Coronacrisis. The historical conjuncture to eradicate “development”

© for the photo: Inés Durán Matute

The world’s present situation is the result of the speed and means in which we travel across it, the processes of urbanization and the encroachment upon nature, long-running practices of extractivism and the disturbance of the balance of earthly life, the wastage and contamination produced by an unequal and consumerist society, the massive, toxic and abusive nature of the food industry, and the prioritization of the market over an equilibrium of living conditions and health. The alibi in this overarching operation has long been the rhetoric of „development“, a narrative that promotes growth and status but obscures injustices, dispossession, repression, devastation, diseases, exclusion, fragmentation, and death. Through this rhetoric, elites seek to mask the continuation of the colonial enterprise and its perpetually destructive implications.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the harsh realities of this process by magnifying inequalities, discriminations, and violences of the political economic system; all around the world, we see people with no shelter, masks, water, medical care, funds, food, information, or additional options forced to keep working. It has also revealed the fragility of life to even more sectors. As noted by Taibo, the collapse now being experienced in the Global North was already a reality in many societies of the Global South. It can thus be seen as a broader manifestation of the subjugation and devaluation of life that indigenous peoples in Latin America, for example, have experienced since colonization. Long ago, Rosa Luxemburg noted that “Since capitalist production can develop fully only with complete access to all territories and climes, it can no more confine itself to the natural resources and productive forces of the temperate zone than it can manage with white labor alone. Capital needs other races to exploit territories where the white man cannot work.” By asserting indigenous peoples’ “primitiveness” and “backwardness” and praising the “Western” civilization project, its people, and ways of being and thinking, indigenous peoples have continuously dealt with the “dark side” of “development”.

Despite its negative impact, the coronacrisis also represents an opportunity to eradicate this form of “development”, that is, to abolish hierarchies and oppression, stop the predatory capitalist system, and validate other ways of being in the world and apprehending reality. We currently find ourselves in a race against time to elaborate responses and to think beyond „development“ as elites and states do everything in their power to keep alive a system that provides them with power, status, and profit. In opposition, alternative modes of doing, being, thinking, and relating are devoting all their energies to find a pathway out of a pandemic which menaces both their communities and life itself and to raise their voices to counter capitalism and defend Mother Earth.

Let me now provide an overview of how this state of affairs is unfolding in Mexico.

When the coronavirus arrived in Mexico at the end of February, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) chose not to „exaggerate“ the situation and questioned the severity of the virus. He was reluctant to take decisive action and even encouraged people „to hug“. Discontent with this approach began to spread, and some state governments, universities, and private businesses established their own measures. AMLO resisted enacting a state-led response; instead, he expressed in different ways how we must have „faith“ in the „extraordinary“ and „strong“ Mexican people capable of „getting ahead“. He even went so far as to argue that religious stamps and scapulars were capable of protecting him against the coronavirus.

Around the same time, Mexico began to experience a severe economic crisis as oil prices crashed, with the president all the while attempting to maintain business as usual. At the end of March, the Mexican state launched a „healthy distancing“ campaign, but AMLO continued to tell people to „go out“ and „not be afraid“. Soon after, he then encouraged citizens to stay at home but did not enforce any kind of strict lockdown, and many industries and businesses continued to operate. Besides, for many Mexicans, staying at home was not an option, particularly for those working in the informal economy. AMLO then sought to calm the population by saying that the health and economic crisis „fits like a glove“ to secure the country’s transformation away neoliberalism and that it was just a „transient crisis“.

Against this backdrop, AMLO proceeded to profit from the pandemic by imposing austerity measures that cut the state budget and postponed several governmental plans and programs. There were some exceptions, however: the construction of megaprojects such as the tourist Mayan Train, the industrial Trans-Isthmus Corridor, the Dos Bocas Refinery and the New International Airport for Mexico City; oil production; the continued operation and renovation of hydroelectric plants; a wide array of clientelistic social programs; and the National Guard. In short, AMLO decided to prioritize the „development“ of the country over people and nature. When AMLO took office in December 2018, by using progressive leftist rhetoric, he promised the end of neoliberalism and the implementation of the country’s Fourth Transformation (4T). In his first year of government, however, he instead promoted „development“ via clientelism, patrimonialism, and authoritarianism, ultimately enacting a continuation of the inherited political culture. 

AMLO’s flagship project consists of the „development“ of the „abandoned“ Mexico’s South and Southeast through a series of megaprojects riddled with irregularities and schemes and instances of patronage, corruption, and despotism. These projects are part of a broader capitalist trend that aims to stop migration to the United States, establish a new frontier and maquiladora corridor, generate cheap energy, foster the agroindustry, gain access to natural resources, promote the tourist industry, and facilitate the transportation of goods. In addition, AMLO created the National Guard and granted more power to the Mexican military. As a result of pressure exerted by the United States, Mexico has been successfully transformed into „the border“, all the while discrimination, criminalization, and repression are fostered not only against Central Americans that pursue the „American Dream“ but also against those that oppose these megaprojects.

Whereas hospitals are saturated, medical supplies are insufficient, and personnel work under poorly resourced and unsafe conditions, the state promotes the tourist industry, trade, mobility, fossil energy, and militarization. In the president’s mind, it seems that the pandemic has no connection to capitalist development and its effects on ecosystems and the population. What is more, as discussions on green energy, limited mobility, consumption reduction, agroecology, cooperativism, communitarianism, social justice, and equality take place internationally, AMLO’s agenda seems hellbent on taking the country in the opposite direction, betting on what John Holloway considers a “failed system” that is leading humanity to its extinction. Meanwhile, there is no discussion of what Mexicans themselves consider essential. No wonder Jérôme Baschet describes AMLO’s response to the pandemic as akin to “Darwinian hyper-liberals and enlightened populists” that place the capitalist economy first, and comparable to the positions taken by Trump and Bolsonaro. This behavior is most clearly grasped by looking at three of the most reckless actions undertaken by the Mexican state in the context of the current global pandemic:

  1. On April 30, AMLO initiated the construction of the Mayan Train, a cargo and tourist train that will traverse Mexico’s Southeast. Despite opposition from local Mayan communities, the absence of an environmental impact assessment, a manipulated prior consultation, the high risk of workers contracting COVID-19, judicial procedures that order to stop the project, research pointing to its negative impact and warnings concerning its effect on the cenote system, land tenure, biodiversity, archaeological heritage, and local cultures and identities, the president has refused to suspend the project. Meanwhile, on May 11, AMLO confirmed that works also had begun on the Trans-Isthmus Corridor, which in his words would serve „to unite Asian countries with the East Coast of the United States. It is like a Panama Canal, but with a cargo railroad“. This project also includes the building of highways, the renovation of ports and refineries, the construction of a pipeline, extractive industries, and ten industrial parks that will constitute a free economic zone and serve as a new frontier to prevent migration to the United States. These developments will result in local inhabitants being reduced to cheap labor and pushed into rings of poverty and violence while also jeopardizing their natural environment and ways of being and knowing. In the interim, they have not even received basic supplies to help them deal with the pandemic.  
  2. In parallel with the above, the government also legalized the country’s militarization; on May 12, an executive order decreed that the armed forces be in charge of public security for at least the next five years. Despite the military being identified as colluding with drug traffickers and extractive industries and responsible for human rights violations, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, they are now granted more power and a larger budget. While austerity measures decimate budgets for scientific research and domestic violence shelters, the armed forces receive the same exceptional treatment as the Ministry of Health that deals with the pandemic. In Mexico, the military is an intrusive daily presence, not only as they patrol the streets, but also because they control migration and customs, handle social programs, surveil hospitals, facilitate banking’s expansion into rural life, and construct and manage megaprojects (such as two sections of the Mayan Train and the controversial New International Airport of Mexico City, which also has a devastating effect on indigenous communities of that region). In the course of such activities, they propagate xenophobia, encourage violence and its normalization, disrupt communitarian life and farming, enable the expansion of capitalism, repress political opposition, and fragment the overarching social fabric. Meanwhile, drug traffickers freely distribute food to the populations hit hardest by the economic and health crises. Besides, there is also an overall increase in violence, as evidenced by the killing of Giovanni López for not wearing a mask by the police in Jalisco and the repression of the ensuing protests that demanded justice for his death.
  3. Finally, on May 15, the Mexican Ministry of Energy announced a new policy that advantages state companies that produce fossil fuel, thereby discouraging the production of green energy. This new policy enables AMLO to greenlight the construction of thermoelectric plants and the rehabilitation of refineries, and even to continue the Dos Bocas Refinery in Tabasco, a project that has already destroyed several acres of mangroves and is a threat to the region’s ecosystems, species, and inhabitants. AMLO’s primary concern is Mexico’s energy sovereignty and the creation of employment, irrespective of the environmental and social costs that accrue as a result. This is compounded by the fact that the government designated construction, mining, and the automotive industry as being „essential activities“ that form part of the „new normality“, as if these industries are not environmentally and socially harmful and the capitalist system is not in crisis. However, this is not to say that „green energy“ should be wholeheartedly embraced; in fact, many indigenous peoples have opposed wind and solar energy expansion because of the abuse, exploitation, fragmentation, dispossession, contamination, and destruction that in Mexico come along with such options. Instead, what is required is an end to „renewable energy as a commodity in the hands of transnational companies“, as it was recently denounced by the Asamblea de los Pueblos Indígenas del Istmo en Defensa de la Tierra y el Territorio.

In effect, AMLO deceitfully deploys progressive rhetoric to really go beyond neoliberalism; as a result, capitalism, colonialism, developmentalism, and authoritarianism are woven together to create a more predatory, violent, and unequal form of accumulation. In early June, as cases spike, the president stubbornly decides to resume his tour across southern and southeastern Mexico to personally commemorate the commencement of the aforementioned megaprojects. Meanwhile, the same state narrative is maintained, one that does not incite awareness and care among the Mexican populace. In AMLO’s eyes, Mexico has already seen off the worst of the pandemic and, he thus urges people „to recover their freedom“. In a moment of messianic delusion, the president advises Mexicans: “Do not lie, do not steal, do not betray; this will greatly assist in preventing the coronavirus disease” and urges them to adhere to the guidelines of his holy Decalogue to overcome the coronavirus and face the new reality.

So, how to explain AMLO and its 4T allies’ obsession with pursuing Mexico’s “development”? Why have they persisted in relaxing quarantine measures and reactivating the economy despite the increase of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths?

While some might argue that it is due to US interests and pressure whose automotive and military industries are highly dependent on maquiladora labor, the reality points out to capital and its thirst for profit, power, status, and opulence dressed up in the guise of „development“. Like this, the pandemic is used by elites and states, both gears of capitalism, as a mechanism to expedite conquest. The Mexican experience is but one illustration of a broader operation of global-local networks of power that have responded to the pandemic by expanding and perpetuating structures of colonial domination. Capitalism connects our lives in obfuscated and unequal ways, where, as Pablo González Casanova would say, internal, international, and transnational colonialisms become intermingled. Within this matrix, the Mexican state seeks to position itself as the purveyor of “development” that follows internationally set “goals” and supports the incursion of Western economies and transnational corporations. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, “development” combined with ethnic/racial rhetorics shape mentalities to sustain a way of being and apprehending reality, thus, guiding people’s aspirations and promoting the looting and exploitation of both their lives and territories. It does so by structuring society as such that “whiteness” and “Western” come to be synonymous with “progress” and “superiority”.

As a result, the needs, desires, and projects of communities are disregarded, as if there was only one desired future, only one way to reach it and no possible consequences that would necessitate this process being halted. Many indigenous communities continue to fiercely oppose these ambitions, as they see “development” representing a continuation of the colonial/racial project. “Development” has simply become a banner for the commodification of the commons, the hierarchization of society, a hardening of the distinction between humans and nature, the reduction of dignity to goods, cheap and in some cases even slave labor, an attempt to control our desires and aspirations and the exhaustion of hope.

The Congreso Nacional Indígena (CNI), constituted by 43 indigenous peoples of Mexico, in October 2016 took an assessment of the past twenty years and observed that capitalism “has become a civilizational threat, not only for indigenous peoples and campesinos but also for the people of the cities whom themselves must create dignified and rebellious forms of resistance to avoid murder, dispossession, contamination, sickness, slavery, kidnapping or disappearance”. Later on, in conjunction with the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), they established the Concejo Indígena de Gobierno (CIG) to use the electoral space to denounce and make visible the situation as it stood in Mexico. The proposal did not limit itself to the contesting of the 2018 elections but also sought to organize long-term networks of resistance and rebellion that would integrate the struggles of all oppressed groups, both nationally and internationally, as a way to build a new governmental and societal project communally. It was not the first time that indigenous peoples in Mexico sounded warnings over the consequences of capitalism; in 2015, Zapatistas forecasted that the “storm” was coming and sought to provoke reflections on how to incite change and cultivate resistance. Unfortunately, not many listened.

The CIG is a new attempt to organize society based on horizontality, respect, collectivity, dignity, care, and solidarity to protect life and Earth. Communities affiliated with this project have thus mobilized relentlessly against the incursions into their lands and in opposition to the state’s planned megaprojects. As a result, they have been silenced, disqualified, and repressed. Furthermore, AMLO’s progressive mask has allowed his government to accentuate fragmentation, accelerate dispossession, and exacerbate violence against indigenous peoples defending their territories. Despite this, they continue to resist, and in December 2019, organized the Forum in Defense of the Territory and Mother Earth, where forty groups denounced the different ways in which capital, in concert with the state, is destroying nature, dispossessing territories, and ending lives. The forum was also an opportunity for them to share how they are organizing and resisting such incursions. Following the forum’s conclusion, the Zapatistas posed the following question: “What are you willing to do to stop the war against humanity?”

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is being used as justification to fast-track megaprojects and thus foster further extractivism and oppression, this question becomes even more relevant and urgent. Furthermore, it becomes imperative to think about the meaning of “development” in a world dealing with or recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Is it sufficient to simply rethink development through a decolonizing gaze? Would it instead be better to pursue a different way of being in the world, of apprehending reality and envisaging the future? The coronacrisis presents us with an opportunity to reflect on how we can reshape the world to protect life. We might find some useful hints by looking to the indigenous peoples that continue to resist during and despite the pandemic; groups who assume themselves to be merely a small part of the world, and the guardians of life on Earth; who prefer health, safety, solidarity, collectivity, and respect over „development“; who understand that the virus is capitalism and that our hope is in our collective organization, the „we“ that can imagine and create new realities; and that place dignity on life. As the CNI/CIG recently expressed:

In the face of all adverse conditions that we live as humanity and in the face of the proliferation of the sickness that is called capitalism, which today is expressed in the COVID-19 pandemic and that threatens all life on the planet, deepening its presence in all corners; we take up and will continue to inescapably take up the caring, defense, and healing of our Mother Earth.