The welfare that eludes us

Latin America has been one of the regions hardest hit by the pandemic, both from a health and socioeconomic point of view. Its impact on the region has, on the one hand, revealed the inequalities and deficiencies of the social systems, and on the other, has negatively impacted hopes for a better future. The expectation of a welfare state has once again been postponed. The welfare that eludes us.

The ravages of the pandemic

The destruction of employment and the reduction of incomes turned 2020 into a frantic race for survival and the satisfaction of the basic needs of households and communities. According to a recent ILO analysis, domestic workers, youth, self-employed and low-skilled workers are among the hardest hit groups.

In Manaus, Brazil, a grandfather’s hospitalization for Covid-19 wiped out the family’s small reserves, and if it had not been for the neighborhood collection it would not have been possible to buy him the oxygen he needed to survive. An episode similar to thousands more across the region. Stories of households having to go from two meals a day to one are repeated throughout the region. An estimated 2.7 million businesses closed, resulting in the loss of 8 million jobs.

Governments in the region have struggled. Transfers and subsidies, as well as health spending, among others, have mitigated the impact. “Attenuated” is unfortunately the most appropriate term, although it is still meritorious. According to ECLAC estimates, without the transfers and fiscal stimuli from states, the number of poor people would have reached 230 million, instead of the current 209 million.

This prevented some 11 million people, the equivalent of the entire population of Bolivia, from falling into poverty. The same is true for extreme poverty or destitution. Without the government’s efforts we would have reached the figure of 98 million, and not the current 78 million. In other words, 20 million people were prevented from falling into destitution, about 4 times the inhabitants of Costa Rica.

The pandemic came to change our lives in the midst of an already delicate economic situation. Since 2014, after the commodities boom, the growth of most Latin American economies began to slow down. Many states were experiencing fiscal tightness, and several of the new right-wing governments did not show willingness to increase coverage and transfer programs. One of the most notorious cases was that of Bolsa Escola, in Brazil, where the government of Jair Bolsonaro restricted the number of beneficiaries.

All this against a historical and structural backdrop that has limited the possibilities of countries to develop welfare systems that ensure certain social, economic and cultural rights to citizens. The vast informal space, without guarantees or access to social security, especially affects the youngest members of society. And in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay or Bolivia, where welfare depends mainly on families and communities, workers who aspire to generate an income are limited by social alienation.

The project of building a population with valid social rights seems to vanish and the dreams of social welfare cruelly elude the majorities, despite the dignity and fortitude with which they continue their march.

New electoral cycles: unknown and opportunities

As a new electoral cycle begins to sweep through the countries of the region, the question of whether Latin American democracies will be able to overcome the challenges is the order of the day. Judging by the recent results in Bolivia and Ecuador, the “social” discourse has been heard and voters seem willing to support candidates who champion this type of proposal.

The municipal elections in Brazil left a different balance: voters did not support President Bolsonaro’s candidates, but did support a center-right advocating greater pragmatism. It remains to be seen what will happen in April in Peru and in November in Chile. In any case, one of the most comforting aspects is that the electoral systems are respecting the will of the people.

The Venezuelan and Nicaraguan cases deserve a separate analysis, but what is happening in Ecuador, and what has been seen in Bolivia, Chile and Brazil is the institutional capacity of the electoral bodies to settle complaints, conflicts and electoral demands.

In the post-pandemic scenario, a positive impact of vaccination and other health measures is projected. But the great lesson that the evil of one is the evil of all leads us to ask ourselves: is it time to reopen the debate on the need for a welfare state, albeit in a basic and gradual way?

Evidently, this will be the challenge for progressive tendencies, including social liberalism, which may take shape again in a second “turn to the left”, but it also challenges what in Chile is being called a “social right”.

The inescapable challenges for the future agenda

There are many obstacles to achieving this goal. Two in particular. The first is that the field of redistributive policies – with its progressive tax systems and new fiscal pacts – is undermined by government inefficiency and corruption. The construction of alternatives requires an enormous effort to recover the credibility of “the public”, eliminating corruption and, even more difficult, confronting the organized crime that feeds it. One cannot be postponed in order to achieve the other.

The second obstacle is sustainable development. Even if employment levels recover and we begin to build a welfare state, we cannot ignore the need to transition to a green economy that reverses the vices of developmentalism based on the depredation of natural resources and the fossil industry. It is time for the terms “social” and “environment” to be integrated into public policies if we want to move forward in a sustainable manner. This is the job of those who hold the reins of the region’s political destiny.

*Translation from Spanish by Destiny Harrison-Griffin

Photo by Heimlich the South Patagonian Southpaw em Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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