“Enough is enough”: The wave of protests in Latin America – A Comment
During the last century, Latin America faced coups, military dictatorships, economic downturns and social uprisings. Regardless this instability, the region is sometimes perceived as a forgotten continent, rarely making headlines in top western English-speaking media. The last months of 2019, however, have shown that instability is not a phenomenon of the past as it reached a level which simply cannot be ignored by the world. One after another, Latin American countries have been witnessing rapidly escalating unrest. People took the streets, security forces responded with tear gas or rubber bullets and, the position of the political leaders has been getting more fragile. When it comes to such a diverse and enormous continent with a population of 630 million people, there is surely no single, easy explanation of the current political and social turmoil. There are, however, some common threads that link certain parts of these crises.
There is an omnipresent frustration caused predominantly by economic dissatisfaction and social inequality. Breaking news from last few months bear resemblance to the domino effect. In Ecuador, due to the withdrawal of the subsidy on fuel, prices have skyrocketed which lead to massive demonstration that paralyzed parts of the country in October 2019. In the meantime, streets in Chile have been a scenery of an encounter between protesters and police forces equipped with arms and tanks. Despite the passing time, Chileans continued to protest regularily. Argentina’s Peronists recently celebrated their return to the power as people hope that it will bring reprieve from the deep recession. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, first indigenous president and once a cherished leader who won plaudits for fighting poverty and improving the country’s economy, was forced by the army to step down in an atmosphere of scandal regarding accusations of election fraud. The political vacuum created after the resignation of Evo Morales threatened democracy, social justice and the security of the Bolivian people. Serious allegations of rigging the election sparked public outrage. However, the army forcing Morales’s resignation, as a consequence of which the right-wing opposition took power, fit the very definition of a coup. Evo Morales firstly fled to Mexico and currently has been in exile in Argentina. He explained that he had asked for asylum because his life had been in danger. The interim president Jeanine Áñez, a conservative senator, brought with her political agenda a bible as she swore in her new cabinet. This can be seen as a symbol that catholic religion might become more important than other beliefs. Additionally, the change in leadership came along with increasingly hateful rhetoric against indigenous people. Moreover, Áñez has signed a decree protecting the armed forces from prosecution for actions committed to restore public order. Human rights organizations immediately stood against this decision, which they fear may lead to massive killings. People are abused and killed on the streets and Wiphala flags (a symbol of the indigenous people) are being burned even though it has equal status to the national flag. The Bolivian people were supposed to go to the polls on May 3, 2020. This has now been postponed due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Although Morales’ party (the Movement for Socialism, MAS) has its candidate for presidency, politicians are not able to conduct a normal campaign. Their media channels have been blocked and their leaders arrested or exiled. The United Nations secretary-general’s personal envoy Jean Arnault even released a statement in which she stressed that the current situation is “characterized by an exacerbated polarization and mixed feelings of hope, but also of uncertainty, restlessness and resentment after the serious political and social crisis of last year.” Interim right-wing authorities have been regularly charging MAS leaders with riots, terrorism, and violence.
Another country in the region, which is thrown into political uncertainty, is Peru. The Peruvian president Martín Vizcarra has dissolved Congress in order to force new elections due to the battle he had with deputies over his anti-corruption campaign. In legislative elections which took place at the end of January, Popular Force, the party of the controversial former Peruvian president Fujimori and his daughter, Keiko Fujimori, which had held a massive majority during the previous term (73 seats), only won 15 seats in the 130-seat chamber. These results put an end to the unshakable rule of the Fuijimoris that has shaped Peruvian life and the country’s economy for 30 years. Considering further crises such as the humanitarian disaster in Venezuela, and protests in Paraguay over the economic agreement with Brazil, one may think that Latin America has become a crisis-torn continent.
In most cases, resurgent turmoil was fuelled by seemingly minor issues like public transport fare increases. However, it was just a spur. The protests surged from problems related to public policy issues like corruption, access to education, health care or low pensions which push elderly people to the margins of society. For years, inequalities were seen as an inseparable part of the economic development and ignored as long as there was a sense of hope for higher wages and better life for next generations (Phillips, 2019). At the beginning of the 21st century, the continent enjoyed stable growth and there was a real chance to decrease inequalities. Hence, current prolonged stagnation is the reason why public patience is wearing thin. The tense situation has been additionally heated by a wave of corruption scandals that have discredited political elites in the eyes of the people. The Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), an ongoing criminal investigation by the Federal Police of Brazil, began as an investigation into money laundering and quickly uncovered a web of political and corporate connections drowned in the huge and complex corrupted system which has operated inside and outside Brazil. The investigation led to the arrest of several politicians. In August 2019, for example, former Mexican minister Rosario Robles went to jail related to allegations of having diverted more than 5 billion pesos (US$ 250 million) from the public treasury and taking campaign money from Odebrecht, a construction firm involved in the Lava Jato scandal (Love & Angulo, 2019). Involvement in corrupt practices linked to Odebrecht has as well put into jail the aforementioned Peruvian opposition leader Keiko Fujimori (Cisneros, 2019). And these are only a few examples. According to a survey prepared by the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, 85% of the questioned people in Latin America and the Caribbean said that government corruption was “a big problem” in their country, 53% think that corruption increased in the previous 12 months and 57% expressed that it is not being tackled well (Transparency International, 2019). People have been losing their faith in public institutions for a long time. The outcome is that they don’t believe that politicians actually want to represent the people or at least have good intentions. This conclusion is inevitable since corruption is rarely out of the news in Latin America and inequality is persistent.
In Latin America, strong links between military and politics have a long history. The use of violence by the army or police resembles dictatorship times. That is why recent images of the army and police officers using violence against protestors may have triggered painful, old traumas. Such shocking brutality has been spread in Chile, especially across the streets of Santiago from October 2019 onwards. Photos of burned cars, devastated shops, subway cars and violent clashes between protestors and the police have been circulating all over the internet. The situation in Santiago in the last months of 2019 resembled the landscape of a large city on the verge of civil war or armed coup. Taking into account Chile’s turbulent history it evokes dramatic connotations. On February 6th, Fuad Chahín the president of the Chilean Christian Democrats (DC) described the situation as “chaotic and ungovernable”. Carabineros have been questioned numerous times for human rights violations. The recent accusations have been fuelled by the tragic death of at least two young people in an incident involving police forces at the end of January. In October 2019, a curfew has been introduced, military troops were patrolling the streets. Additionally, there was no public transport, taxis were practically unavailable and access to the airport was difficult, which made it difficult to leave the country. The protests were initiated because of a small transit fare increase and expensive education but have gained climax over stagnant salaries despite economic growth. The protests have resulted in at least 20 deaths and thousands injured. President Sebastián Piñera had even declared that the authorities “are at war” with those who are marching. Hundreds have been sent to the hospitals with gunshots, head wounds and head fractures in the aftermath of the unrest. The people do not protest against the slight price increase, they act against an unaffordable life in their own country. Chile was once a role model for supporters of neoliberal reforms, including eastern European countries which made a rapid switch from communist systems to free market economies. Despite once having been called Latin America’s financial tiger, Chile now ranks as one of the most unequal countries of the continent. In 2017, the richest 20% earned nine times more than the poorest 20% (BBC, 2019). Not to mention that now, the national currency is weakening.
A similar situation was seen in Ecuador. When president Lenin Moreno decided to cut decades-old fuel subsidies and implement tax and labour reforms, mass anti-government protests paralyzed the streets. They quickly turned violent. The police used tear gas, pepper spray and sound bombs on demonstrators. Few people have been killed, hundreds wounded. Even though the president cancelled the austerity package and the situation has stabilised, profound harm was done, and it is obvious now that in the future, the president will be nowhere near a peaceful conflict resolution. Lenin Moreno succeeded Rafael Correa as president in 2017 claiming to continue his left-wing reforms, but in practice he sharply reversed the government’s previous agenda, not only handing back a US military base (which was evicted by Correa), but also steering the country back toward neoliberal reforms. This switch made the Ecuadorians feel neglected and betrayed. However, the conflict is not over. On February 14th Amnesty International issued a statement calling the authorities to provide security to those who protect human rights. During the crisis in October 2019, the Ombudsman’s Office played a crucial role while documenting human rights violations and providing the help to those affected. Since then, defenders of human rights have been receiving numerous death threats.
Looking at Argentina, we can observe pro-business economic policies which did not last. The victory of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (name resemblance is coincidental) as his running mate put an end to the rule of Mauricio Macri and is a clear message from the people that Argentinians want a comeback of the welfare state. The question is whether the Peronists can live up to the expectations created by memories of stable economic growth and higher wages in the 2000s. Argentina is now at the edge of a profound crisis, which may be as immense as the great depression from 20 years ago. A deep recession is under way, inflation is very high and poverty is rising. Freshly after the elections, Argentinians were celebrating and truly believed that the times of prosperity which are linked to the Peronist era, would come back. Yet, the government is currently trying to revamp the country’s debt and push economic growth. In the meantime, inflation still rises to levels above 50% (Reuters, 2020). At the beginning of February, Argentina’s Economy Minister Martin Guzman even met the head of the International Monetary Fund to discuss the country’s difficult economic situation.
Turing to Colombia, the country is regularly a scene of mass protests where people clash with security forces. In September 2019, the Colombians protested against alleged corruption of President Ivan Duque’s government. In October of the same year, thousands of students rallied the streets demanding bigger funding for public education and an end to alleged corrupt practices at universities. Due to clashes with police forces, numerous people have been injured. Security forces are loyal to the authorities and ensure their political positions or, as it is official called, secure „state stability against the rebels and criminals”. No wonder, the Colombian government spends as much as 25% of its GDP on defence which leaves the military personnel with decent regular income (Richani, 2011). Ivan Duque is facing one of the most critical moments in his administration following the bombardment of a jungle camp operated by a drug-trafficking group in which eight children were killed (Alsema, 2019). It could be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. Big mass protest took place on November 22nd, 2019. The government has issued a decree that empowered the mayors and governors throughout the country to make extraordinary decisions to ensure security and public order during the strike (El Tiempo, 2019). This tells that politicians are prepared for a scenario where clashes between military troops and people will be inevitable. Although the first few hours of the manifestation went relatively calm, it has been gradually escalating. Police officers and anti-riot units used rubber bullets and tear gas against protestors. Videos which show violence of police officers towards regular people circulated the internet. In the light of challenging results of the latest shift of power, it is interesting to look at the country’s capital Bogotá. The newly elected mayor Claudia Lopez (who took part in the first protest) is a lesbian and feminist politician who has been openly fighting corruption for years, despite constant death threats. At the end of January, Colombian police clashed with small numbers of protesters and some public transport infrastructure. However, massive social mobilisation didn’t convince the government to put the reforms on holds and firstly discuss the concerning points with public. The authorities have been introducing one economic bill after another which is daunting for citizens as they feel they are never been heard. Nevertheless, the activists don’t give up.
Lastly, looking at Venezuela, another country which was largely in the news throughout 2019, Nicolás Maduro has been able to stand the immense international pressure and save his position since the army declared loyalty to him (Ellsworth & Armas 2019). The number of Latin American countries shaken by social protests and political crises has grown surprisingly last year. Demonstrations in each of them respond to specific problems and needs, whose common factor is a widespread discontent with those who govern. The mobilization is fuelled by unfulfilled promises and growing social inequalities. Latin America is angry in many ways at the same time, regardless the ideological current. The quality of life worsened, democratic structures are in danger, prices increased, and some social groups (such as students and public transport employees) have been adversely affected by government decisions. The ruling parties simply ignored the fact that the key to stability is to tackle inequality or at least show a will to do so. What will the latest unrest bring to the countries? This is still to be determined. However, it must be emphasized that, in the past, many of the liberating campaigns which changed the political fate in the region originated from social protest.
Alsema, Adriaan (2019): Did Colombia’s president know he was authorizing the bombing of children?. Colombia Reports. Retrieved from: https://colombiareports.com/did-colombias-president-knew-he-was-authorizing-the-bombing-of-children/
Amnesty International (2020): Ecuador: Government must protect life and integrity of Ombudsman. Retrieved from: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/02/ecuador-gobierno-debe-proteger-defensor-del-pueblo/
BBC (2019): Chile protests – Is inequality becoming worse?. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50123494
Cisneros, Luis Jaime (2019): Peru court cuts jail time for opposition leader Keiko Fujimori. Yahoo News. Retrieved from: https://news.yahoo.com/peru-court-cuts-jail-time-opposition-leader-keiko-001225082.html
Ellsworth, Brian; Armas, Mayela (2019): The Maduro mystery – Why the armed forces still stand by Venezuela’s beleaguered president. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/venezuela-military/
El Tiempo (2019): Paro del 21 – si hay violencia, Gobierno considerará toque de queda. Retrieved from: https://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/investigacion/paro-del-21-si-hay-violencia-gobierno-considerara-toque-de-queda-434570?fbclid=IwAR17yUA4x7TcUZhlwGgtJbI1Or_qHlAedOcyu-8uufbtoatej2fHEb0FypY
Love, Julia; Angulo, Sharay (2019): Mexican former minister detained, deepening president’s anti-graft quest. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-corruption-robles/mexican-former-minister-detained-deepening-presidents-anti-graft-quest-idUSKCN1V316W
Phillips, Tom (2019): An explosion of protest, a howl of rage – but not a Latin American spring. The Guardian, Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/24/latin-american-spring-protests-chile-ecuador-bolivia-haiti
Richani, Nazih (2011): Colombia’s Military Expenditure and Its Impact. Nacla. Retrieved from: https://nacla.org/blog/2011/10/3/colombias-military-expenditure-and-its-impact
Transparency International (2019): What People Think – Corruption in Latin America & the Caribbean. Retrieved from: https://www.transparency.org/news/feature/what_people_think_corruption_in_latin_america_the_caribbean
United Nations Secretary-General (2020): Statement by the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for Bolivia, Jean Arnault. Retrieved from: https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/note-correspondents/2020-02-03/statement-the-personal-envoy-of-the-secretary-general-of-the-united-nations-for-bolivia-jean-arnault
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.
Katarzyna Mierzejewska holds a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Warsaw. She also took a postgraduate course in gender studies at the Polish Academy of Science. Katarzyna has been working for a few years now as a journalist for various media and think tanks. In her articles she tackles issues such as foreign affairs, politics in Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America, women’s rights, and climate crisis, to mention just a few. Additionally, she has experience in communications, gained while working at a Geneva-based NGO. Her working languages are Polish, English, and French. Currently she is learning German and Spanish.