Widespread unrest in South America: Latin Spring or isolated protests?

After waves of extensive civil unrest have spread across the South American continent, commentators have looked to compare the period of protests to the Arab Spring- a series of anti-government uprisings across the Middle East in the early 2010s.

Whilst some observers claim that the movements cannot be defined as a collective “Latin Spring” because there are no alternatives being put forward by rebels to the corrupt and problematic governments, and also because the causes vary from nation to nation, there is a more convincing argument that highlights the shared motivations and themes causing the unrest. This suggests that there is indeed a “Latin Spring” of civil unrest and disorder spreading across the continent.

Occurring in a series of waves which began in the mid-2010s throughout Latin America, the pervasive national protest movements have seen people of the continent taking to the streets and marching to push forward their grievances. The first wave, which began in 2015, was broadly anti-establishment, lacking specific objections whereas the ones that started post-2018 are more precise in their demands. Several causes have been highlighted as the reasons for the epidemic of South American protests. Whilst it’s true that the protestors of each country cite a variety of causes and motivations, there are general trends and patterns in the widespread civil unrest which must be studied to find commonalities.

The pervasive national protest movements have seen people of the continent taking to the streets and marching to push forward their grievances

Having discovered that economic structural motives were often at the top of the list of the demands of each country’s rebels and often the cause of growing concern, it can be said that economic reasons, then stemming into social are the most significant reasons for the widespread protests in South America. Widening inequality and increasing economic hardship must be scrutinised when understanding why so many different types of people are choosing to rebel. With the end of what was experienced as a 2000s commodities boom in Latin America, involving a growing market for high-price commodities produced in the continent, many of the region’s populations experienced a crisis. The twelve years of growth which was manufactured by the commodities boom and saw falling poverty, declining inequality and growing affluence was proceeded by six years of drastic economic stagnation. Millions had been lifted out of poverty because of the rising prices of crops and fuels which are at the core of the regional economy. However, when the commodities boom subsided and the world’s markets recovered from the 2008 financial crash, many South American countries were forced to introduce austerity measures which hit the poor and middle classes the most whilst the elites were left untouched.

Moisés Naím, World Bank Executive Director, says that “millions of Latin Americans who joined the middle class in the past two decades are bearing the brunt of economic adjustment and austerity.” This explains the high levels of middle-class presence in the protests. These people benefitted greatly from economic good times and the commodities boom but are now angry at the extended years of austerity and rising wage inequality which they perceive as the result of political mishandling and corruption.

Systemic of widespread forced austerity measures is the underfunding and undermining of transport systems across South America. President Piñera of Chile was forced to abandon his 3% increase in metro fares after Chileans rioted on the streets of Santiago, whilst in Ecuador, demonstrators took to the streets after President Moreno scrapped fuel subsidies. Journalist Alma Guillermo Prieto sees the unrest over transport-related issues in many countries as a symptom of the poor and middle classes being pushed over the edge by their government’s decisions. Already in hardship by the end of the commodity boom, those not in the elite class see governmental decisions that negatively affect their daily lives as detrimental to their quality of living and systematic of a government which does not care about them.

The unrest over transport-related issues in many countries is a symptom of the poor and middle classes being pushed over the edge by their government’s decisions

At the same time, as most countries have not necessarily experienced radically negative economic downturns, what is being seen across these protest movements is what they perceive is rising inequality. Colombians have protested against rising inequality caused by a government that has cut taxes for the wealthy and increased them for the middle classes. They are critical of what they perceive as an unfair taxation system which actively disadvantages the lower and middle classes who were benefitting from the commodities boom. It is not necessarily about a crisis of subsistence or poverty, though there is plenty of that occurring, but more about how people are perceiving themselves in relation to others. Chileans have rioted against income inequality and a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few whilst many suffer. Economist at the University of the Andes Juan Nagel argues “there’s still a sense of two Chiles which coexist in sharp contrast.”

An international factor plays into the anger and frustration caused by austerity-based inequalities as in Ecuador students and trade union members protest against austerity measures that the government has been forced to implement by the IMF (International Monetary Fund.) Whilst this is often conditional for countries that have accessed IMF loans, the citizens of Ecuador are angry at the government which they perceived as controlled by international powers, implementing austerity measures that are degenerating their quality of life.

Economics is of course, at the core of many protestors’ demands across the continent, signifying feelings of discontent with their quality of life and living situation. However, out of these economic concerns stem social factors. The middle classes who experienced a process of embourgeoisement through the commodities boom are better able to resist the regimes and protest by being better educated and using social media. Social media has been used by several countries to share images of police brutality, especially in Chile, and spread anger as well as drumming up support. Social issues remain central as police brutality only adds fuel to the fire. Latin American governments, historically, have not been afraid to use the military and police to control their citizens through force and many governments have been accused of police brutality against their protestors.

Social issues remain central as police brutality only adds fuel to the fire

It would be impossible to discuss Latin American protests without of course addressing the years and years of government corruption. South American citizens are sceptical of political powers and politicians and this is the inevitable legacy of years of dictatorship and military juntas across the continent. Protestors feel disillusioned by politics after years of austerity and depression following the boom years. In Haiti, protestors claim that the “government doesn’t do anything for us.” They feel left behind. Austerity, social issues stemming from economic inequalities of course feed into this with the richest 1% of the population in Haiti owning more than 20% of the labour income. President Duque of Colombia has a 70% disproval rate, no control over his congress and has heavily alienated his supporters. Widespread public rage at the political machines of these countries seems to be positioned deep in protestor ideology, no matter the country. In Peru, citizens took to the streets to support President Vizcarra in his task of shutting down what they perceive as a corrupt Congress.

South American citizens are sceptical of political powers and politicians and this is the inevitable legacy of years of dictatorship and military juntas across the continent

Corruption and political misconduct are rife in Latin America. In Bolivia, pro-democracy forces drove President Morales from power after the socialists falsified the election. Demonstrations against the Venezuelan socialist government have increased after they are accused of election fraud. The Odebrecht scandal of money laundering and corruption in Brazil has had widespread ramifications across Latin America as many became disillusioned with democracy. President Rousseff of Brazil was impeached following the operation’s investigation.

With international protests kicking off in areas as disparate as France to Hong Kong, many commentators have suggested that demonstrators of each country have inspired each other in sparking movements across the world. Political theorist Reid suggests a “copycat element” has spread revolt from one country to the next. Activists are inspired by successful protests in their neighbouring countries which have exerted power over politicians with politicians across the region being sent the message that they cannot ignore their people. Some have suggested that protestors in Chile and Bolivia have adopted the same tactics as those in Hong Kong. Allegations of police brutality against protestors in Hong Kong have only increased the size of the protest movements as images of students being beaten by police and security services spread across social media. Similarly, in Chile confrontations with the military police have escalated support for the movement. In Nicaragua in 2018, hundreds died in clashes with the security forces. Riots have been used to attract government attention in both regions.

Commentators have suggested that demonstrators of each country have inspired each other in sparking movements across the world

However, whereas the movement in Hong Kong is over autonomy, the Latin American movements have more economic and social roots. Though concerned with tackling corruption and political delinquency, they do not all intend to overthrow the system of governance, they just want to remove austerity measures, have honest politicians and greater equality.

The South American protests which started throughout the 2010s but gained momentum from 2015 onwards send a clear message to governments across Latin America. As peoples who have endured years of military juntas, dictatorships, neoliberalism, the “pink tide” of socialism, economic prosperity and boom, and then austerity; they are active and ready to resist. The “Latin Spring” shows that the South American people are unwilling to allow widespread inequality and austerity measures to continue and will not sit by whilst political corruption and negligence dominates their country’s political structures. Movements are not isolated and like dominoes, each country is inspired by the success of its neighbour.

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