by Leah Grace
A wave of anti-government protests is sweeping across the globe. From Hong Kong to Lebanon, France to Iraq, Pakistan to Haiti, people have taken to the streets en masse to express a wide array of frustrations and demands. Nowhere, perhaps, has this discontent been more acute than in Latin America where, over the past six months, mass demonstrations have erupted throughout the region, leaving political chaos, social upheaval and countless human casualties in their wake.
These dramatic outbursts have garnered international attention, with many struggling to comprehend, for example, how a four percent rise in metro fare in Chile could spark months of protest with millions of participants. Yet, what we are witnessing today is not new. Rather, it is the boiling over of economic, political and social discontent that has been bubbling furiously beneath the surface for many years.
The final straw
The initial causes of protests in Haiti, Honduras, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia are remarkably varied. They include the removal of fuel subsidies, minor increases to transport costs, corruption scandals, alleged electoral fraud, and inadequate labour rights. These issues served to push societies already on the brink over the edge. The subsequent social explosions shattered the veneer of many apparently functioning and stable countries, revealing deeply polarised and unequal societies.
In Chile and Ecuador, anger over relatively minor increases in transport and fuel costs became a catalyst for wider protests regarding social and economic inequalities and indigenous rights. In Colombia, a planned strike by labour unions ballooned into a much wider movement against the right-wing government of President Iván Duque. Among other complaints, protesters denounced the indifference, and in some cases alleged complicity, of the state regarding the murders of 727 social leaders and 173 demobilised fighters in the past three years.
In Bolivia, long-standing tensions finally reached breaking point this October. The fourteen-year rule of socialist leader Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, came to a bitter and violent end when the president claimed victory in highly dubious elections to maintain power for a fourth term. The ensuing clashes between Morales supporters and opponents revealed a highly fragmented Bolivian society. Morales supporters condemn his removal as a coup and fear the reversal of his social policies that benefited the poor and indigenous. His opponents celebrate the same events as the restoration of democracy. With both sides resisting compromise, divisions are likely to deepen, and the immediate future of Bolivia seems highly uncertain and volatile.
Us against them
Repressive official responses to the social unrest have fuelled further protests and exacerbated public anger across Latin America. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera announced that “we are at war against a powerful enemy” after the first day of protests in Santiago. As in Ecuador and Colombia, the government deployed the army to the streets and imposed curfews in major cities. The use of excessive force to contain protests demonstrates the failure of governments to engage with their populations to address the underlying causes of social unrest.
Human Rights Watch found compelling evidence that police in Chile committed serious human rights violations in response to protests. At least 26 people have died since the outbreak of protests on 18 October 2019, including three protesters allegedly fatally shot by military forces using live ammunition. A call for police reforms has been added to the list of protestors’ demands. In Colombia, an eighteen-year-old student died after being shot in the head by a police projectile whilst participating in a peaceful protest. This sparked calls for the dismantling of the country’s riot police and widespread condemnation of state-sanctioned violence.
With protests persisting in both countries, heavy-handed tactics and superficial solutions will only exacerbate problems in the long-term. Initial government responses have served only to heighten the perceived division between the political elite and the rest of society. Like many countries in the region, both Chile and Colombia have troubled and violent histories. Governments must do their utmost to build more trusting and constructive relationships with citizens instead of invoking legacies of repressive authoritarian rule and brutal armed conflict. State security crackdowns seem to be a knee jerk response to popular unrest, but they are only adding fuel to the fire of Latin American discontent.
The recent social unrest comes at a high cost. Thousands of people have been injured and hundreds have died across the region. The destruction of infrastructure and disruption to business have severely damaged already fragile economies. People’s daily lives are on hold as schools close, workers go on strike, and streets clog with marchers. But these mobilisations also offer the prospect of dialogue and real change. Despite the diverse reasons for global protest movements, there is a powerful sense of solidarity amongst demonstrators across countries, facilitated by the mass diffusion of images and interviews on social media. People have felt ignored by politicians for too long. On the streets, at last, they are beginning to regain their voices.
The longer-term outcomes of these social movements are uncertain. Protestors’ demands will not be satisfied overnight, but it is also unlikely that they will simply give up in frustration. The scale and persistence of the mobilisations require engaged and committed responses from those in power. The global protest movement may be explained in part as a chain reaction, with one country after another toppling over into mass social unrest. However, this should not obscure the specific demands of protesters in each country, and thus the different pathways to regain stability.
In Bolivia, perhaps the most volatile situation, measured responses and compromise from both sides are crucial if further violence is to be avoided. The interim government’s priority must be the facilitation of credible and inclusive elections within the next three months. In Ecuador, the government should work with social and indigenous leaders, not against them, to reduce discontent. In Chile and Colombia, political leaders must take seriously the demands of their people and implement significant political, economic and social reforms. The immediate future remains uncertain for Latin American countries, but if governments opt for superficial, short-term solutions to paper over discontent, or resort to repressive force, we will undoubtedly see renewed and intensified social explosions in the not-so-distant future.
Leah Grace is an MA student in Conflict, Security and Development at the King’s War Studies Department. Her main research interests include war-to-peace transitions, local participation in peace processes, and urban violence. She primarily works on conflict-affected countries in Latin America and Central Africa. Prior to joining King’s, she worked as a research assistant at the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation in Colombia where she worked on projects relating to the reintegration of former combatants and the impacts of stigmatisation on this process. She also coordinated several community projects with a local NGO focused on violence prevention and the promotion of human rights. Leah Grace holds a BA in French and Spanish from the University of Cambridge.