Gota a Gota—Drop by Drop: Forced Displacement, Debt and Credit, and Life in the Aftermath of Conflict
Pérez-Rivera, Gloria C.
Financialization intensifies and expands credit—credit that is often exploitative and predatory— to populations that cannot afford it. If economically marginalized people struggle to repay debt, who lends money to them, and how are they able to extract profit? This dissertation examines how the forcible displacement of people from rural areas to cities through the fifty-plus years of Colombian civil war has resulted in the emergence of new urban spaces for financial exploitation. Based on 17months of fieldwork in Cartagena, Colombia, it traces the credit and debt relations that have emerged among urban relocated displaced people and narco-paramilitary moneylenders to forward two main arguments. First, I argue that to grasp the complexities of credit and debt relations in displaced people’s lives, we must examine their social relations as workers and not primarily as victims. Focusing on how displaced workers strategize to cover their needs and try to escape poverty reveals a complex nexus between the need to work (subsist) and credit. Second, I argue that narco-paramilitaries exercise control over the flows of displaced workers’ incomes because they have monopolized ownership of local businesses that provide basic goods and services that their debtors purchase. In this landscape of cash circulation, narco-paramilitary violence fades behind financial transactions that appear to be voluntary and necessary. Such appearances obscure decades of violent socio-economic and class reconfigurations that produced mass displacement and urban poverty. The dissertation contributes to understanding migration as a financial process with profound consequences for migrants as workers, as credit and debt relations shape the types and conditions of work that people are willing to take. By doing so, it sheds light on emergent economic and labour inequalities and exploitation. From the perspective of studies of financialization, this research is distinct from dominant foci on “high finance” and demonstrates that cash economy sectors are critical to understanding how poor populations remain highly productive for capitalism. Moreover, my findings challenge scholarship that maintains that capitalism creates “surplus” populations. Through close ethnographic examination, I show how the imperative to make a living opens possibilities for capital extraction while permitting people to subsist through work.