Pandemics, populist necropower, and regimes of mobility in the Global South: Haitians’ silent exodus from Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic

CAETANO MASCHIO SANTOS  |  4 JUNE 2022  |  OXFORD MIGRATION CONFERENCE 2022

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Picture by Bailey Torres on Unsplash.

During the pandemic, migrants around the world suffered not only from COVID-19 itself but also from its intersections with social determinants of health, varied sociocultural repercussions (such as xenophobia and racism), and forced (im)mobility resulting from government policies (or lack thereof). Migrants' experiences during the pandemic show how power can and has worked towards the enforcement of different regimes of mobility at the intersections of public health and border regimes with race and class, all during a global health emergency which has ironically been sold as ‘the great leveller’ of social inequalities. With a focus on the case of Haitian migrants living in Brazil, I will briefly illustrate how such conjuncture of increasing precarity has added momentum to an almost invisible – and silent – mass mobility phenomenon in the Global South: the movement towards the US along the transcontinental migration corridor between South and North America.

Early into the COVID-19 pandemic, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (a far-right populist) adopted a denialist stance regarding the pandemic, systematically downplaying its seriousness, ignoring scientific advice, advocating unproven treatment and medication, countering preventative measures such as masks and social distancing, and spreading anti-vax disinformation. As Brazilian health professionals have suggested, the politicization of the pandemic by Bolsonaro and his refusal to coordinate a nationwide response to an infectious disease that has taken more than 660,000 lives in Brazil points to the appropriateness of Achille Mbembe’s idea of necropolitics in evaluating Brazil’s pandemic scenario. Along with the ensuing economic recession, the pandemic brought increasing precarity to the lives of Global South migrants and refugees in Brazil (Haitians, Venezuelans, and Africans from many nations), a particularly vulnerable population subject to economic exploitation, racism, and xenophobia. Apart from the increased cost of living and reduced capacity to send economic remittances, they faced additional barriers to accessing public healthcare and sometimes suffered from racism and xenophobia in hospitals while infected with COVID-19. As researchers of the Network for the Healthcare of Immigrants and Refugees sum up in their critique of the governments’ neglect of these groups, ‘to improve the condition of migrants and refugees during the pandemic, one needs to first actually see them’. Bolsonaro’s attention to migrants during the pandemic comes down to a differential treatment of land and aerial border regimes, with a stricter policy to the terrestrial entrance of Venezuelan refugees and lax control of more affluent aerial traffic – the very manner through which COVID-19 likely entered the country, as Brazil’s first reported case was a wealthy businessman returning from northern Italy. A known xenophobe, Bolsonaro’s general posture towards non-white migrants and refugees is aptly demonstrated by his last phrase to an anonymous Haitian migrant in the early stages of the pandemic, ‘Go back to your country, man, go back to that den’.

 

If the pandemic initially halted international mobilities worldwide as countries enforced stricter border policing to stop the spread of COVID-19, migrant movement in the Central American corridor soon resumed and grew from mid-2020 onwards. This transcontinental route to the US has been regularly used by Haitians since 2016, when the political and economic situation in Brazil showed clear signs of instability and decay. As an ethnomusicologist working with Haitian artists in Southern Brazil, I have long witnessed their precarious lives as Black migrants, mostly absorbed as a cheap labour force ever since their arrival in the years following the Port-au-Prince earthquake in 2010. In 2021, excited by Joe Biden’s electoral victory, lured by misinformation about facilitated asylum, and prompted by the ineffective handling of the pandemic by Bolsonaro, thousands of Haitians chose to travel by land to the US, leaving the country largely unnoticed and uncared for. In this movement, they joined migrants from different continents in one of the deadliest and least-known migratory routes in the world, whose increased usage since the mid-2010s reflects the growing difficulty in entering the US through traditional paths. Its most famous stretch is the Darién Gap, a 100-kilometres-long mountainous region of dense tropical rainforest between Colombia and Panama, where migrant groups – frequently including children and pregnant women – face a traumatic and life-threatening journey filled with many dangers. Official data from Panama’s migration agency reveals that in 2021 circa 80,000 Haitians crossed the Colombia/Panama border, a number that grows to 100,000 if counting the children born of Haitian parents that hold Brazilian and Chilean documents. Thousands of those who managed to arrive at the US/Mexico border have been deported back to Haiti, whose endemic crisis has seen considerable deterioration in 2021 with president Moïse’s assassination and yet another earthquake. 

 

Such exodus has deeply affected my own engagement with Haitian artists in Brazil, drying out the Haitian music scene in the country, and producing what felt to me like a haunting ethnographic silence. A dialectics of sound and silence in migrant agency may be representative of the one between recognition and negation of the subject in the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics, either in a straightforward manner (resulting from death and disappearance) or indirectly (neoliberalism’s radical economic disenfranchisement through which whole populations are deemed dispensable). Haitian voices are seldom heard in Brazil, even less so during the pandemic – as Bolsonaro’s treatment of his migrant interlocutor firmly attests. Such silencing brings to the fore Mbembe’s necropolitics, the expression of sovereignty that lies ‘in the power and capacity to dictate who may live and who must die’ and to define ‘who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not’. At the crossroads of pandemics, scientific denialism and populist politics, Haitians in Brazil have been de facto rendered disposable, attesting once again to the weight of racialized colonial legacies that explain why ‘distributions of Haitians in various places that seem “natural” were in fact created under the influence of structural factors, at once economic, social and political’. 

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Caetano Maschio Santos

Caetano Maschio Santos is an ethnomusicologist and DPhil candidate at the Faculty of Music of the University of Oxford and Merton College, where he is the 2019 recipient of the Stuart Hall Scholarship. His doctoral research deals with the musical endeavours of Brazil’s Haitian diaspora, analyzing the relationships between music and migration, race, translation, and intercultural conviviality through collaborative ethnographic engagements centred on music-making, social mediation, and cultural advocacy. He is also a multi-instrumentalist musician specializing in Irish traditional music, New Orleans R&B, Hungarian Roma music, and Brazilian choro music.

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