Social unrest and COVID-19: In LatAm, a break during the outbreak

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BOGOTA. Social unrest across Latin America has died down as the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic rapidly spreads throughout the region.

By the end of a turbulent 2019, protests and demonstrations and social unrest had erupted in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Chile and, by all indications, the conflicts were poised to escalate. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, conditions are going from very bad to catastrophic.

Several cities in each of those countries had been hit by protests but also by vandalism that has increasingly gone hand in hand with the social unrest. 

All this unrest and the social concerns that go with it have not taken a back seat to the pressure and challenges of dealing with COVID-19 and what the pandemic could mean for the region and the world. 

Colombia’s caceroladas

In Colombia, the unrest was led by left-leaning movements and backed by the teacher’s guild and multiple workers’ unions. All have now called off street protests against the Colombian government that were planned for mid and late March. 

Instead, organizers are now promoting protests that people can hold from their balconies. These protests are being called caceroladas – banging pans with utensils to make a lot of noise. A cacerola is a pan. 

At the same time, Colombian protesters have shifted away from their list of 114 demands and are calling for a better and faster response the the COVID-19 crisis. Colombia has already reported 108 confirmed cases, most of them imported from Europe.

Opposition leader Gustavo Petro has called on people to disobey government rules during this crisis, by staying at home.

“Civil disobedience is confining yourself at home definitively and not temporarily. Night and day. Only one family member should go out for food. Let’s join forces to suspend payments on mortgage debts, leases and public services. For the food voucher for the poor,” he tweeted.

The Colombian government has already ordered that water service be reconnected to all households that had not paid their bills saying that, in Colombia, no one will face the COVID-19 crisis at home without running water.

Colombia confirmed its first COVID-19 case on March 6, 18 days after the first case was confirmed in Italy. 

Both the Italians and the Spanish have warned Latin American governments about their own mistakes in containing the virus, and the dangers ahead if severe and draconian measures are not put in place on time. However, the response from the Colombian government has been slow.

“A family that bangs the pans united against the bad government of (President Ivan) Duque and against coronavirus, remains united,” Jorge Robledo, a congressman and member of an opposition party tweeted.  He also posted a video of himself banging pans on a balcony. 

Starting on Friday, March 19, and until May 31, Robledo as well as millions of Colombians over the age of 70 will have to remain at home as a result of a curfew put in place by the Colombian government as part of its efforts to contain the virus, while protecting the most vulnerable population.

Angela Robledo, Petro’s former running mate, called on people to perform a cacerolada on the streets, defying the spread of the virus and the concerns of both citizens and authorities of spreading the virus, the way it happened in Madrid, Spain, after a March 8 march for International Women’s Day. 

“To protect the life, I invite you to bang the pans on the streets. I’m sure that @IvanDuque would put a curfew in place,” she tweeted.

Robledo’s call gained no traction as people in Colombia move out of the streets. 

Ecuador’s blocked runways

South of Colombia, Ecuador also experienced protests and unrest after the government announced an increase in the price of gasoline. Now, the only protests that have gone ahead have been triggered by the mayor of Guayaquil, the country’s second most important city and they are hardly traditional.

Fearing the spread of the virus, the mayor ordered all service cars and personnel from the town to invade the runway at Guayaquilâ’s international airport one hour before the landing of an Iberia A340 flight that had departed from Madrid. The flight had to divert to Quito.

Upon arrival, however, national authorities showed that there were only crew and no passengers flying on the plane, which was trying to reach Guayaquil to evacuate Europeans.

Peru and Chile: Skies closed

Neighboring Peru closed its skies completely and president Martin Vizcarra is getting a break from opposition leaders, while the country unites and embraces a battle against the virus. Peru has, so far, reported 234 confirmed cases and one death.

Meanwhile Chile, which was gripped by some of the most violent civil unrest through to the beginning of this year, has gotten something of a break from protests and vandalism. 

While things are not exactly returning to normal, given that people are starting periods of self-confinement and quarantines to hold the virus at bay. Still, Chile has already reported 342 cases. 

A referendum for a new constitution, a promise from President Sebastian Piñera to please opposition in the streets, is scheduled for April 26, and so far the date has not yet changed despite several calls from the opposition to change the date due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Venezuela: Catastrophe

In the northern cone of South America, a country is bracing foe impact. In Venezuela, COVID-19 may distract from street protests but will do little to help the country overcome one of the worst economic crises underway in the world today.

On March 10, protesters took to the streets of Caracas. An act of protest that could be considered as one of the last ones before the new realities of COVID-19 sweeped in. 

Shortly after, the Venezuelan regime headed by Nicolás Maduro confirmed the first cases of the virus.

Of particular concern is that Venezuela lacks medical supplies to deal with traditional health care needs, much less an outbreak like the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the infrastructure in the country is weak, making it very difficult if not impossible for people to follow the recommended precautions or even for hospitals to provide effective care.

For instance, running water has not been constant for quite some time but is rationed and, in the capital, is maybe turned on for about an hour a day. There are also frequent blackouts and, perhaps more worrisome, a constant scarcity of food and fuel despite Venezuela being one of the largest oil producers in the world. 

Interim President Juan Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by many governments around the world, has so far not been able to gain enough domestic support to face the COVID-19 emergency effectively. 

Meanwhile, Maduro has little recognition abroad and may not have access to the funds the country needs. Maduro’s regime asked the International Monetary Fund for a US$5 billion loan but his request was rejected due to the lack of consensus among its members about whether to recognize Maduro. 

Guaidó has asked for the release of political prisoners, due to the high risk they are exposed to the coronavirus.

Latin America as a whole is bracing for an impact and many people are trying to put political differences aside to survive the healthcare and economic tsunami likely to follow closely behind COVID-19.