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.
Although dozens of her own officials have been involved in corruption scandals, including a health minister caught price-gouging on respirators, Añez – like Bolsonaro and Trump – peddles conspiracy theories about enemies in the media, government and civil society. They allegedly follow Morales’s directives, and plot her overthrow through terrorism and drug trafficking in conjunction with Peruvians and Colombians (never mind that Colombian guerrillas are less than a shadow of their former selves).
Brazil’s official Covid-19 death toll has more than doubled since I last wrote, four weeks ago, with 51,407 deaths and more than a million confirmed cases. According to the first nationwide study, the real number of cases could be seven times that, but the research teams charged with investigating were harassed and detained, and 800 tests were destroyed. President Bolsonaro, meanwhile, is still pushing hydroxychloroquine and making jokes about the ‘minor flu’. The federal court in Brasilia has ordered that Bolsonaro be fined every time he appears in public without a mask.
When my son, who’s 19, called from Minneapolis on Saturday night, I was watching the livestream of protesters defying curfew there for the second night in a row, and listening to young people dry heave, like my students in Colombia, from the tear gas. Because he has first-aid training for mountaineering, my son was volunteering in a medical tent clearly identified with a red cross, but the state police fired on them with tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and he and his friends hoofed it home. The real medics told him to stay in for the night. It was going to get rough.