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Bordering the crisis or how neoliberalism produces difference

Between 2017 and 2019, the so-called "migration crisis” in Venezuela hit the South American region. The number of Venezuelan migrants living outside their country increased from 2.4 million in September 2018 to approximately 4.2 million in July 2019. Thus, by July 2019, 3.4 million Venezuelan migrants resided across Latin American countries (UNICEF 2018; UNICEF 2019a).3 The commonly cited causes concerning the rapid growth of Venezuelan migration were insecurity, violence, hyperinflation, and the economic blockade exerted by the United States in 2017 and 2019 (Weisbrot and Sachs).4

The increase in the frequency of expressions of racial hatred and xenophobia toward Venezuelan immigrants coincides with the so-called “right-wing turn” in Latin America.5 In Ecuador, Moreno won the 2017 presidential elections as the official candidate of the political party “Alianza Pais” and the so-called “Citizen Revolution” (founded and led by Rafael Correa), beating banker Guillermo Lasso who received the support of the traditional parties of the Ecuadorian right.

However, the Moreno government took a radical turn concerning the predecessor government of Correa (2006-2017). In a series of moves to dismantle the policies of what he had insistently labeled as a populist government, Moreno reconstituted a pact among the elites of financial capital, the business clusters, and private media companies. This neoliberal pact directs the drastic reduction of public spending and the dismantling of social care programs that were central during the Correa government. This precarious agenda was demonstrated reliably with the enactment of the new “Productive Development Law” (in August 2018), which promoted and accompanied the first phase of reforms within the requirements of the International Monetary Fund for the signing of a debt agreement.

In October 2019, the government of Ecuador faced 11 days of a national strike as a measure of widespread rejection against the enactment of Presidential Decree No. 883 that eliminated fuel subsidies and announced a series of neoliberal labor reforms submitted to the National Assembly. Demands to repeal Decree 883 allowed the unification of different political forces in a social-popular bloc in opposition to the neoliberal pact.

During the first week of the national strike (October 1-9, 2019), the actors of the conflict were located around two opposing blocs. Thus, the neo-liberal

Bordering the crisis 201 pact was made up of the two main right-wing political parties: Christian Social Party - PSC, and the “Creating Opportunities” movement (CREO); the Business Chambers of Quito and Guayaquil, the Chamber of Industries of Ecuador, the large private media, and the Presidency of the Republic in the person of Lenin Moreno. On the other hand, the social and popular bloc led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), incorporated the Unitary Front of Workers (FUT), student organizations grouped in the National Front of Students, and the Feminist Front of Ecuador. Assembly members identified with the “Citizen Revolution,” social movements in other provinces, and some middleclass sectors converged on the side of the social and popular bloc.

Ecuadorian govermnent repressed the national strike with an unprecedented magnitude of violence in the country’s history. Except for the former government of León Febres-Cordero (1984-1988), the balance of the repression reached by the Moreno govermnent exceeds any other episode in Ecuador’s post-dictatorship political history.6 Regarding the 11 days of national strike in 2019, the report of the Human Rights Office of Ecuadorian State (Defensoria del Pueblo) registered 10 people deceased, 1340 injured, and 1192 police detentions (66% of the detentions were arbitrary) in the midst of confrontation between the police and protesters.7 The repressive force was conducted not only towards visible leaders of the social and popular bloc but also towards citizens who joined to meetings, rallies, and marches supporting the strike.

The government described the protest actions as vandalism produced by a “group of drones’’8 and denounced a destabilization plan orchestrated by Rafael Correa, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelan and Cubans migrants, ex-members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and the Latin Kings.9 As of February 2020, the Ecuadorian govermnent has yet to present any evidence of the existence of such a destabilization plot. It is not the first time that, in facing an indigenous uprising, the Ecuadorian government has not recognized the legitimacy of the protest, and instead has accused the indigenous movement of being manipulated by outside actors. What is unprecedented in the case of the Moreno government is that it charged the indigenous people with promoting an uprising orchestrated by foreigners, especially from Venezuela.

How was it possible that, within the framework of the national strike, the Ecuadorian government managed to accuse Venezuelans of being the inciters of violence during the protests? I argue that the accusation of Venezuelans as responsible for the crisis is not an impromptu exit, a distracting element, or a sort of scapegoat of the Ecuadorian government. Instead, this government action seizes the opportunity provided within the neoliberal project to simultaneously produce racial and political boundaries, the boundaries whose production accompanies and legitimizes violence against immigrants and indigenous peoples.

The division between desirable and undesirable foreigners accompanies the history of the twentieth century in Ecuador. Alana Ackerman analyzed how through official documents issued between 1938 and 1971, the state discourse on foreigners contributed to defining the borders of the Ecuadorian State from acontrol and security approach, sustained in the classification of those undesirable migrants.10

In 2008, the constitution of Ecuador proclaimed the “universal citizenship” and the progressive elimination of foreigner status. Although the management of migration policy had regressions and was contradictory in the treatment of migrants from Europe, Africa, and Latin America who arrived in Ecuador significantly between 2010 and 2015, it was the “migration crisis” of Venezuelans that reactivated, with greater clarity, an anti-migrant political discourse including xenophobic elements. The analysis of xenophobia cannot be considered outside the cleavages of race, class, and gender at the local and global levels, making for the sociocultural analysis the difference between desirable and undesirable appears as a polarization that reduces heterogeneity.

Prior to the October 2019 national strike, the Ecuadorian government had already spent two years jointly positioning the migration crisis as a scenario of economic crisis at the national level. Heterodox economists described the latter as an “induced crisis” since 2018 projected as an economic recovery due to the increase in oil prices, the expansion of oil and non-oil exports, and the flow of remittances from Ecuadorian migrants.11 Corporations with media control, officials, and politicians articulated to the neoliberal pact justify the measures as a way to prevent the "Venezuelanization” of Ecuador. The term "Venezuelanization,” in their discourse, referred primarily to the shortage of food, household goods, and medicines.12

What is disconcerting in the Ecuadorian case is that the neo-liberal pact justifies the antipopular economic reform as a preventive measure in the face of an eventual Venezuelanization of Ecuador. In other words, the neoliberal pact induces an economic crisis to avoid "being like Venezuela” (i.e., avoiding a ‘crisis’).

What is indecipherable or absurd in terms of economic logic is not in political terms: the neoliberal pact generated the discursive conditions for the return of external indebtedness and privatization of public services. However, thinking about the confluence of the economic crisis and the migratory crisis allows us to reveal the complementary resources of an antipopular project.

The anti-Venezuelan discourse promoted by the neoliberal pact within their economic agenda provided a resource to process another crisis: the migration crisis. Thus, the fictitious “Venezuelanization” that the elites had accused acquired a real place in the faces of Venezuelan migrants in the country.13 At this juncture, the hostile messages toward migrants, common in several Latin American countries, broke through sharply: “Venezuelans take work away from Ecuadorians,” “Venezuelans are criminals and increase insecurity,” “the government of Maduro is sending criminals” (Ripol and Navas, 15-23; Constante and León).

At the conjuncture that preceded the national strike, the responses to control the free transit of Venezuelan migrants, securitization programs targeting migrants, and economic adjustment measures were how the neoliberal pact drove the migration crisis. In the discourse of these actors, the migration crisis has as ‘a cause’ the populism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, and fascism (for them all this is the same or does not require distinction) of the Venezuelan government.

In this same vein, the economic crisis has its ‘origin’ in the populism, corruption, socialism, extravagance (again, all together or the same) of the government of Rafael Correa. By blaming the previous government or other countries, the neoliberal pact sought to generate in its favor a state of opinion that closes the gate to reflectively process the crisis or to democratically constitute ways to deal with it.14

The national strike showed that such government strategy could be contested by social and popular sectors. In this sense, the conflict about the “migration crisis,” economic crisis, and political crisis can be registered in a two-moment analytical matrix that helps the historical and cultural understanding. The first has to do with the possibilities of placing anti-immigrant hostility within the analysis of inequality by difference based on colonial patterns of representation and the coloniality of power (Quijano), while the second has to do with tensions around equality for the popular, which, in the Latin American case, finds expression in plebeian republicanism, and populism as a political process.15

Inequality by difference vis-a-vis equality by the popular.

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