Pandemic strikes the cruelest blow to Latin America’s poor: Colombia is a sad example
By Julie Turkewitz and Sofía Villamil; Photos by Federico Rios
Sandra Abello grew up poor, left school at 11 and spent her teenage years scrubbing floors as a live-in maid. But by this year, something remarkable had happened.
Ms. Abello, now 39, finally had a home in a decent neighborhood. One of her daughters, Karol, was about to finish high school. Another, Nicol, was turning 15, and they were planning a party with a big dress and many guests. They were saving for a washing machine. Ms. Abello was proud of all she had accomplished.
Then the pandemic hit, and Ms. Abello lost her cleaning work. By May, she had been evicted, forcing her to move her children into a tin shed in an illegal settlement high above the city. At night, a bitter cold pushed its way in. A lifetime of effort had evaporated in a matter of weeks.
Ms. Abello’s oldest daughter, Karol, an aspiring nurse, called it the “great regression.”
Not long ago, Colombia — and Latin America more broadly — were in the middle of a history-making transformation: The scourge of inequality was shrinking like never before. Over the past 20 years, millions of families had marched out of poverty in one of the most unequal regions on earth. The gap between rich and poor in Latin America fell to its lowest point on record.
Now, the pandemic is threatening to reverse those gains like nothing else in recent history, economists say, potentially upending politics and entire societies for years to come.
We — two reporters and a photographer with The New York Times — wanted to understand what this meant for the region’s future, and in particular for the families that had been so central to that march toward economic equality.
So we began to drive, packing the car with masks and traveling more than 1,000 miles from Colombia’s capital to the northeastern border and back, interviewing dozens of people about the way the pandemic was changing the course of their lives.
As we went, leaving the mountain-flanked high-rises of Bogotá for the tropical regions beyond, it became clear that the engines of upward mobility were failing, choked off by an economic shutdown that began in March and fell hardest on the working poor and vulnerable members of the middle class.
Small businesses had closed for good. Universities were hemorrhaging students. Schools that had turned the children of construction workers into engineers were near collapse, unable to pay teachers. Farmers were burning their crops, ruined by disrupted markets.
Teenage boys had turned to selling drugs to feed their siblings. Young women and girls had been pushed into prostitution to pay the bills. Mothers and fathers began rationing medicine to their children, unsure when they would have money for more. Wealthy people retreated to countryside homes, while other families sold their cellphones to buy dinner.
“It was never my dream to go backward,” said David Aguirre, 32, who had risen from a low-level bodyguard to the boss of his own strawberry farm.
He had poured his life savings into his business, opening just a few months before the pandemic struck. Now it was unclear if the farm would survive. When we met, he’d just fired his four workers and killed off a quarter of his crop — unable to find a buyer and unable to pay his employees to pick it. The berries lay dry and cracked around us, poisoned with Roundup, and he worried about returning to the dangerous work of protecting the wealthy.
“The sacrifice of many people, days of work from 6 to 6 at night, rain, sun,” he said. “And then — for it all to become nothing?”
Even on the first day of our journey, we could see the distance between the rich and poor widening.
We drove into the hills above the capital, to an encampment of hastily built sheds that had long been a last resort for desperate families.
When the lockdown began, the settlement quickly swelled with people like Ms. Abello who had been moving up — bakery employees, preschool janitors — but lost their jobs and apartments. The pandemic hadn’t just stalled their progress. It suddenly made them squatters.
That day, the police arrived with a wrecking crew, saying that the settlement was illegal and too precariously built to live in, even if tearing it down exacerbated the pain of the pandemic.
Ms. Abello’s walls fell with a terrifying clatter.
For the second time in the brief life of the crisis, she and her family had nowhere to go.
Eight hours outside of Bogotá, the school appeared like a sanctuary on a hill, ringed by an expansive lawn and a gate.
The institution, Mi Segundo Hogar, had played a life-changing role for families of modest means over the years, offering low-cost, high-quality education. It produced flight attendants and pharmacists in families where the parents had walked barefoot to class.
Now, the school sat empty, with in-person classes canceled across Latin America. Unemployed parents had stopped paying fees, sometimes apologizing profusely through text message, and the school was barely paying instructors.
On the patio, the rector, Lina Castrillón, said Mi Segundo Hogar was in danger of closing. Technically, classes had moved online, but only a fraction of the students were able to connect every day. Many didn’t have computers, or tried to log on via cellphone, and data was expensive.
It was not just that her students were going to slide backward in their learning, Ms. Castrillón said. She worried this interruption would fundamentally reshape their lives, leading to dropouts and lower pay, stunting an entire generation. At home, disconnected from school, she said, “they are losing their vision” of a better future.
For years, Colombia was a glaring example of the region’s wealth gap — and of the struggles to narrow it.
The nation’s generations-long war with rebels grew out of anger over inequality. Class divisions are so baked into society that poorer people refer to wealthier ones as “your mercy” in casual conversation, a relic of colonialism. Cities are divided into “estratos,” which signify one’s social class.
The rich live in estrato six. The poor live in estrato one. Those in informal settlements — which legally don’t exist — live in what people colloquially call “estrato zero.”
But life had been changing, considerably. Colombia, one of the most unequal countries in an extremely inequitable region, cut its poverty rate nearly in half, to 27 percent, from 2002 to 2018. The country signed a historic peace deal with the main rebel group, promising to help thousands on the economic and social margins join the nation’s success.
The gulf between rich and poor was still stubbornly wide compared with much of the world. In the 1990s, the wealthiest 10 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean earned about 50 times more than the poorest 10 percent, according to Matías Busso, an economist with the Inter-American Development Bank.
By the time the pandemic hit, top earners made an average 22 times what the poorest made. So while inequality clung to the region, it had fallen to a record low, he said.
Now, the pandemic could push poverty and inequality back to what they were at the turn of the 21st century in Colombia, according to an analysis by professors at the Universidad de los Andes. “A setback of two decades,” they called it.
Economists are predicting similar regressions around the region, with the World Bank warning that more than 50 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean could fall into poverty this year alone.
“The current crisis is probably the biggest threat to inequality that we have experienced,” Mr. Busso said.
In Medellín, we watched hundreds of single mothers line up outside a food bank that expanded significantly when the crisis began. One woman, María Camila Salazar, 22, said her mother, María Eugenia Carvalho, 53, had become so dangerously malnourished that her thin shoulders now jutted from her frame.
“We go to bed without eating, without giving anything to our children,” she said.
Before the pandemic, Carolina Urda, 31, who runs the food bank, had been working to expand a sewing and washing business meant to move women in unstable jobs — nannies, recycling collectors — into something more secure.
The women now had no jobs at all, and Ms. Urda was spending hours each week gathering food to feed their families.
“But we don’t want more food,” she said, shaking two fists in frustration. “We want empowered, self-sufficient, autonomous businesswomen.”
Perhaps the most glaring image of Latin America’s backslide was the highway.
We had expected to find empty routes. Instead, mile after mile, we met processions of Venezuelan migrants pulling suitcases toward home.
They had come to Colombia only a few years or even months before, part of an exodus of migrants escaping Venezuela’s political and economic collapse. Many had hoped to learn a trade or finish a degree in Colombia, or just make enough money to help their families back home.
Now, because of the pandemic, the people we met had lost whatever small hold they had on a life in Colombia — a job, an apartment — and were migrating in reverse, returning to a nation where they were almost certain that disaster awaited. Most said they had family in Venezuela who could help them, while in Colombia they no longer had anything.
“Hope is over,” said one man, Rafael Decena, 50.
Since the pandemic began, more than 80,000 Venezuelans have crossed back into their country, according to Colombian authorities.
In Bucaramanga, a midsize city in Colombia, hundreds of migrant families camped outside a park to rest. One night, a parade of buses arrived, a fleet sent by the Colombian government to take people the last 120 miles to the border.
Roraima Daversa, 26, and her son Amado, 9, climbed aboard, their feet cracked and blistered.
They had spent night after night sleeping on the side of the road. As Ms. Daversa took a seat, tears began rolling down her face. She felt relief. She and Amado no longer had to walk. “Every day he asked, ‘How much longer?’”
But there was also grief.
Ms. Daversa, who had studied environmental management in Venezuela, had hoped to save money in Bogotá and return to her country to open a business. Now, she was headed back, worse off than when she left.
In Cúcuta, a town pressed up against the Venezuelan border, a 17-year-old stood in a cranberry-colored T-shirt and jean shorts, tugging at a purse with a shiny bow, swinging one heel nervously. A few men approached. A ribbon of cars roared past.
When the lockdown began, her father lost his job in construction and the refrigerator emptied. Pushed to desperation, she made the excruciating decision to head to a local park, where men began to pay her for sex, $6 an encounter. She was not even the youngest one there to do so.
Somebody had to bring in money, she said, “and it turned to me.”
Before the crisis, she had been selling small items — cigarettes, candy — in the street. But she had always dreamed of returning to school, of becoming a criminologist like those powerful women on television. Having sex with strangers is “horrible,” she said, and when she has to, she imagines herself in a classroom, with her friends, to distract herself.
Over the past two decades, school attendance and rising access to birth control played a crucial role in shrinking the country’s wealth gap, allowing millions of women to study and work, when so many of their mothers had been forced to stay home.
When the pandemic hit, though, the number of women forced into prostitution swelled in Cúcuta, said Alejandra Vera, the director of a local advocacy group. So did the number of unwanted pregnancies, as travel restrictions and job losses made it difficult to get condoms and other types of birth control.
One morning, the 17-year-old, whose name is being withheld because she is a minor, woke before dawn to the pleas of her son, six months old, who wanted to toddle along the floor and play.
She made coffee and dropped off her son with his father at a house down the road. Her mother, 54, saw her off from their patio. She knew what her daughter was doing. It is hard for her to talk about.
“I don’t criticize or condemn,” the mother said.
“There’s no work now,” she added, breaking down. “This is not a life.”
Back in Bogotá, Ms. Abello, the mother who had been evicted twice amid the pandemic, had moved in with a friend, both families crammed together.
Karol, the aspiring nurse, was trying her best to keep up with classes, but she couldn’t log into the school website without the internet, so a friend was downloading the assignments and texting them to her. She then completed them by hand, took pictures and texted them back. But it was hard, and she worried she was falling behind.
Nicol, the younger daughter, turned 15. They had a small celebration, just family, and she wore Karol’s old dress, black, with tulle.
As the quarantine loosened, Ms. Abello finally returned to her job cleaning a bakery. But her housekeeping clients never asked her back, and she was earning about half as much as she did before. It wasn’t clear when they’d be able to move into their own place.
“This has been hard on my mom,” said Karol. “As soon as this is over, I hope she gets new work and we can go back to our old lives.”
“Well,” she said, “God willing.”
Credit: The New York Times