democraciaAbierta: Investigation

An era of extremes seems to have started in Latin America

Protests in Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia or Bolivia express not only a crisis of political legitimacy of the different governments, but of the democracy in the region. Español

Daniel Torunczyk Schein
19 March 2020, 12.14pm
Protesters in Port au Prince, Haiti, in December 2019 light stacks of tires and garbage on fire to serve as roadblocks along the way during the demonstration.
Photo by Adam DelGiudice / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Latin America exploded again. For months the region has been convulsed again by a new cycle of protests. For decades, the social tensions caused by neoliberalism and populism have remained unresolved. Latin America is the most unequal and violent continent in the world. Suddenly the covers of different newspapers ask: What is happening in Latin America? Given the socio-economic conditions established by neoliberalism in the region and the failures of populist governments, one should ask why do the protests should stop?

Latin American society is a social earthquake that no one can foresee when, or where, or with what intensity it will explode. Most of its inhabitants live in frustration and a state of permanent exasperation. In Chile, for example, 60% of its population gets into debt to cover their necessary expenses for the month. Any political decision takes by governments the pockets of workers can trigger the protest. In Ecuador, current President Lenin Moreno decided to withdraw the fuel subsidy to comply with an austerity program agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Sebastián Piñera, President of Chile, had decreed an increase of 30 pesos of the subway ticket.

The end of the progressive cycle

The protests in Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia or Bolivia express not only a crisis of political legitimacy of the different governments, but of the democracy in the region. The Latin American population is losing confidence in democracy as a political system to solve their economic problems and to guarantee access to quality public services (education, health, security, transportation). In Chile, the mobilizations demand a reform of the Constitution (1980) inherited from the Pinochet dictatorship. In Bolivia, the coup d'état that ousted Evo Morales unleashed a wave of protests in defence of social gains and indigenous recognition achieved after 14 years of rule of the Movement to Socialism (MAS).

The end of the progressive cycle of governments in the region (2000-2015), as a result of the unresolved tensions between neoliberalism and democracy, started a new period of political radicalization. Government responses to protests were violent and exhibited an increasing militarization of democracies. In Chile, since the beginning of the demonstrations on October 18, 26 people died, there were more than 11,000 wounded and more than 17,000 detainees. In Bolivia, clashes between the army and the followers of Evo Morales claimed the lives of 23 people and more than 200 wounded. In Colombia, after the call for a national strike against the Duque government, the most important in 60 years, the protests left more than 200 wounded and three dead. Since August 2018, when Duque took office, 129 indigenous people were killed.

The end of the progressive cycle of governments in the region started a new period of political radicalization

In the early 2000s, as a result of the mobilizations against the neoliberal adjustment policies of the 1990s, progressive governments were elected in the region, better known as a New Left in Latin America. This classification on the ideological spectrum tried to explain the different degrees of questioning the neoliberalism. Chile, Brazil and Uruguay appeared as moderate lefts. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua were considered as radical populisms, and to a lesser extent, Argentina. Chile appeared as the best student of neoliberalism and an example to follow for other countries.

The favourable cycle of commodity prices in the world market between 2003 and 2007 generated economic growth rates on average of 6.2%, the most important since World War II. Through funds transfer programs, the demands of the most vulnerable sectors were met, which made it possible to reduce poverty rates significantly. Between 2002 and 2014, the regional poverty rate on average decreased from 45.4 % to 27.8 %, allowing 66 million people to stop being poor. However, Latin America continues to be the first unequal region in terms of land distribution and the second unequal in the world in terms of the income distribution.

Economic policies increased wages and the expansion of public spending allowed to stimulate domestic consumption and created a new middle class in the region. The economic elites linked to the state apparatus benefited from the protection of the internal market and the multiplication of public works. Through the Lava Jato operation started in Brazil, it has shown how Oderberch, the largest construction company in the region, had paid bribes for decades to win public works contracts in almost all Latin American countries, without ideological distinction of the governments. Political parties used that money to finance the presidential campaigns of different contending parties. Corruption for decades has been the only state policy where political and economic elites seem to have agreed.

The advances were not only economic. Indigenous communities, which constitute 95% of the Bolivian population, were historically marginalized, stopped being treated as a subhuman by the white elite. In 2009, Evo Morales, the then president, founded the plurinational state-recognized indigenous rights and opened channels to incorporate them into political life.

The reverse of the favourable cycle of the price of raw materials was the multiplication of socio-environmental conflicts concerning the development of extractive projects and agribusiness in rural areas. Indigenous movements, peasant communities and socio-environmental movements denounced the disastrous effects on the environment of these projects and the few or no economic benefits for local communities, which only deepened the unequal distribution of land in the region.

The protest never managed to generate solidarity from the urban sectors and was systematically ignored, and discredited, if not repressed by progressive governments.

The financial crisis in 2008 caused a contraction in world trade and a decrease in the price of raw materials. Economic growth rates slowed, and internal tensions began to emerge within government coalitions. The death of two of its most representative leaders, Néstor Kirchner in 2010, former president of Argentina, and Hugo Chávez in 2013, leader of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, announced the end of the progressive cycle in the region. Since then, Venezuela has plunged into socio-economic and political chaos and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that forced more than 4.8 million Venezuelans to immigrate to other countries in the region.

The protest in Bolivia never managed to generate solidarity from the urban sectors and was systematically ignored, and discredited, if not repressed by progressive governments

The gradual deterioration of the economic situation and the discredit of democracy led citizens to seek alternatives to progressive governments. A New Right appeared in the region with the script already known: "a heavy-handed approach to end violence, corruption, and neoliberalism."

The populism-neoliberalism pendulum in Latin America

In 2015, Macri was elected in Argentina. He will remember for having been the first non-Peronist government that finished a mandate since the return of democracy in 1983. Nothing more. In four years, the Macri government deepened the country's delicate socio-economic situation. Argentina has an inflation rate of 57.3%, one of the highest in the world, and its public debt of 77.4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the highest in the region.

The Argentine economy closed the year with a negative economic growth rate of 3.1% Poverty went from 30% in 2016 to 35.4% in 2019; the unemployment rate doubled in the same period, currently being 10%, and almost half of its population is underemployed.

In the elections of October 27, 2019, Peronism once again won an election in Argentina. The formula of the Front of All, led by Alberto Fernández and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, won in the first round with 48.26% of the votes against 40.28% obtained by Mauricio Macri de Juntos por el Cambio. In 2023, when 40 years of democracy will celebrate in Argentina since 1983, Peronism, in its neoliberal or populist variants, will have governed the country for 28 years, while non-Peronist governments only 12 years.

Sebastián Piñera in Chile, in December 2017, ended the social democratic government of Michelle Bachelet (2014-2018), and appeared as the regional consolidation to the right. However, since October, Chile has been experiencing one of the most profound social, economic and political crises in its history. Chile is the second most unequal country in the region, behind Brazil, 1% of its population concentrates 26, 5% of the national wealth. "It is not 30 pesos, it is 30 years of abuse."

The phrase of one of the protesters who joined the protests alludes to the structural socio-economic problems of Chilean democracy that have been accumulating for decades. The student protests (2011-2013) demanded more public education from the Chilean state and were an essential factor in ending the first Piñera government (2010-2014).

Since the return of democracy in 1989, none of the governments has altered neoliberal economic policies, and the Constitution inherited by the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1989). In response to the protests, the Piñera government decreed the state of siege. The police actions against protesters recalled the worst times of the authoritarian regime.

Finally, the president-in-office had to give in to one of the protesters' demands. He called a referendum for April 2020 to open the debate to reform the Constitution. The crisis is still open, and the violence does not stop. The question that arises is whether the discussion on constitutional reform will close or open the debate to implement social and economic policies to build a more egalitarian Chilean society in response to the demands of the street?

In Bolivia, Evo Morales, in power since 2005, intended to be reelected for a new presidential term. During his fourteen years of government, the Bolivian economy grew at an average rate of 4% thanks to the favourable cycle in the price of raw materials, particularly gas. The poverty rate fell from 59% to 39%, and it was one of the countries where inequality in the region felt the most.

However, the reasons for the coup d were political. Bolivia continues to be a society divided by social and racial fractures. “They carry out the coup d'etat to defend the wealthy people. They use planes and helicopters to intimidate the people. This is a class problem,” said the former president in an interview with the newspaper El País from his first exile in Mexico, before going into exile in Argentina.

Evo Morales has lost the referendum that enabled him for new re-election in 2016. However, with the permission of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), he was able to compete in a new presidential election. Since then, a climate of discontent has opened in specific sectors of society, particularly in the urban white elite. The number of votes gave him a winner, but the opposition accused him of fraud.

The OAS legitimized that position by denouncing "irregularities" in the vote counting. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research based in Washinton, the accusation was unfounded. Beyond whether or not there was a fraud on the part of Evo Morales, nothing justifies the coup d'état by the army. Later, together with the police, they have begun a persecution of the MAS leaders, and indiscriminate repression of the protests against the coup d'état, which has already caused more than 35 deaths and hundreds of injuries. The former coca grower leader from his exile in Argentina intends to reorganize MAS for the new presidential elections this year.

In Brazil, the right-wing wanted by all means to prevent another mandate from the Workers' Party (PT) after 13 years in office. Dilma Rousseff's dismissal by the Brazilian Senate in 2016, and Lula's arrest in 2018, when he had the highest intention to vote in the polls, achieved the objective. Jair Bolsonaro, a former military man, was elected in the second round by the Social Liberal Party (PSL), with 55% of the votes against Haddad's 44% the PT’s candidate.

The triumph of the "God and Brazil above all" a party with a neoliberal economic tendency, praises the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985) and aims to eliminate all the social and economic rights achieved during the Workers Party’ governments. Since the PT left the government, international concern about the development of extractive projects in the Amazon has been rising, in one of the countries in the world where leaders and militants of environmental movements are most killed. Lula, after being released from prison, recently announced that he would radicalize the fight against Bolsonaro's authoritarian and neoliberal policies.

Post-extractivism, inequality and climate change

Since the return of democracy in the 1980s in Latin America, it has already accumulated four decades without being able to define an economic, political, social and environmental direction that allows responding to the socio-economic structural problems of the region. Neither to the technological and economic challenges that the new numerical economy and climate change pose to work. Latin American economies continue to be highly dependent on the export of primary products, hydrocarbons, and mining.

In the last five years-period was one of the worst in terms of economic growth in the previous 70 years. In 2020, according to forecasts by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the region will grow barely 1.3 percent. An insufficient rate to reduce poverty and unemployment rates in the region.

As the failure of neoliberal and populist policies deepens, resignation increases among the population. Citizens' confidence in democracy is decreasing, and authoritarian options appear more and more strongly

The historical and political particularities of each country shape each of the problems mentioned above in different ways and intensity. There are no magic solutions or technical recipes that can replace politics. In this context, it is necessary to discuss among the main social, political and economic actors the implementation of long-term public policies capable of giving comprehensive responses to each of the problems mentioned above.

As the failure of neoliberal and populist policies deepens, resignation increases among the population. Citizens' confidence in democracy is decreasing, and authoritarian options appear more and more strongly. At each change of government, the population wonders, Will this time be different?

The Unresolved tensions of democracy in Latin America are intrinsically linked to the exhaustion of neoliberal and populist models that builds a State at the service of political and economic elites, and to not for the majority of its citizens. Neoliberal democracy involves the construction of exclusive societies, which ends up reducing citizenship to the figure of the clients. Although populist democracy tries to build more egalitarian societies, it reduces the citizen to the figure of the religious believer who owes blind obedience to its leader, eroding all kinds of the balance of power.

How to respond to the demands of mobilizations without putting into practice mechanisms of economic and social distribution that affect the interests of elites? How to promote democratic spaces to generate new political, social and intellectual leaders who bring new ideas and programs to a stagnant democracy? An era of extremes seems to have started in Latin America. Citizens have radicalized, and in Chile, a country until recently a model of neoliberal policies, have blown its institutions through the air.

The current crisis has shown that a foundational moment of democracy in Latin America has arrived. There is no time for empty speeches anymore. The contemporary democracy is dying, and it is necessary to build a new one, fairer equal and inclusive democratic institutions to resume citizen confidence, and prevent that authoritarian alternative re-establishing one of the darkest periods in recent history in the region.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData