Latin America: Populations are also people

As Mrs Indira Gandhi, late Prime Minister of India, once remarked, ‘the world media are interested in reporting on developing countries, only when there’s a coup or an earthquake.’ Of course, in the age of global connectivity and the internet, this tendency gets a hundred-fold exaggerated.

I was struck by this ‘list’ I saw on a website, incongruously squeezed between something as banal and ridiculous as the world’s 10 richest cats, or the 20 worst gowns on the red carpet, or whatever. Except, this was a list of the 50 most violent cities in the world. And the writer of that particular post couldn’t be more off-hand:

“Murder is more common in Latin America than any other part of the world… Thirty four of the fifty worst cities were located in the region, including repeat murder capital of the world – San Pedro Sula, Honduras – which saw 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013, and is getting steadily worse. Drug trafficking, gang wars, political instability, corruption, and poverty combine to cause the region’s elevated violence.”

And in less than 70 words, do we dismiss the hopes, fears, dreams and reality of 588 million people – almost a tenth of humanity!

This disregard for those who ‘do not really matter’ as much as one’s own social class, caste, compatriots, co-religionists, brotherhoods and sororities, is a universal trait. And as Foucault so beautifully explained, the modern State has lost its moral purpose and it suits those who govern to put a label on the governed, or ‘populations’ as he called them – forever diminished, devoiced, defanged, and disempowered.

In fact, marketers and campaigners in the US have honed this to an art, when they talk of a product or candidate appealing to X, Y, Z ‘demographic’.

If, like me, you found this list profoundly disturbing and dug a little deeper, what would you find? A region which has known the worst of colonial excesses, the decimation of indigenous populations, slavery, and the systematic plundering of its natural resources. South America, because of an accident of geography, became a battlefield for the superpowers during the Cold War in the late twentieth century, and in the 1960s and 1970s, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay were overthrown or displaced by US-aligned military dictatorships. These regimes detained tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were tortured and/or killed. Economically, they began a transition to neo-liberal economic policies, in tune with the Washington Consensus, resulting in international indebtedness, widening gaps between the rich and poor, and one deep economic crisis after another.

The legacy of these years was stark : rampant corruption, weakening of civil society, growing poverty and ever increasing economic disparity, where a few controlled the many. As any social scientist will tell you, corruption, poverty and disparity are the three major forces behind urban crime, and Latin American cities had well and truly begun their slide downhill, with violent crime receiving a boost from the easy availability of cheap handguns across the border, in the USA.

Add to that the lack of opportunity in declining economies, where the only way out of a favela was football – no wonder then, that every Brazilian star from Pele to Neymar has a rags-to-riches story to tell. And where would the unsuccessful aspirants go but into the criminal underworld?

The UN-Habitat’s ‘State of the World’s Cities 2012-13’ illustrates this point quite well, by quantifying the barriers to achieving greater social equity in a city:

Social Equity LAC

As expected, the chief barriers to greater equity in Latin American cities are: weak civil society, corruption, ineffective governments, historic patterns of inequality, public institutions controlled by ruling elite, and lack of interest from ruling elites.

You see the pattern emerging?

However, there is hope…

Beginning with Hugo Chávez’s victory in the 1998 Presidential Election in Venezuela, South America has seen no less than 15 left-wing Presidents voted into office in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru. And their pro-poor policies targeting the disempowered and marginalized – like systematic vocational training, direct aid transfers, and guaranteed food security – are beginning to make an impact.

A 2013 UNDP Report by Lustig et al has heartening news: Inequality in Latin America has unambiguously declined in the 2000s, with the Gini Coefficient (a measure of disparity – the higher the Gini, the greater the inequality) decreasing significantly in 14 of the 17 Latin American countries studied, while steadily increasing in China, South Africa, India, and USA:

Gini LAC

So next time you are tempted to brand a people as lazy, or a country as corrupt, or an entire religion as terrorist; take pause and spare a few moments to find out their history and where they are coming from… Remember, someone somewhere is pigeonholing and labelling you in exactly the same way…