CARTAGENA, Colombia — Marlon Mendoza, certified Cartagena tour guide, stopped in the shade of a Spanish Colonial balcony and scanned the old slave market for prospects.
“#Localcartagenatours. Nobody Does It Better Than the Locals,” his T-shirt promised, although there were hardly any tourists left to look. Hundreds of miles away, American beach towns, amply supplied with vaccines, were back in business. But here, the pandemic was only getting worse, evaporating the seas of sightseers in the bougainvillea-lined streets of Old Town.
The stocky 36-year-old sized up the slim pickings and zeroed in on a pale European couple.
He hesitated. He is a Black Colombian, and his market was African Americans. They’d filled his Afro-centric tours exposing the heroes of Colombia’s showcase city as slavers. But that was before the pandemic punched a hole in the developing world’s middle class, sending millions careening back down the social ladders they’d spent lifetimes ascending.
If history were any guide, it would take a Black man in Latin America far longer to recover. And Mendoza was down deep. In the 15 months since Colombia’s first confirmed coronavirus case, he’d been evicted from his office and pulled his 7-year-old out of private school. He’d moved his family out of the city and back to the dirt-road village of his birth.
The rent was due in five days and he was still short $60. A day’s worth of tips before, a king’s ransom today.
Business card out, he approached the Europeans.
“It’s cool. I’m a winner, a builder, a creator,” he said, flashing a broad smile. “Better to laugh than cry. It gets you more clients.”
The pandemic has pushed tens of millions of people worldwide into poverty. Fears are growing that worsening inequality — within and between nations — could be one of its longest-lasting effects.
“It will take years to reverse,” World Bank President David Malpass said.
Take Latin America, the region that has sustained the world’s sharpest economic blow.
In the past two decades, the number of people living in poverty in Latin America was almost halved. The commodities boom in the 2000s generated jobs in mining, oil and agriculture. But the middle class — a relative term, for people earning $13 to $70 a day — was still populated largely by the ranks of the self-employed, including small entrepreneurs and informal workers.
They were grocers, jewelers, street vendors and tour operators. Recent years of economic stagnation imperiled those gains, but they more or less held on. So much so that two years before the pandemic struck, one of the world’s most unequal regions achieved a milestone: For the first time in history, the middle class became Latin America’s largest income group.
For millions, the moment would prove fleeting. Factoring out Brazil, where temporary government aid skewed regional numbers, 12 million Latin Americans tumbled out of the middle class last year, knocking the region from its perch as a middle-class society, according to a World Bank study to be published next month.
The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the region’s lauded poverty-busting years. There is a continuing dearth of formal, salaried jobs. Wealth inequality persists, and tax laws still shield the rich. Safety-net programs remain limited, particularly for the middle class.
Some countries are already seeing stark inequality worsen because of the pandemic. And marginalized groups — people of color, women, low-skill workers — face some of the steepest roads to recovery.
Colombia, the world’s 13th-most unequal nation before the pandemic struck, offers a snapshot.
In a country of 50 million, the poorest fifth of the population lost 24.6 percent of its income, and the middle shed 15.6 percent. The richest lost a relatively light 10.1 percent.
Roughly 1.6 million Colombians fell out of the middle class. One was Mendoza.
“I feel like I’m starting from zero,” he said.
Colombia’s 4.7 million Blacks, already statistically poorer than the average Colombian, witnessed the steepest drops in labor income of any ethnic group in the second half of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to Colombian government data. The pandemic’s punch stirred many to action. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest rising poverty and inequality. The protesters have disproportionately been people of color.
As the demonstrations rage on, dozens have died, with officials confirming at least three more deaths in the hard-hit city of Cali on Friday, the day marking one month since the protests began. That same day, President Iván Duque announced a “maximum deployment of military” to Cali, a move that could tip Colombia into broader violence and signal social unrest in other nations where the seemingly endless pandemic is deepening economic despair.
The United States, with its vaccine abundance, is closing in on a full recovery. But in parts of the developing world plagued by vaccine shortages, the pandemic remains at or near its peak, with lockdowns and curfews still a way of life. Once the outbreak releases its grip on places like Colombia — still months away, at the earliest — the middle class, analysts say, should be poised for a rapid recovery.
But by then, many, like Mendoza, will have burned through life savings, accumulated more debt and lost professional momentum. Their children will have fallen behind in their education. For those who have sunk back to the bottom, poverty feels like an inescapable chain. On average, it takes 11 generations to break out of poverty in Colombia.
For Afro-Colombians, facing systemic racism and less access to education, health care and the Internet, the constraints feel even stronger.
“We’ve lost about a decade on average in terms of poverty gains as a country,” said Roberto Angulo, an analyst and adviser on poverty to the Colombian government. “But the Black population is going to lose even more than a decade, and be even more poor than before.”
‘I don’t sit and cry’
His professional name was the Fisherman of Barú, a nod to a lifetime spent by the sea. Mendoza’s wife liked to joke that he couldn’t cast a line to save his life. What he could do, she’d say with pride, was fish for opportunity.
One day this month, he was pounding the cobblestones at noon but had struck out with everyone he’d approached.
“Excuse me, would you like to know the real Cartagena?” he’d asked the Europeans, enunciating in hard-learned English.
They’d walked on as if he didn’t exist.
“It’s this,” he’d said, pointing to his ebony skin.
He moved down Badilla Street now, commiserating with trinket vendors in a blur of bro hugs and fist bumps. Tourism in Cartagena had fallen by 90 percent after the pandemic struck, and it was still down 70 percent. He breezed past vacant store fronts. More than 400 businesses in Cartagena had closed.
One of them was his.
A few months after tourism crashed, his landlord evicted him from his second-floor office in a mustard-colored Colonial building. He’d proudly inaugurated his business in 2017. He’d had two employees, now laid off.
“I still owe back pay,” he said.
He’d beaten the odds to get that far. The son of a security guard and a food worker, he was raised in a dirt-floor shack. As a child, he made a few pesos selling necklaces on the beach.
“My grandfather used to call me a marica” — a sissy — “for clinging to my books,” he said. But top marks, a tourism program and a scholarship at an English-language school had been his ticket out. Hotel concierges in Cartagena sometimes made him wait outside for his clients. They still did. “It’s because I’m Black,” he said, and laughed. “But I pay no bother. I’m an optimist. I make things happen. I don’t sit and cry.”
By 2018, his website was bringing in business from Black American clients for his trademark Afro-centric tours. He’d taken out a bank loan to build his dream: a bed-and-breakfast by the beach. He was clearing $1,600 a month, enough for a middle-class life. His wife made a few hundred more as a clerk in a hardware store. They’d show up in trash-strewn Puerto Rey, the village of his birth, brimming with gifts.
“They used to call me Santa Claus,” he said.
Now he’d lost his website, unable to pay the taxes on the domain. His motorbike was being held hostage by the $80 he owed the garage. The bank had called three times this week. He’d sent the calls to voice mail. “But it’s cool,” he said. His wife had lost her store clerk job in cutbacks, and he was pulling in scraps in Old Town Cartagena. But he’d rented a bar in Puerto Rey and had saved some cash by moving his family out of the city to a tiny apartment above the joint.
He’d buy beer in Cartagena on credit at 20 percent interest and jack up the price for sale in Puerto Rey. He cleared maybe $350 a month. When he fell short on rent, he’d pay what he could and put the rest on account. He’d take chances with small loans.
Hoping for a bigger payday, he’d hired a DJ for the upcoming Sunday.
“Now I’m poor again,” he said. “I’ve got to be creative. I’ve got to make it happen. Produce. Not for me — for my family.”
Beyond the walled city, past rows of gleaming condominium buildings that seem transplanted from Miami Beach, the Italian-built highway becomes a potholed dirt road. Five miles out stands a cluster of ramshackle dwellings: Puerto Rey.
At a table in Mendoza’s small living room, his eldest son, Emmanuel Mendoza Gómez, 7, sat in a bright orange basketball shirt, cut denim shorts and dusty black crocs. He was perched in a rocking chair, mouth agape, watching TV. It was small; not the 45-inch beauty he’d had back in Cartagena.
A year ago, Emmanuel would have been in class at his private school. It was too far now and the $45 monthly tuition too much. Today, he had no classes and no homework. Public school teachers had been on strike for more than a month. Even before then, the pandemic had closed the local school. They were paying a teacher’s aide in the village to tutor him. But still he was slipping behind.
He pulled out an old assignment from his private school. He stumbled over the words as he tried to read.
In Colombia, literacy rates for Blacks are below the national average. That worries his mother.
“He used to be able to read full sentences. Now he’s struggling just to read words,” Enger Carolina Gómez Rodríguez said, rocking her newborn in her arms. She couldn’t tend to the baby and teach Emmanuel. “We’re hoping to God he’s able to restart classes next year.”
In Puerto Rey, Emmanuel was bullied by village children, who saw him as the “little rich boy.” Only he’s not rich anymore. He’d rather be back in Cartagena.
“I could play with my friends there,” he said. “It was good for us there.”
‘I feel tired’
Mendoza walked the streets of Puerto Rey, drumming up business for his big beer party at El Tambo, the bar he was renting. He’d need an oversize payday to cover rent, food and the DJ. Because of coronavirus curfews, he’d opened early — at 10 a.m.
The day started slow, but as night began to fall, the bar was filling up. Then two police officers arrived.
He produced his papers, but they ordered him to shut down early. One hour before curfew, his highest-volume hour.
An officer pulled him aside.
“Treat us right,” Mendoza said he’d been told.
They wanted their cut: 50,000 pesos, about $15.
He walked back toward the bar.
“I feel tired,” he said.
Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, and Heloísa Traiano in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.