Tierra y Libertad. Oaxaca de Juárez.
With regard to Mexico’s socio-political economy, it’s important to talk about what is currently happening in the United States, as so much of the social, political, and economic events of the two countries have profound effects on each other (Lozano). The situation in the United States has turned into an absolute disaster, with either nonexistent or misleading leadership from the national government, a major lack of testing, and unavailability of necessary resources for protection of medical staff and treatment of the disease itself. An enormous sector of society has been left without an income, unable to pay their rent or basic services, and the economic stimulus package recently approved by the government has hardly begun to cover the needs of “every-day Americans” (Bokat-Lindell). Although the current state of public health and the economy serves as a grave warning and model for preparation (and what not to do), very few people are using the United States as an example to evaluate and question the measures being taken by the Mexican government.
The stay-at-home orders adopted by the majority of state governments are only effective for a small portion of the population: those who have the luxury of staying within the comforts of their homes, the economic stability to stock up on food and other necessities, and the privilege to work from home or go on paid sick leave. Overwhelmingly, those who are already most vulnerable to complications of the coronavirus are those who are unable to follow the stay at home orders: poor communities, which, in the United States, means disproportionately black and brown populations who have the least access to adequate healthcare, running water, healthy food, and housing and job security (Democracy Now!). People of color also make up a majority of the workforce which has been deemed “essential” and are therefore at a higher risk of infection, but are not being granted necessary protections or even the right to paid sick leave, nor do they make enough money to leave their jobs and still be able to pay the bills (Democracy Now!).
The popular economic relief measures pursued by the federal government have largely been an expansion of unemployment benefits, rather than measures that would protect the job stability (and therefore healthcare access) of the general population. According to The New York Times Editorial Board, “[a] number of European countries” have chosen to prioritize employment by compensating up to 90 percent of workers salaries during the lockdown period, including those entirely unable to work and whose jobs have been reduced to part-time. These countries are “freezing their economies” to avoid suffering a more extreme economic downturn caused by overwhelming percentages of unemployment: “people who lose jobs, even if they eventually find new ones, suffer lasting damage to their earnings potential, health and even the prospects of their children” (“Why Is America”). Instead of helping workers hold onto their jobs, and therefore ensuring, in many cases, their entire family’s access to healthcare, the United States has opted for allowing a level of mass unemployment never-before-seen in the history of the nation, and compensating those affected–if they’re able to submit an application to the overwhelmed system–with only about 50 percent of the national minimum-wage in unemployment benefits (“Why Is America”, Apuzzo).
Trump’s one claim-to-fame in this mess (and what he hopes will get him re-elected) is his personal signature on the stimulus checks that will be sent out to “every” working American who makes $99,000 a year or less (“Why Is America”). The problem is that the one-time only $1200 “land-lord bail-outs” aren’t even close to what the estimated need of the public is, and aren’t available to many of the people who need it most (students, people whose economic situation has changed from last year to now, unhoused folks who didn’t file taxes last year, etc.) (“Why Is America”). Countless media outlets and experts have called the multi-trillion dollar stimulus package a “slush fund” for corporate bail-outs, with billions of dollars available to mega-corporations (without the necessary oversight) and only a third of what experts estimate is needed to support small businesses and the general public (the small business fund has already run out of money) (“Why Is America”).
Meanwhile, Trump’s America held in-person protests of their state’s lockdowns with little-to-no protection, angrily claiming their “liberty” has been taken from them (the right to a haircut? Or to be served food by a lower-income person in a restaurant?) and, at the same time, exposing their disregard for public health, ignorance of the socio-economic inequalities that are currently affecting people in serious ways, and blind faith in the righteousness of their nation.
A popular beach in Santa María Huatulco, Oaxaca, in September of 2019.
The city of Huatulco was developed almost entirely with foreign investment money, built for the sole purpose of attracting tourism–at the expense of locals whose communities and livelihoods were displaced. Tourism is the city's main income.
Mexico has had the advantage of time: to evaluate the outbreak in many countries around the world as well as the public health and economic response measures taken, and to prepare for the virus’ arrival in it’s own territories. In many ways, the government’s preparation has been impressively comprehensive, as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador put medical experts in charge of his administration’s public health response. Compared to the Trump Administration’s recklessness, Mexico’s handling of the pandemic seems almost ideal. However, given the socio-economic differences between the two countries, the effects of the pandemic in Mexico, if not addressed quickly, efficiently, and comprehensively, have the potential to be far more lethal for those who are most vulnerable. Although his economic plans have stayed true to the national development and redistribution of wealth that has characterized his presidency, there are aspects of every-day people’s basic living needs that are being left out of the response.
Besides holding daily informational conferences to keep the public as well-informed as possible, the Mexican government’s earliest responses included closing schools, implementing social distancing measures–La Jornada Nacional de Sana Distancia–and rushing additional payments to senior citizens through the national pension system, so that they would have the money to stock up on necessities and be the first members of society to stay protected in their homes (Conferencias de Prensa Covid-19). The Jornada de Sana Distancia has received endless criticism, with claims that it fails to recognize the inability of a large population to simply “stay home” or keep a “safe distance” from others (Fröhling), which is true. At least half of Mexico’s population lives day-to-day, and do not have the same luxury of staying at home, comfortably and with all basic necessities, for the duration of the pandemic. However, the government has taken several important steps toward prioritizing the welfare of those most vulnerable to the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic.
The response of the Mexican government has largely been to expand existing social welfare programs such as pensions for the elderly and disabled, economic support for fishermen and agricultural workers, single mothers, students, etc., and importantly, expanding all three national healthcare systems (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social [IMSS], Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado [ISSSTE], and the Comisión Nacional de Protección Social en Salud Seguro Popular) to guarantee healthcare that every Mexican citizen has the right to healthcare access, regardless of job or socio-economic status, as well as consolidating their leadership to allow central coordination throughout the nation (Conferencias de Prensa Covid-19). Furthermore, elderly doctors and those with health conditions making them more susceptible to complications have been moved to hospitals that will not treat Covid-19 patients, voluntarily replaced by younger and more healthy professionals for their protection and the protection of patients who have not been infected by the virus (Conferencias de Prensa Covid-19). Contrary to what many critics claim, the government is aware of the existing discrepancies in their national healthcare systems from long-standing corruption and lack of funding, and in response have announced a convocatoria to hire thousands of additional doctors, nurses, and specialists, and have created an extensive plan for military involvement in the treatment and isolation of infected patients if/when the dedicated Covid-19 hospitals become overwhelmed (Conferencias de Prensa Covid-19).
In their article Covid-19’s Economic Pain Is Universal. But Relief? Depends on Where You Live, Matt Apuzzo and Monika Pronczuk write, “poor and working-class people will bear a disproportionate share of the pain from the coronavirus pandemic…. The disparity reflects not only the world’s differing [social] safety nets, but also the contrasting views of a government’s role in a crisis”. For years, the role of the Mexican government has been to steal from the public, enriching themselves and the wealthiest corporations that put them in power, and sinking the nation further into a debt that has essentially indebted their future into the hands of the political economic powers of the United States. But since his election, the Presidente de la República has directed his government toward a “Fourth Transformation” designed to help lift Mexico out of poverty and debt. Political economist and alternative media host Hernán Gómez Bruera wrote that the drop in AMLO’s approval ratings before the coronavirus outbreak, “were due largely to the fact that his government has not been geared toward the traditional centers of power and influence in the country… [it] has instead been aimed, both rhetorically and on substance, almost entirely at the 50 million or so poor Mexicans who have been overlooked by previous administrations. While this approach offers the possibility of real strides in improving life for Mexico’s less fortunate, it has also alienated the middle class…” (Gómez Bruera). So far, it appears that the administration’s economic response to the pandemic will be similarly structured.
A homeless man walks along the side of a busy avenue in Mexico City, pulling his belongings behind him. May 2019.
Indeed, the expansion of existing social welfare programs will benefit a large portion of society in the ways most needed by the current crisis. However, most of President López Obrador’s economic responses amount to expanding already existing programs, and experts say that “the proposals presented by the government fall well short of the large-scale response Mexico needs in order to weather the crisis” (Russell). There are still thousands of people left unattended: a large sector of Mexico’s working urban middle class, which has been getting poorer and more economically vulnerable for decades. While AMLO has called on corporations to send their workers home with pay through August, and is counting on the agreed “cooperation” of private hospitals in the treatment of Covid-19, neither of these recommendations amount to concrete measures to protect the job security or stability of the general population (Mañaneras). In contrast, Spain nationalized all it’s private hospitals, including them in their “top ranking” universal healthcare system weeks ago, and implemented a permanent universal income (ingreso mínimo vital), guaranteeing all Spaniards–including the hundreds of thousands of workers who were laid off since the beginning of the outbreak–the ability to pay their basic necessities, regardless of employment status (Slater). Like Spain, Mexico needs “the greatest mobilization of resources in the country’s entire democratic history” to ensure that the most vulnerable populations don’t suffer the devastating and long-lasting economic consequences of lacking social safety measures, and to truly transform Mexico in the way the President claims to be doing (Slater).
Critics of the current administration claim that AMLO “may see the in the coronavirus a means of quickening his plans to transform Mexico’s economy in his own statist image” (Russell), while supporters remain impressed by his methods of calling out and eliminating corruption, redistributing that wealth to long-neglected sectors of Mexican society, and prioritizing public health. Meanwhile, part-time workers, contractors, and the self-employed who have been left without a job and who don’t qualify for the existing social welfare programs wonder how they will pay their rent and feed their families. This is the case of my own partner, a freelance audio engineer and technician who is paid by the job (events–which were the first to be cancelled and will be the last to come back) and has no income if he doesn’t work, but also doesn’t qualify for the government welfare programs. More than just support for the poor, this moment calls for comprehensive public health and revolutionary economic measures, all over the world. The redistribution of wealth that the Mexican government is pursuing is admirable, but it means nothing if they neglect the needs of the working middle class, allowing this epidemic to doom them into the same poverty they intend to lift half the population out of.
One of the dogs in Morelia, Zapatista caracól 4.
The main diet of the community consists of beans and tortillas, sometimes accompanied by rice.
Hardly anything is left for the dogs, and most of them don't like to eat beans.
Translated from Oaxaca Libre:
“We exist in the midst of crisis, an existential crisis that will change the rules of the social and economic game… it is not the surprise of this new crisis that distresses us, but our limited responses…. [T]he health crisis that was made evident by the global pandemic has exposed more than just inadequate and unequal access to healthcare, but also the daily crises that had become so normalized that it no longer felt like a crisis: la violencia economica [economic violence].
Mexico is a country where huge fortunes and great inequalities are created…. More than half of the population lives in poverty, forced to deprive themselves of basic needs like food [and education for their children], in order to survive another day…. There is an enormous lack of decent and affordable housing, which makes isolation an impossible option for many… [T]here is the terrible and very real crisis of physical violence, where femicides are part of daily life, with increasingly inhumane and cruel cases…. [And] there is the crisis of society in general, which sees its purpose in [capital] accumulation instead of well-being for all… [The logic of the capitalist system is to exploit workers to the greatest capacity (in every aspect of their lives) in order to accumulate wealth, as workers are inherently replaceable, and those who are blinded to these inequalities maintain their support for the ‘freeing’ capacities of the system at the expense of an increasing population of the poor.]
In Oaxaca, more than 80% of the employed population exists within the informal economy, which denies them access to health services (although the State says access is guaranteed or should be guaranteed).... Health services are deficient for lack of investment and personnel… [and] there [has not yet been proposed] an effective response to a pandemic of this magnitude. Closing schools and implementing "healthy distance" or "stay at home" measures only benefit the upper classes, while they impose a severe economic crisis on those who are most economically vulnerable. In the probability of losing their jobs, people will search for other ways to make an income, [which increases the likelihood of crimes such as theft and assault, and the spread of the virus to vulnerable communities].
This situation requires us to act despite physical isolation, to demand measures from the government, which has the power to alleviate the public health and economic devastation of this pandemic, and as guilty in creating and promoting the economic violence and social inequalities that we suffer…. If we assume that ‘the state of emergency is the rule of law’... then we must also assume the crisis of COVID-19 as an opportunity to demand measures that would alleviate the impact of the economic crisis caused by the virus on marginal populations, generate conditions for participation in containment measures and… implement systemic changes which would act as prevention measures in the future… in order to overcome this contingency with as few victims as possible…. We can and must improve. It is time to demand measures that go beyond returning to the normality of previous crises….
Sombreros, on display in the market 20 de Noviembre in the city center of Oaxaca. July 2018.
To the government:
1. Ensure everyone’s access to basic hygiene (water, soap). 2. Rational distribution of water, giving preference to the population and not to tourism. 3. Basic universal income to everyone, so they are able to stay at home and follow the “healthy distance” plan. 4. Suspension of electricity, water, and internet charges [and gas], and suspension of basic service access cuts. 5. Debt forgiveness. 6. Suspension of rent payment and a moratorium on forced evictions. 7. Creation of shelters for women [and children] in conditions of domestic violence. 8. Cancellation of any transportation concession that does not comply with sanitary measures. 9. Massive investment in the health system. 10. Expropriation and conversion of private hospitals to emergency hospitals to care for coronavirus victims. 11. Massive distribution of and free access to tests for the detection of the virus.
The government is not going to save us, but it can create the conditions for us to save ourselves…. The virus can force us to a physical distance, but it cannot prevent us from… rebuild[ing social] support–networks for sharing and exchange–and making use of the technologies at our disposal.
1. We must organize ourselves, demand the fair distribution of the budget that has been allocated for the health crisis. 2. Create support groups and networks, caring for the most vulnerable. 3. Create local economies with these networks, supporting each other, sharing things, services, among others. Economies can go far beyond profit transactions. 4. Follow and influence public policies - are you going to support the people, as the president said, or are you going to rescue companies, as the governor of Oaxaca does? 5. Facing authoritarian tendencies: both the State and the Companies will try to take advantage of the crisis to destroy local initiatives and increase their power. For example, closing markets and letting supermarkets and Oxxos [remain] open would be one of these measures. 6. Continue denouncing the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the government at all levels. 7. Deepening complaints to show violence against children and women. If isolation forces us to stay home, the most violent place for women and children is this, let's not lower our voices. 8. Encourage the creation of forms of personal and physical care. If the pandemic is for the “least strong”, how do we strengthen ourselves spiritually, physically and mentally? Let's stop promoting junk consumption, now that “panic” shopping is in fashion, and let's create new healthy and responsible habits with our bodies. 9. We need creative resistances.
[...] in the middle of these strange and doubtful days, we have to reaffirm our humanity as an act of collective healing. Emergencies do not demand times of austerity, but times of generosity [….] It is time to demand and construct what we have always wanted, what we have always sought, longed for, and fought for.”
–“La Nece(si)dad Frente a La Emergencia”
A veces olvidamos que el ciclo del agua es el ciclo de la vida.
Sometimes we forget that the water cycle is the cycle of life.
Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca. September 2019
For Documentary Photography in the Face of the (American) Capitalist Hydra II
Professor Peter Bohmer
The Evergreen State College