Notes on Ecuador II: Quito
Allegations of corruption and overpricing of supplies across the country. With Fausto Rivera, Paola de la Vega, Vanessa Terán, Manuel Kingman, Ana Belén Rendón Reinoso & Romina Muñoz.
Even as the curve begins to apparently flatten around the world, in the tropics the numbers still do not reflect the reality of those affected by Coronavirus. Ecuador remains in its eternal state of emergency. This morning, the newspaper La Hora reported on allegations of corruption and overpricing of supplies across the country. Purchases of biosecurity, disinfection and food equipment are now common among public institutions, and have become a reason for criminal investigations. Irregularities in the acquisition of medical supplies are presented as the main acts where corruption is suspected during the health emergency that began on March 16.
Covid-19 is not the only virus that has spread across the country. Widespread corruption in Ecuador hasn’t ceased, even as the pandemic has registered 30,298 confirmed cases to date. What the actual numbers are remains unknown, as official reports are consistently unreliable. Complaints from Ecuador’s citizens continue to spread through social networks. Considering the explosive cocktail of corruption, pandemic and poverty, cultural workers living in Quito offer up in a second round of contemplations, beyond the austerity policies that hinder the paths of collective reflection in the country. (mip)
The body breaks, words too.
When they both slow down momentarily, something starts. Something radical. Language is reconfigured and takes the form of waiting: continuous, inexhaustible, unpredictable. The body — its organs, its memory, its senses — expands without ceasing to recognize its limits. Maria Moreno, a great Argentinian writer, said: "The body not as an anatomy, less as a destination, but as a limit, but not a limit where something stops but rather from which something begins its presence." The coronavirus has paused us, but it has not deactivated us. On the contrary: just as care ethics have now been deepened, the most obscene social inequalities have also been revealed. The lockdown widens the gaze and scratches reality without suspicion but does not promise any certain change. When this health crisis began, I was editing “Never the fire ever”, a book by the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit.
The brilliant novel has a shocking concordance with what we are experiencing right now: it tells the story of a couple confined in their room, their only continent is the bed in which they are lying and eating rice, a food that promotes "sleep and relief". Both, in their political and emotional isolation, are remembering a time of vexations, of failed individual and revolutionary projects. The pause, the waiting, activates in them a painful but authentic memory. A memory that mobilizes. The protagonists recognize: "We cannot, you told me, fall into the sentimentalities that the most predictable side of our time holds for us." We cannot, I think, leave power intact after what we have suffered.
Fausto Rivera, journalist, cultural critic and economist. He was editor of the culture magazine cartóNPiedra. He currently runs Severo Editorial, together with Vanessa Terán and Adrián Balseca.
Today is May Day.
Every year the streets of the Historic Center of Quito are filled with banners and proclamations of workers demanding their rights. The pandemic and government control have denied us that possibility and one of the democratic exercises of greater political, collective and public force: taking to the streets. However, despite the silence and emptiness that is perceived in this sector of the city - historically characterized by mobilizing social unrest - the cries for the right to work in decent and fair conditions are now heard in the merchants' cries. Informal street vendors throw their products in carts and other improvised devices, offering tomatoes, pineapples, beans, potatoes and other goods on a daily basis. At different times of the day, the sound of the wheels of the wheelbarrows and the shouting of these popular merchants remind us that the distribution of pandemic risk is a matter of class, and that, in a city like Quito, privileged isolation won’t be sustained much longer.
Out of necessity or perhaps out of solidarity, neighbors are buying these products that, before the crisis, were easily accessible in nearby markets and stores, all of which have closed up due to the health emergency. Sometimes I wonder if the closure of markets and stores could be definitive due to its economic unsustainability and public health measures. I wonder if the transnational chain stores and supermarkets will take advantage of the situation, like birds of prey, reading the crisis as a prime business opportunity. The fear of contagion that governs us today has brought changes to the neighborhoods of Quito with great applause. But sanitation measures go hand in hand with the political economy and the fragmentation of these spaces of community life, once again, will be plagued with the weight of social stigma on informal trade.
Paola de la Vega is a researcher and coordinator of the Masters program in Cultural Management and Cultural Policies, a professor of the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar (UASB) and of the faculty for Visual Arts at the Catholic University of Ecuador.
"6,819 calls have been received by the ECU-911 for gender violence" announces the owner of a local outlet, referring to the period between March 12th and April 11th, 2020. The quarantine officially began on March 16th and, as I write this, we have completed 42 days of confinement in our homes, following the instructions to shelter-in-place that has been repeated daily in the media, social networks and national networks. The problem is that for many women and girls in the country, the home is far from a safe space, as it is territory they share with their aggressor. How does a victim who spends twenty-four hours a day locked up with her abuser reach out to ask for help? Juan Zapata, director of ECU 911, talks on an average of 235 calls a day. What about those who cannot call, because doing so would mean endangering their own safety?
I think of the girls who live in hell in their family environment, because they live with their rapist. I think of the women who try to ask for help but are ignored by their neighbors because gendered violence is seen as a domestic and private matter that should not involve third parties. I think about what I would do if I witnessed such a case in the neighborhood where I live. Would you know what to do? Would you know who to call? At the end of last year, the administration of Lenin Moreno announced deep cuts in the state’s budget for the prevention and eradication of gendered violence.
In a country where at least 65% of women have survived some form of violent episode throughout their lives, there are no vaccines that can provide immunity, nor a social distance that would keep women safe, nor a quarantine that could save them.
Vanessa Terán Iturralde is a journalist and candidate for a Masters in Digital Media from the New School in New York. Since 2017, she publishes Soy la Zoila, a platform dedicated to female ideas that seek to close the gender gap in traditional media and public opinion. In 2019, se co-founded Severo Editorial, together with Fausto Rivera and Adrián Balseca.
Quito remains silent
Birds chirp and bees buzz outside. From time to time, bells chime from the houses, people are asking for help. In this city, nobody goes out to applaud the doctors. In the news, these heroes are mentioned as part of narratives that cover the precarious conditions in which they must work. I wonder if we ‘Quiteños’ are really so apathetic or just accumulating our emotions in trunks and mattresses: frustrations and indignations, hatreds and racisms. Are we saving them for later, so that one day they may return, taking to the streets of the "new normal"? That happened in October, and in the revolts and falls of presidents in the 1990s, but also in the drag of Alfaro. Today, the streets remain closed, a few people dressed in black masks and gloves circulate with fear and suspicion towards the others they encounter. Meanwhile, a bankrupt government tries to save bankers and businessmen and offers palliatives and derisive alms to the most vulnerable populations. Quito has had an efficient management. As a cold and rainy city, people have complied with the measures and shut themselves in, preventing contagion figures from skyrocketing. However, cases of nearby patients are already being reported, and salary cuts are also in effect. I live in a middle class neighborhood and from my house I have been able to continue working from home. In this unequal city, will we be able to recognize our privileges and show solidarity with those whose experiences are marked by poverty and unemployment?
Manuel Kingman, is an artist, teacher and researcher of the Visual Arts Faculty at PUCE
Don't go out without your mask. Don't go out without your conscience and your marked position.
I love this image that ran on social media networks last month, it seems to be a summary of the way in which the pandemic has exposed the nonsense of the system in a semi-colonial country like Ecuador. In the center of the photo, a woman holds her hand sanitizer in a very nice advertising-like pose. "Wear your product, you need it to survive” I hear her say in my mind, full of sarcasm of course, because behind the mask the look of indignation and rage that a popular class that is framed by does not hide, as in the photo. It is not a question of climate but rather the helplessness that has come to define the experience of many in Ecuador’s suburbs. It is the experience of helplessness that is enforced by law on the poorest and most vulnerable of our society. While opportunists in parliament give away the Ecuadorian jungle, all to their own personal benefit, they also give away cardboard coffins for people whose lives they shamelessly steal.
They take advantage of the crisis as a state contract of 1.5 million is released for the purchase of N-25 masks at an overpriced $12 per unit. $12!
It is absurd that these bureaucratic characters do not receive any sanctions. Beyond being a message of indignation, I would like it to be a call to society to react to the lethargy produced by its own fears, manifested in the silence of the media, in the whirlpool of corruption that eats it alive. No one will come to save us, to present the reforms that are painted as democratic. Those affected most are the workers and only together can we create a better path to our universal rights. What I like most about the photo perhaps, is the way in which I found her. Today, Ecuadorians do not trust the mainstream media, much of which is implicit conservative bullshit. I found her on Facebook, a stranger shared it with the same anger of the woman in the image, I guess. I did the same, and by sharing it, I hope to awaken that common feeling in which we are crushed, tired of nonsense.
I like things like this picture, as something that comes purely from inside. Only from there, can our class position be recognized. I like the message to be within a real thing, like a plastic bag, the one you get when you buy anything in your neighborhood bodega, with a socialist notes or Marxist quotes on it, flying in the air, adorning my city. We will all wear masks from this week on, and it better be carrying my rage on the front. I’ll paint the price of the masks on the front of mine, covering it with infectious sarcasm, just like the woman in the photo in the middle of the flood. I’ll wear a $12 mask that is steering us into extreme poverty. And if you don’t think it’s funny, let it be a spark, a spark of conscience, a spark for a revolution. Everybody who sees you or me on the street wearing a 12 on their face might laugh, just as the taxi driver did, when he saw me leaving my house today.
Ana Belén Rendón Reinoso temporarily lives in Ecuador, where she studies arts and militates on "Bloque Proletario"
These days of isolation led me to Irene Némirovsky. My reading of Suite Française started as I usually do not: reviewing the prologue and researching the life of the author. I thought that after this I was surely going to like the book, because the reviews were good too, and the life story of the writer was going to haunt me or mediate the reading. That happened, but that was only the beginning. Her meticulous descriptions illuminated a series of stories, where outlined characters were processing their departure from Paris and the arrival of the German army in the framework of the Second World War. Némirovsky died in a concentration camp in 1942, yet her incomplete novel was only published in 2004. I have not been able to avoid the parallels to today. I know that we are not living in a global state of war, despite the insistence on using military language to refer to the pandemic, disguising and justifying certain geo-political actions. The first part of the book has led me to think about those multiple worlds that are woven around and that we do not tend to attend because we are so concentrated in the daily routine; these are small stories marked by uncertainty, impotence, each one from his place, from his privileges and lacks, but sharing the same strange sky.
In this country, so divided, sustained by force under strange limits, a car restriction is maintained on weekends. During the week, you can only go out in the car according to the last digit of the license plate. There is a curfew from 14:00 until 05:00. Schools, colleges and universities hold meetings in virtual classrooms. The borders remain closed, the restrictions on national and international flights continue, as well as public and inter-regional transport. In many spaces and homes, care strategies grow while their conditions become precarious. Violence against women, and femicides grow, while the responsibility to maintain false harmony falls to the survivors. All this, while the guardians of ‘the good life’ give behavioral lectures to those most exposed, impoverished and weakened by the system.
In the streets of Quito, several informal workers are selling masks, gloves and provisions to the exteriors of various establishments, despite not being considered part of the frontline productive sectors. But the lines to make purchases in the large supermarket chains circle the block. It is possible that many don’t ever make it into the stores. The saleswomen, once again, are consistently ready to attend to the never ending orders. Parallely, the extravagant trade in eucalyptus branches has opened.
A new normality is looming. From Monday on (May 4), some cities moved from isolation to social distancing. It makes me shudder to think about this. It would seem that this new form of coexistence is more mediated by greater control than by our own bodies. I am suspicious of the strengthening of a punitive state and its support. Before the biometric marked the levels of compliance and efficiency, many establishments used thermometers to authorize passage; to separate healthy bodies from possible threats. The day I left and I had to pass the test, I felt fragile; I thought the thermometer was going to explode, that it would give away my fear. But I'm not complaining. I am sheltered in a beautiful home with people I love: Luciana, my daughter, Roberto, my son and Jorge, my partner, with whom I enjoy every moment. I have the possibility of feeling protected in a house, even if it is not mine. I can't stop thinking about the time I lived in downtown Guayaquil, where the arcades of Plaza San Francisco sheltered dozens of people and families every night.
I feel divided. I have no rush to leave, here I feel safe. Thinking about the outside generates more and more anguish for me. I can afford to work from home and I am "socially dysfunctional" or, as a friend told me: I lack social discipline; so I don't have the pressure to be okay in the outside world. I have worked from a very young age, leaving my children; so embracing the possibility of doing it near them is an offering, away from the busy traffic of Quito, from the tumult of buses, finding time to digest a bite of what I have managed to prepare. But I miss those who are far away, I need them. I want to hug my mother, brothers, nephews and friends, but I can't. They are in other cities and countries, the majority in Guayaquil, precisely one of the cities most affected by Covid-19 and historical inequality. We, protected in this house, need time, even in the midst of schoolwork, home office and household chores. We are university teachers and at the same time we have several artistic and editorial projects going. My partner writes, sings, prepares classes, reads and plans for a new book, and a new podcast (while motivating me to pronounce that word correctly). I enjoy seeing him, I can spend the whole day doing that. We celebrated his forties in quarantine. Cora, his daughter, and Juli, his son, stayed with us for a week. The domestic adventures multiplied amid surprises, small shows with different costumes, the result: all the closets were broken.
I have had to fight between the virtual classes of my children, mine and those of my partner. There are days where they all coincide! I'm not complaining, we're already getting used to it. Ok, I do want to complain a bit. More than once I have exploded due to unexpected time changes, which have led us to reorganize the day in a blink. I’ve deleted multiple WhatsApp messages and photos from my phone in order to focus. I’ve channeled the bad mood of those who ask for my efficiency on the other side of the screen. I’ve crashed with the certainty that work dynamics will not change until we take more radical paths. No, death is not enough. They exploit, control and bury us every day. I am overwhelmed by the impression that we will have to deal with the radicalization of that vigorous perverse machinery that we have come to see as a natural state of affairs. Returning to Némirovsky's book, I’m trapped in the images of the landscapes she describes in the midst of horror: the colors of the sky, the movements of the plants, the description of the food (which various characters desire in the midst of their hunger), the detailed feat of the Péricand cat. A display of humor and fascination with details, which the author sustains as she writes to her editor "that they will be posthumous works, but it helps to pass the time." I come back, enchanted by its scathing criticism of the Parisian elite and the power figures of some French towns, people capable of everything to not assume responsibilities, defend their privileges and save their skin. I cannot stop thinking about the complexity of Guayaquil, a city so divided, so violent and classist; with a local and conservative government that it leads very proudly, more than two decades. I return to the delighted book on how the author, in the midst of horror, of those incomprehensible events, manages to find some taste in the collapse of the stiffening of the normal, of the centuries of "civilization" and supposed order, and how it appears in one of her lines, expose your arid and naked soul. It would seem that, all the time, he whispered something about that normality that painfully imposes itself in front of some bodies - some days some, other days others - with all the weight of its violence. Yes, the author has been present in my reading, whispering something to me after all.
All this has led me to take refuge with and in what I love the most: family, classes and books. It has led me to rethink the importance of these worlds and art as shared activities. I enjoy my virtual sessions, I savor the preparation time (something freelance teachers never have), I am excited to meet my students through the screen. It has led me to concentrate and value more the possibility of dialogue, of exchange without established time, of the pleasure of meeting far from university regulations. I know not everyone is in tune with this and some leave the camera on and leave (let's not fool ourselves: this also happens in face-to-face encounters), but others are there, giving themselves the opportunity to share, just as excited about it as I am. Recently, for the day of the book (April 23), I read a tweet that said something like reading does not make you a better person, and the idea of “person” resonated in me. Some relate the origin of this word to the Greek theater, with a term that refers to the mask, to that which hides or seeks to give another image. I venture to think of these spaces as areas where it is possible to remove the mask, or even with these on. No, they make us better people, but they are areas that invite us to think about the lack of correspondence between our intentions and actions.
Romina Muñoz is a writer, academic and director of Festina Lente, a publishing house she runs together with Salvador Izquierdo.
* * *
We might be socially distant, but not demobilized. As the public systems collapse and the government seems unable to proceed with action plans to get the country afloat, women, students, farmers, artists and activists organize to think and make some sense of days. People are organizing and trying to imagine a fairer present and a brighter future. These are further texts, complaints and proposals from different movements, which reflect a diversity of concerns, but also a diversity of forms of solidarity and networks:
- The Market of San Roque, located in the historical center of Quito, is an important site in the disputes over the use of space in the city. Various artists have worked together with the community in the market, in that space several discussions on food sovereignty have taken place. These are some videos and experiences regarding the people of the market and the conflicts around precarity and informal markets: (1),(2)
- The government has decided to underfund public education and various sectors of students, teachers and workers have organized to protest with distance and on social networks. This is a statement of support for Universidad de las Artes, to which it is possible to adhere in defense of public education in arts and there is also a campaing produced by the Escuela Politénica Nacional EPN. The Centro de Modelización Matemática Modemat, from EPN, has created the only app that exists to geolocate the virus. It is called Salvavidas. (agm)