With public university students (including those I teach at the Universidad Nacional in Medellín) and young people in the lead, Colombia’s vibrant, diverse and terrorised social movements have all come out at once, which does not imply programmatic unity. The geographic scope of the mobilisation has been as impressive as its sectoral breadth, and the demands are widely divergent.
In north-eastern Brazil, a year has passed without carnival or football games. The ICU occupation rate is now at 85 per cent across the city of Salvador and the state of Bahia. The number of daily deaths has nearly doubled in the two weeks since the governor, Rui Costa, forecasting tragedy, cried on television. The mayor, Bruno Reis, implemented a curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., and ordered all non-essential businesses to close along with beaches, parks and playgrounds.
For Victor Peña, a cacique of the Zenú people, Colombia’s second most numerous indigenous group, 2021 is shaping up to be a continuation of 2020, which is to say dreadful beyond measure. The year started with Victor running out of gas for cooking rice and eggs in his kitchen: the only staples he can afford to eat since the pandemic hit, and all his sources of income dried up (he used to sell the hand-woven hats for which the Zenú are internationally known, along with beaded jewellery). Then he had to borrow money for the other kind of gas so he could ride his motorcycle from Medellín to his hometown of Tuchín, Córdoba, for his cousin’s funeral. They had grown up together as brothers. Victor’s cousin was murdered by local paramilitaries, possibly because they mistook him for someone else – perhaps Victor himself, as the resemblance is striking – or for some other reason that will remain a mystery, since no one will investigate the killing.
Were it not for the semi-consistent use of masks in the street, and the closing of the beaches on Sundays and Mondays, you could be forgiven for thinking the pandemic hadn’t reached Salvador da Bahia, the capital of the state with the second-lowest Covid-19 death rate in Brazil. The official number of deaths for the whole country surpassed 200,000 on 8 January. Locals and visitors (mainly from elsewhere in Brazil) congregate in groups at outdoor tables without masks, and people walk – some masked, others not – along the oceanfront. A festa continua, mas não.
On 1 October, one of Medellín’s leading radical public intellectuals, historians and humanists, Campo Elías Galindo, was tortured and murdered in his apartment. There was blood everywhere. The neo-fascists who killed him burned a book on his chest to make their point. During a meeting in the Parque del Periodista on 8 October, organised by the Unión Patriotica to honour his legacy, there was an explosion nearby. The police ruled it an accident: no bomb was involved, they said, just a gas leak.
A year ago, a far-right coup in Bolivia – backed by Brazil and the US – ousted the democratically elected government of Evo Morales, catapulting Jeanine Áñez, an unknown senator from the lowland frontier region of Beni, to the presidency. Áñez promised to hold elections within 90 days, but instead postponed them three times. On 18 October this year, Morales’s party, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), won a crushing first-round victory on an 86 per cent turnout. The new president, Luis Arce, for many years Morales’s economy minister, won 55 per cent of the vote against a fractured right-wing opposition.
Now that a new date for elections – 18 October – is irreversible, Bolivia has once again narrowly avoided civil war. Jeanine Áñez was installed as president in a coup last November with Brazilian, US and Bolivian military support, following the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS). Áñez promised new elections within ninety days. At the end of July, they were postponed for a third time.
Brazil has 2.8 per cent of the world’s population and (so far) 14 per cent of the world’s Covid-19 deaths. The country’s death toll topped 100,000 on 8 August. For the first time, the military took rhetorical distance from Bolsonaro, who commented on the football results rather than the gruesome pandemic landmark.
When Mateo Martínez Ruíz disappeared on 7 July in Bello, a deindustrialised suburb just north of Medellín, I assumed his body would never be found. But on 8 August, Mateo’s badly tortured corpse was discovered in Potrerito, a rural area of Bello. According to a trusted local source, Mateo was murdered by Los Chatas, an organised crime faction, because of his political activism.
In March, I described the way threats against my neighbour, Sara Fernández, a distinguished scholar of gender and sexuality at the Universidad de Antioquia, quickly escalated into an attempt to murder her because of her trade union leadership. I have not seen her since, and can only reach her via third parties. With luck, she will be heading into exile; she asked for official protection but was not given it. Mateo Martínez Ruíz has not been seen or heard from since 7 July. We have no evidence of his disappearance, and no witnesses, and that’s never a good sign. I know Mateo: he’s the brother of one student, and the cousin of another, at the Universidad Nacional in Medellín, where I work. We have had heated political debates of the sort that are needed in Colombia now more than ever, but have become too dangerous to sustain publicly – and would be even if the coronavirus disappeared tomorrow.