2019: Protests and disruptive changes in Latin America

In 2019, we saw protests and disruptions take place in several countries across Latin America. Español

democracia Abierta
2 January 2020, 12.01am
Imagen: Paro Nacional de Colombia. Andres Bernal. Todos los derechos reservados.

Throughout 2019, we saw how mobilizations around the world grabbed headlines across Latin America, Europe, Asia and the MENA region. Many marches occurred in countries that already have a strong culture of civic participation in protests (i.e. France), and others occurred in countries in which people mobilized on a massive scale for the first time in decades, such as Algeria, Colombia and Iran.

In Latin America, the year began with Juan Guaidó auto proclaiming himself the Interim President of Venezuela, challenging the Maduro regime and provoking huge protests in the streets of Caracas and other cities.

Throughout the year, malaise in the region increased as did the idea that citizens have the power and capacity to organise themselves and influence the policies of their governments. However, the disproportionate use of violence and repression against protesters in the region has also been a common yet worrying theme, which represents a serious threat to democracy in Latin America.

The CIVICUS Watch List, which monitors democratic backslides across the world, included Colombia and Hong Kong in their October publication due to anti-democratic measures implemented against mostly peaceful protesters, attacking the democratic right to protest.

A report by The Washington Post published in November also revealed the death tolls for different protests around the world this year. The data presents an extremely disturbing scenario: in Iraq, there have been a total of 320 deaths, (which has infact been rejected by the BBC who estimate it could even be 400), in Chile 23, and in Bolivia more than 10.

For these reasons, we explore the main protests and civil society movements in Latin America that occurred throughout 2019 that had impacts on the region and beyond.


Protester in Port-au-Prince calls for the resignation of President Jovenal, 2019.
PA Images: All rights reserved.

In February of 2019, huge protests against President Jovenel Moïse and Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant erupted in Haiti, after a year of intermittent mobilisations. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Port-au-Prince to demand the resignation of Moïse and Ceant, protesting against corruption and demanding an end to austerity measures that alongside the increase in prices of basic commodities, have caused extreme suffering in the country.

According to the World Bank, in 2018, Haiti had a GDP per capita of only $870 USD, and in a country of 10 million inhabitants, 6 million live in a state of extreme poverty - 60% of the population.

Haitians demonstrated their malaise this year by protesting against extreme poverty, but they also took to the streets to demand clarity over what happened to the millions of dollars that the country received from Venezuela that disappeared without a trace due to rampant corruption within the current government.

What is happening in Haiti today cannot be understood without also understanding its violent and colonial past, and of course the catastrophic behaviour of the international community providing emergency aid that failed to lift the country out of devastation after the 2010 devastating earthquake, whose aftereffects are still being felt today.

Read our analysis about the situation in Haiti here


Graffiti in downtown Quito, Ecuador, during the October 2019 protests. |
Photo: Francesc Badia. All rights reserved

During the first two weeks of October, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Quito to express their collective frustration about the aggressive economic measures of Lenin Moreno’s government, who had previously negotiated a set of austerity measures with the IMF that would have negatively affected the most vulnerable of Ecuadorian society.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the rise in petrol prices presented alongside other cuts in order to reduce the country’s deficit to pay off its IMF debt, a project known as the ‘paquetazo’ in Ecuador.

Numerous indigenous communities and other social sectors infuriated by the measures decided to mobilise and travelled to the capital where a violent battle between riot police and protesters began. Indigenous communities in Ecuador have been victims of extractivist exploitation for centuries, and it was also a general rejection of petrol extraction, deforestation, and mining that led them to march last year in Quito.

After 12 days of conflict in Ecuador’s capital city, indigenous groups successfully negotiated with the government, which agreed to abandon the ‘paquetazo’, thanks to leaders and communities who camped out in Quito until Moreno responded to their demands.

Read our analysis about the situation in Ecuador here


Protesters in Buenos Aires outside the Consulate of Chile show their support for protests in the country.
PA Images: All rights reserved.

Only a week after protests erupted in Ecuador, another Latin American country rose up against the economic policies of its government: Chile.

Since then, there have been 22 deaths and 2,200 injuries in the South American country, due to the use of lethal force by the army and the Chilean police, according to the National Institute for Human Rights.

In a country where the monthly wage of 70% of the population is below $700, the announcement of President Piñera that the Santiago metro fare would be rising from 800 to 830 pesos ($1.15) created a social explosion that would turn out to be extremely difficult to contain.

Chile is one the champion of neoliberal countries of the region, and throughout the previous decades, it has failed to eradicate poverty with its privatisation policies and cuts in public services, and it’s estimated that 36% of the urban population live in extreme poverty.

Tired of the economic policy of their government, Chilean students occupied the streets in what became a protest against much more than the symbolic rise in price of a metro ticket. In reality, it was a protest against low pensions, high gas and electricity bills, and unaffordable social services such as health and education that were inherited from an ultra neoliberal dictatorship lead by general Pinochet in the 1980s. The initially extremely violent reaction of the Chilean government provoked subsequent violent reactions from protesters who began burning metro stations and looting supermarkets.

Many protesters began demanding a change in government, using the slogan, “it’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years”, referring to the past three decades during which Chileans have been subject to harsh economic policies at the hands of their governments. After months of protests, finally a space for debate about a new constitution has been opened, and important achievements such as a raise in the minimum wage were also gained.

Read our analysis about the situation in Chile here


Bolivian President Evo Morales speaks at a press conference in the city of El Alto, Bolivia, on November 10, 2019.
| ABI / Xinhua News Agency / PA Images. All rights reserved

Until November of 2019, Evo Morales was the longest standing Latin American leader of the 21st century. However, his insistence to remain in power would become his ultimate weakness this year, when presidential elections that presented irregularities were denounced by the OAS, sparking protests across the country both against and in favour of his presidential mandate being renewed.

Protesters in favour of Morales are calling these events a coup d’etat, due to actions of the Bolivian police and military that forced the leader to resign before carrying out a rerun of the elections. Morales left Bolivia for Mexico and later Argentina, where he is currently residing with the status of political asylum.

During his presidency, Evo successfully integrated indigenous and rural groups into Bolivian political life, and he also took a stand against the US and DEA policy of eradication of coca crops, defending its medicinal use by indigenous communities in the country.

However, he also welcomed extractivist industries and weakened constitutional mechanisms that guaranteed democracy in the country to extend his presidential mandate. Regardless, Morales became an extremely divisive figure who gradually began to lose his popular support, and was unable to deal with this.

Several social sectors in Bolivia celebrated Morales’ resignation and the supposed “return to democracy” in the country, whilst others remain sceptical and terrified about the new Christian fundamentalist government that has taken over and the actual uncertain prospect that fair elections will take place.

During the protests throughout the last months of 2019, around 10 people were killed, mostly as a result of excessive force used by the Bolivian police against protesters.

Read more about Evo Morales and the current situation in Bolivia here


DSC_0350 (1).JPG
Protesters during a national strike in Bogotá, Colombia, 2019
Photo: Beverly Goldberg. all rights reserved

In Colombia, over 500,000 people marched on the 21st of November after various sectors of civil society called a national strike, that has continued intermittently since then, becoming the most important mass mobilization in the previous decades.

The protests began as an expression of frustration towards the government of President Duque. Although Duque has only been in power for a year and a half, he has a disapproval rating of 69% according to the the last Gallup poll, and 70% of Colombians believe that “things are getting worse” compared with last year.

Duque began to create discontent among many social sectors and organisations that promote peace in Colombia last year, when he tried to dismantle the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a transitional justice system designed to investigate war crimes and to uncover truths for victims of the conflict, that was also a fundamental part of the 2016 peace accords to end a 50 year long war against the guerrilla.

What’s more, the revelation by Senator Roy Barreras during a vote of no confidence against the now ex-Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, that 18 minors were murdered during a military operation in Caquetá in August against a supposed camp of FARC dissidents, created an enormous scandal and caused Duque’s impopularity to further soar.

Indignation caused by the violent death of 18 year old Dilan Cruz during the National Strike, fatally injured in the head by riot police whilst peacefully protesting in November, confirms that many Colombians have had enough and demand a change from the days when institutional violence was the norm. Even so, year 2019 ended with 230 social and human rights leaders assasinated while general violence killed more than 10,000 people.

Read our analysis about the situation in Colombia here


These protests in Latin America are among those that created the biggest impact throughout 2019. The social dissatisfaction of Latin America’s unstable middle and popular classes has triggered social mobilizations at a time when we have been witnessing similar dissatisfaction around the world.

Disruptive mobilizations in Haiti, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and Ecuador are only the tip of the iceberg, and protesters around the world are fighting to force governments to rethink development baased on extractivism and economic paradigms that have shaped the way our world works today. They have also made it clear that they demand a more effective response to the climate crisis, and to growing inequalities, that are negatively affecting millions of young people in Latin America and beyond.

In democraciaAbierta, we’ll continue to pay attention to what’s happening in the region in 2020, to monitor the implications and possible advances, and backslides that these movements could trigger in a region where democracy is still young and a barely consolidated concept among ruling political and economic elites. Stay tuned!

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