new document would come into force. 

Despite all these measures, Chileans are still continuing to gather en masse. While violent clashes continue, the majority gather with peaceful intent, banging pots and pans in a traditional form of protest across Latin America known as a “cacerolazo.” While a new constitution is an opportunity to move towards a more inclusive system, inequality won’t be solved with the approval of a new document. It will take time and the political will to undo decades of neoliberal policies.