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Perspectives from Bolivia

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Alejandro Barrios Noya, director of the Instituto Politecnico Tomas Katari in Sucre, Bolivia.

Five years ago, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by all United Nations member-states as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the global economy and lives and livelihoods, world leaders are seeking to rally people behind calls like “we’re all in the same boat” and “now is a time to work together”. Meanwhile, national responses largely focus on somehow supporting their citizens with economic packages and health services. But where does this leave those confined to the margins of society?

The Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Tetet Nera-Lauron spoke with Alejandro Barrios Noya, a civil society expert from Bolivia with extensive experience working with different groups already facing multi-layered inequalities. Alejandro is Director of the Instituto Politecnico Tomas Katari, an organization focused on interculturality, environmental sustainability, and food sovereignty as means to achieve Buen Vivir (“living well”). His work also takes him to regional and global negotiations forums, including the Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the climate change negotiations, where he once served as a member of the official Bolivian delegation.

TN: How is the pandemic situation in Bolivia? What’s keeping you busy?

AN: To date, we have been in total lockdown for 60 days. It’s been a big challenge to adapt to the pandemic. In Bolivia it has been an even greater challenge because the government lacks legitimacy and leadership. Its legality is widely questioned, which has meant that the people do not adopt the measures voluntarily and conscientiously. The government has put measures in place that threaten free expression, and there is heightened repression from the police and military. 

Alejandro Barrios Noya is the director of the Instituto Politecnico Tomas Katari in Sucre, Bolivia.

Many people we work with feel very affected by COVID-19, and our projects aiming to improve their living conditions are being stopped and put at risk by funding agencies. As an activist and head of Instituto Politécnico Tomás Katari (IPTK) I’m very busy these days, because we undertook a direct campaign to support Bolivia’s most vulnerable rural families, distributing baskets of basic food, providing educational materials to children, running radio education programs, boosting the prevention of violence against women, and providing health care through the IPTK hospital.

I’m working from home with all that I can. I try to make use of this time to write and re-plan the activities in line with the total quarantine. Like everything, there is also the other side of all this. I am enjoying my fatherhood to the fullest and able to dedicate myself to the education of my children many hours a day.

What can you say about the Bolivian government’s pandemic response?

The situation in the country is getting worse every day. Infections have increased at a faster pace, the latest data we have is that there are around 7,000 confirmed cases, 271 deaths, and 647 people recovered.

The government has declared a total quarantine until 31 May and has been developing economic mitigation measures in response to COVID-19 and the post-pandemic that is generating much concern. It’s important to remember that quarantine should be accompanied by an effective health response such as increasing the number of health personnel, ensuring their protection with biosafety kits, providing rapid and mass diagnoses, upgrading facilities for the care of those afflicted with the virus, and more. This is not happening.

The government only reports on the health situation with data on infections and deaths, but not on the health strategy or policy—if it exists at all—which leaves the population in a state of uncertainty accompanied by fear because of both the increase in confirmed cases and the militarized control of the streets and the criminalization of poor people who leave their homes to seek food and economic sustenance for their families.

In Bolivia, there is a huge number of people who belong to the informal sector, earning a living through street commerce or other services, or are farmers living in rural areas. In several regions of the country there have already been spontaneous protests to demand effective government policies responding to the basic needs of the poorest people. The government responds with repression, prosecution, and imprisonment. When the government closed the border, more than 800 Bolivians were stranded on the border between Chile and Bolivia with very minimal support. On the other hand, however, it permits “solidarity flights” for people who can afford to rent private jets and allows them to quarantine in their homes.

Interim President Jeanine Áñez issued a decree stating “individuals who incite non-compliance or misinform or cause uncertainty to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health”. The armed forces and the police have been mobilized to ‘cyber-patrol’ the internet, going after Bolivians critical of government policies. In this context, human rights are systematically violated on a daily basis.

Bolivia has enormous difficulties in terms of health, and has not been able to develop alternative economic measures to guarantee compliance with the quarantine. The government resorts to repression rather than awareness, prevention, and organization of a comprehensive strategy. Oh, and did I mention that there is also massive corruption up to the highest levels of government when it comes to purchasing health and medical supplies? Government officials are profiteering from the pandemic while the rest of the population struggles to survive.

The government has mortgaged the country anew with loans from the International Monetary Fund, despite the fact that Bolivia has already liberated itself from the Bretton Woods institutions. As part of this new debt trap, Bolivia is instructed to implement neoliberal programmes as a way out of the looming economic crisis, such as introducing transgenic seeds and putting a halt to the national development of its vast lithium reserves. The private sector also benefits from the government’s economic policies, such as tax cuts or bailing out the financial sector.

What do you think about the narrative that the pandemic is an equalizer—affecting everyone, regardless of where they are or their status in life?

There are some clear and initial facts about the differentiated impacts of COVID-19 on the poor and the affluent. Just recently, the Bolivian Chamber of Industry and Commerce stated that 80 percent of companies would have to terminate contracts with their employees in the coming months due to the economic downturn. Meanwhile, the government has injected 500 million Bolivianos (around 72 million US dollars) to bail out private banks after some businessmen donated 22 million Bolivianos to the government.

Bolivia has the world’s largest informal economy, making for 62 percent of total domestic production. Women comprise the majority of workers in the informal sector, and usually receive lower wages. Now that the informal economy is practically paralyzed, we see that this will have a very big effect on poor families who depend on it for their daily subsistence. The pandemic will certainly bring more uncertainty and hardship for domestic workers, who are particularly vulnerable because their contracts are often verbal. There is no guarantee they will still have jobs or incomes. Perhaps their employers will use the uncertainty of the situation as a pretext for exploiting them even more.

The government promised to provide basic food provisions, but this has been widely criticized as insufficient. Yet at the same time that support for people’s livelihoods and health needs has been slow in coming, the government managed to give its police sector pay hikes.

It is clear that this health crisis does not equalize anything, but rather exposes and deepens the gap between rich and poor.

You have been engaged with the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Do you think the SDGs are sufficient to confront the scale of COVID-19?

There is nodoubt that COVID-19 will affect everything, including compliance with the SDGs. This crisis has highlighted the state’s crucial role in addressing social protection issues such as health and education. The crisis has also put the spotlight on the state’s participation in the economy in order to reduce poverty and overcome social injustices, which is what the SDGs supposedly aim for. The economic recession will affect the fulfilment of the SDGs, as many more will reach levels of extreme poverty.

The Agenda 2030 was a response to the multiple crises in the environment and in the economy, with massive inequality around us. Even then, many were already quite critical of Agenda 2030’s capacity to turn things around and meet its goal of “leaving no one behind”, because it does not veer away from the neoliberal view on development. In this sense, the SDGs had inherent “design flaws” from the start, and I think they will have to be reimagined.

The UN Secretary General recently called on the international community to “rebuild better, together”? Can you get behind this slogan?

The COVID-19 pandemic puts so much on the table. 2020 could be a milestone in history. Nothing can ever be the same again. Emergencies accelerate historical processes. Either this takes a course of deepening the greatest injustices, or from here springs hope for change. I hope that necessity will be seen as a new destiny.

It is an urgent need given the impact and consequences of COVID-19 in the world. Health as a fundamental right of all people cannot be guaranteed by private systems at the expense of public systems, which also lack sufficient personnel, equipment, and infrastructure while governments prioritize spending on their Ministries of Defence and equipping security forces. Although the liberal logic intended to displace the state from important decisions in economic matters, today all societies turn to the state to ask for salvation in the current crisis. Conceiving of a strong state that prioritizes the interests of the people with particular emphasis on vulnerable sectors seems to be a crucial task in the new era that is emerging.

Rebuilding “better, together” means economies must be energized and reoriented by promoting the redistribution of wealth, the promotion of the domestic market, and the assumption of collective production and distribution. There should be massive investments in social protections such as health, education, the fight against climate change, and gender equality.