What Is Driving the Protests in Latin America?

When addressing the recent protests in Latin America, it is important to resist the spell of common myths about the region.
Latin America news, Bolivia news, Bolivia protests, Evo Morales news, Evo Morales resigns, Chile protests, Sebastian Pinera Chile, Ecuador protests, Haiti protests, Latin America protests

Protest in Quilpue, Chile, 10/20/2019 © erlucho / Shutterstock

November 13, 2019 16:16 EDT

The first thing to bear in mind when looking at the recent violent demonstrations that have occurred in Latin American countries like Chile, Ecuador, Haiti and Bolivia is to resist the spell of common myths about the region. Latin America is a vast territory composed of 20 countries, from Mexico on the US border to Argentina and Chile in the confines of Antarctica. So when upheaval occurs in a number of small-to-middle-size countries, why should one immediately attribute such events to an alleged sub-continental momentum?

After all, there are powerful reasons for social disturbance in larger countries like Brazil, Argentina or Peru, not to speak of Venezuela, but so far none of them show signs of deep social unrest. This is not to say that the protests are unimportant or that one should ignore regional waves, such as the turn to the left in Latin American politics at the beginning of the century. After all, Latin America has been historically prone to cyclical trends that have spread throughout the entire region in the past. This doesn’t seem to be the case today. Rather, the protests should be assessed for their individual value, one case at a time.

A second temptation is to identify protests with a common motive. A cherished topic in Latin America is the resistance to cold-hearted neoliberalism, where the continent’s version of the wretched of the earth regain their spirit in the face of powerful — and often foreign — economic interests, or falling prey to conspiracy theories like arguing that behind the protests in most right-leaning countries is the dark hand of the Maduro regime, or even Russia.

A grain of truth can exist in some of these speculations, and they may certainly capture the interest of the mainstream international media, but we should know better. So, what’s been happening?

Ecuador: Turbulence in a Protest-Prone Nation

The initial protests took place in Ecuador in early October after the administration of President Lenin Moreno decreed a hike in fuel prices. The response was angry, violent and widespread — including a strike from transportation organizations nationwide and mobs carrying out destruction, mainly in the capital, Quito. The government responded with a twofold strategy. On the one hand, it sought to negotiate with transport organizations to stop the strike; on the other, it brought the army to the streets.

Despite the stick-and-carrot approach, violence spread, especially in Quito, where government buildings were set on fire. The protests reached a peak when the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities put its weight behind the protests. Bear in mind that this organization, known as CONAIE, was instrumental in bringing down several governments at the turn of the 21st century.

The protests rapidly gained a political angle in the highly politicized climate of Ecuador. In the last few years, President Moreno applied himself to dismantling the tight political network built in the last decade by his predecessor, Rafael Correa, through control over most state institutions. The former president was investigated on corruption charges amounting to between $30 and $70 billion during the time he was head of state. In the past few days, a local court ratified an indictment against him for “alleged bribery, racketeering, and peddling of political favors.”

Correa rapidly became the main culprit of the country’s many woes. There is a high probability that he seized the opportunity to mobilize his weakened forces, perhaps with international help — allegedly from Venezuelan pro-Maduro organizations — to bring down the government and promote a restoration that would allow him a political comeback. But to what extent this is true has not been substantiated so far.

Despite the transport strike coming to a halt and President Moreno reconsidering the fuel prices measures, leading the CONAIE to call for a truce and accept conversations with the government, the protests continued with increased violence. The seat of government had to be moved to Guayaquil, the largest commercial city on the coast. But after a spell of violence that lasted several weeks and claimed eight lives, the country returned to normal.

Chile: An Economic Miracle Catches Fire

As protests were waning in Ecuador, violence erupted in Chile, spreading from the capital Santiago to other cities like Valparaiso and Concepcion. Similar to Ecuador, protests began when the authorities augmented the rates of the Santiago subway system by a few percentage points. Also similar to Ecuador, the protests that ensued were highly violent, with buses set on fire, metro stations, banks, supermarkets and even the offices of an electrical utility company destroyed. But, different to earlier protests taking place a decade ago throughout the country, these were not exclusively student-led and involve a wider social spectrum, including workers, part of the middle class and urban mobs.

Protests in Chile caught everyone in the country and elsewhere by surprise. After all, Chile has seen a steady growth record and the most impressive social and economic gains, except for inequality, in the region. In 2010, the country was admitted to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development club of rich nations and was getting ready to host a meeting of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November and the United Nations’ COP25 climate summit in December. Understandably, the government declined to host both events. But it is probably the timing and violence of the protests that still has most analysts on their toes.

Initially, Sebastian Pinera, a businessman-turned-politician now in his second term as president, responded aggressively, declaring a state of emergency and calling on the army to contain the protests, which brought back dark memories of the Pinochet dictatorship. But instead of curbing what had now become a mass movement, it only heightened the clashes, bringing a string of 23 deaths and losses near to $1.4 billion. The violence has been particularly ferocious, including the most recent setting on fire of a private university and even the looting of churches.

Facing what could evolve into an insoluble crisis, Pinera rapidly moderated his tone, recognizing the government’s fault and promising wide policy changes. Currently, the country is in the process of digesting the impact of the protests. President Pinera has offered a change in the constitution that could perhaps contribute to the ruling elite — including both the conservatives and the moderate left parties — regaining its footing over the future of the political system.

Haiti: Black Hole of Chronic Suffering

“We are in misery and we are starving,” protester Claude Jean told Reuters. “We cannot stand it anymore.” These two phrases summarize the ultimate rationale behind the most recent protests that exploded in Haiti and have continued to this day. Starting in September, day after day and week after week, people from all walks of life have taken to the streets en masse to protest against a deadly combination of an enduring social drama — including fuel shortages, spiraling inflation, a lack of safe drinking water and food scarcities — and rampant corruption. So far, severe clashes have wrought havoc, with at least 18 dead, but compared to the protests in Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia, sheer violence and destruction have not been the predominant note.

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Unrest in Haiti is as chronic as the accumulation of social distress. But over the past year, it acquired a new tone when allegations of corruption within the government of President Jovenel Moise regarding the misuse of resources from Petrocaribe, Venezuela’s flagship international economic aid program, came into the open. The protests rapidly took a stronger political bent, pointing directly to Moise and demanding his resignation.

In the background is also the deep dissatisfaction among a majority of Haitians with the meager impact of the massive amount of economic aid that entered Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, which failed to translate into infrastructure, schools or even sanitation improvement. Also, different to the chronic social malaise, on this occasion the middle class, especially intellectuals and professionals, has also taken to the streets, providing a stronger voice to the demands of the population.

Bolivia: Enough Is Enough

The image couldn’t be more gruesome: Patricia Arce, the mayor of Vinto, with her hair cut and her body covered in red paint, was dragged through the streets after violence erupted in the city. She is a member of Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) party and, after the city hall of her town was set in fire, she was captured by a mob. The scene reflects the level of violence achieved by the political confrontation taking place in Bolivia in the aftermath of the recent presidential election where the opposition and independent observers alleged fraud on the part of the Morales-dominated electoral authorities.

In 2016, Evo Morales was defeated in a referendum that put to a national vote his decision to run for reelection for a fourth time, in an attempt to redraw the constitution that set a limit of two presidential terms. After his defeat, Morales brought the issue to the constitutional court, which in 2017 decided that his “human rights” had been demoted, even if he had called for the referendum himself. Another presidential election was scheduled for October 20, 2019. After the official results contradicted the initial count, the opposition refused to recognize his triumph and took to the streets, first rejecting the result and later calling for his resignation.

Different to Ecuador, Chile and Haiti, where social dissatisfaction is the prime mover, in Bolivia the protests were 100% political. So far, the balance of Evo Morales’ decade-long social and economic policies has been favorable, including stable growth with low inflation, a drastic reduction of poverty and a historic recognition of indigenous communities as part of a plurinational state. But his attempts to remain in power at any cost seemed, to a growing portion of Bolivians, increasingly akin to the likes of Nicolas Maduro, the standard bearer of the new dictatorial trend in the region.

When the crisis erupted, the signs of a drastic evolution toward stark authoritarian rule were still in the making and nowhere near the current levels of the Venezuelan tragedy. But, if one were to judge by precedents like Nicaragua, the future looked gloomy. On this occasion, however, and different to earlier electoral confrontations, the opposition forces were more disciplined and after the first electoral round presented a united front, disputing the electoral results legally and openly in the streets.

The demise of Evo Morales, who resigned on November 10 after a string of violent protests nationwide, echoes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, “A Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Morales could have retained his stature had he not run for president again or accepted defeat in the October 20 election. But he bet on his popularity to push for a fourth term in office.

Before election day, all opinion polls showed Morales leading, but with less than the necessary 10-point difference to avoid a runoff. After the election took place, the trends very closely replicated the predictions. Even the first bulletins released by the supreme electoral tribunal pointed in that direction.

Then, the count was suspended for a day, after which the next bulletin claimed Morales had passed the finish line with slightly more votes than he needed to avoid a second round. Then, all hell broke loose. His close contender and former president, Carlos Mesa, accused Morales and the vice president of fraud. Soon after, the company contracted by the electoral authority to make an audit of the election results stated it was full of inconsistencies and refused to grant a legitimate result.

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The president’s tone was defiant. He declared himself the winner and challenged his opponents to a rebuttal. As a result, protests in several provinces became more violent, with the burning of MAS officials’ houses, while the president’s supporters burned down buildings in other provinces. Overall, however, the protests were peaceful. But by Saturday, November 9, discontent had reached the police forces, with rank and file in some cases defending the protesters and joining the demonstrations.

By Sunday, once the Organization of American States observation group also declared foul play and called for new elections, Morales went public, agreeing to a new vote. But it was too late. He had lost control. Shortly after, the head of the armed forces asked the president for his resignation. The situation remains unclear, with the succession line in the absence of the president interrupted by a string of resignations. To date, Bolivia’s constitutional court has approved a senator from the opposition, Jeanine Anez, for the post of interim president.

In the end, the demotion of Morales and the violence spearheaded by his manipulation of the electoral process were a reflection of a significant portion of the nation feeling cornered into a growingly personal and authoritarian rule. On Monday, November 11, Morales was granted asylum and escorted to Mexico City.

Making Sense of the Protests

The current wave of protests is not the first in a region which, for a couple of decades since the mid-1990s until a few years ago, seemed to have overcome a century-long string of economic failures and social upheaval. During those years, a combination of significant, though by no means flamboyant, economic growth combined with a vast process of democratization took place in most countries in the region. When a wave of protests erupted in Chile in 2009-10 and Brazil in 2012-13, observers were rattled. The two countries symbolized by far the best of two worlds: robust democracy and prosperity.

Chile had experienced the stronger and more prolonged economic performance of the region, while Brazil’s path out of the doldrums of high debt and inflation, together with an assertive social policy, brought some 60 million Brazilians out of poverty. Moreover, public opinion surveys held since late 20th century showed high support for democracy.

Then, again, just before the 2016 Olympic Games held in Brazil, a massive wave of peaceful protests erupted, bringing millions of people to the streets, complaining against vastly inefficient public services and other public investment, combined with massive corruption scandals that incriminated the top of the political hierarchy, both in congress and in the executive. Why host the Olympics if hospitals didn’t work or infrastructure was collapsing?

In Chile, the protests were far more limited, essentially an awakening of the student movement demanding better education and protesting against a skewed system where the most affluent always obtained the best places in the best public schools. The protest movement lasted for a long time — until the wind of reform proved strong enough, forcing an initial transformation of the system.

Expectations Revolution

What was apparently taking place in both Brazil and Chile was an expectations revolution. As more people were leaving the ranks of poverty behind and joining the middle class, they no longer conformed to the status quo of bad services and poor education. Thus, the peaceful protests pushed against a lack of progress and corruption, especially in Brazil, where the Carwash and the Odebrecht corruption scandals were undermining the credibility of the political class. Corruption charges reached the top of government and led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in April 2016.

The expectations revolution may have been taking place in Bolivia as well. Paradoxically, Evo Morales’ success might have worked as a backlash. Bolivia, as well as Chile, had high growth rates for more than a decade, and millions of Bolivians have been brought out of poverty. Having achieved better living standards, a part of those entering the middle class may have joined those demanding more from the political system and from the president himself. And, most probably, this change of mind was not in President Morales’ calculations.

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Overall, the situation in the region today is different to those golden times in several respects. There has been a clear backlash against democratic rule while economic performance has been meager, even if it has not faltered altogether as it has elsewhere. A combination of factors seems to have propelled the more violent protests. First, the overall perceptions about democracy vs. authoritarian rule have shifted. According to Latinobarometro, the overall preference for democracy as a political system has dropped from 79% in 2013 to 65% in 2018 in the region as a whole, while it dropped to 68% in Ecuador, 66% in Bolivia and 65% in Chile. In turn, the number of people calling the regimes in their countries undemocratic went up from 9% in 2013 to 14% in 2018. At the same time, the younger segments of the population have a lower preference for democracy (44% between the ages of 16 and 25) as compared to the older (52% for those over 61), while the preference for authoritarian rule is higher for the young (16%) compared to the old (13%).

Second, the perception that the political system works in favor of a few powerful groups has increased consistently from a minimum of 61% in 2009 to the current 79% — a massive 18 percentage points — with numbers as high as 60% in Bolivia, 74% in Chile and 81% in Ecuador. What these numbers are saying is that no matter the advances in economic terms, the overall perception is that the system is skewed against you.

Thirdly, except for Bolivia, where political parties seemingly continue to be the main vehicle for representation, in most other countries this essential feature of political stability has weakened over the years. Even in Chile, a country with strong political party traditions and a clear distinction between the left and the right, the overall representation of political parties has become lackluster. This may explain why protests gave way to sheer violence.

Clearly, the worst case is Haiti, where traditionally political parties have been either weak or non-existent. In Ecuador, weak parties are a typical feature of the political system. It was only during the Correa era when his newly created party, despite accommodating to the needs of the populist leader, was able to overcome the traditional solitude of Ecuadorian rulers. But the recent friction between Lenin Moreno and Rafael Correa has brought weakness back as a defining part of Ecuador’s political life.

What Now?

Christopher Sabatini and Anar Bata, writing in Foreign Affairs, argue forcefully that protests don’t seem to be leading anywhere and that it is highly likely they won’t deliver the type of change they were intended for. This is clearly not the case in Bolivia. Evo Morales was forced to resign, and, in the aftermath, members of the electoral tribunal were imprisoned for orchestrating an electoral sham. Having inherited a highly polarized country — mostly of his own making — it would seem that the times of prosperity and overall peace that Morales granted Bolivia are over. What will come now is unclear — a full return to democracy or continued unrest and unstable governments.

In the rest of cases discussed here, things may not turn out as desired by those staging the revolt. Haiti will continue to suffer its chronic disease of political instability and the utter impossibility of finding even a modest path to overcoming its tragic drama of poverty and destitution.

In Chile, there might be some reshuffling of how policies are designed and put in practice, but given the representation crisis the country has been suffering for quite some time, it is unlikely that the channels for smooth democratic politics will be restored and people’s feedback will be given greater credence. Despite President Pinera’s call for a new constitution, if Martians were to descend in Chile today, they would be astonished to see how the current political landscape has changed so little from the times of Salvador Allende.

Finally, after the era of strong leadership and concentration of power under Rafael Correa, Ecuador is in a difficult transition to greater political openness and transparency, which may succeed if Ecuadorians give Lenin Moreno a new opportunity. Judging by the recent upheaval, it would seem that microeconomics beats attempts at re-democratization. In addition, his efforts to dismantle the populist edifice Correa built with such care might inevitably open the door to the ghosts of instability and uncertainty.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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