Supporters of Argentina's President Mauricio Macri stand outside the National Congress as the President opens the 2016 session of Congress for his annual State of the Nation address, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
South America is experiencing the end of a cycle. Especially the countries that for more than a decade have represented more vividly the onset of change. In Argentina, Kirchnerism has been defeated; in Venezuela, Chavismo is dying; in Ecuador, Rafael Correa has already announced that he will not be running at the next elections; in Bolivia, Evo Morales suffered his first major setback at the referendum to amend the constitution; and Brazil is adrift, with Dilma Rousseff under the threat of impeachment and Lula Da Silva being “forced” back to frontline politics.
Undoubtedly, the fall in international commodity prices is behind this shift, especially in countries heavily reliant on raw materials, but there are other erosioning internal factors at play. After several decades in power, the governments are involved in a "bunkerization" process which has caused the estrangement of their bases. It is not surprising, therefore, that the movements that propped them are now withdrawing their support. Within this disconnection, the wearing away of an element that had hitherto been a key one is particularly noteworthy: the discourse.
No longer capable of seducing a young generation that has grown up with them and has known no other alternative in its political life, these governments face their greatest challenge: how to communicate with them. As happens in other parts of the world, the so-called Millenials tend to distrust power, demand social rights and call for greater participation and transparency. Above all, they want to be taken into account and to interact through their own channels.
The growing importance of social media in Latin America, where it is estimated that seven out of ten young people use a smartphone, is starting to have a crucial impact on politics. This is precisely what is affecting current governments most, for they have found in digital media an enemy which they are unable to control and even understand.
It is no wonder, therefore, that young people who have, to a large extent, experienced themselves a process of upward social mobility during the current governments’ period in office, are now feeling fed up with governmental messages, requiring new stimuli and demanding improved living conditions. The answer they get from the governments, under pressure given the difficulties, consists of reheating oversused messages, blaming everything on a vague dirty war, and censoring whatever is being published in the media and the social networks.
The constitutional referendum in Bolivia in February is a good example of the above. The government, puzzled by the defeat of the Yes option, with which it sought a constitutional change that would have allowed Evo Morales to stand for re-election in 2019, was quick to blame social media for the results. Referring to them as “sewer”, the government even considered enacting legislation to regulate their use, and several members of the government decided to close their Twitter accounts. Beyond its actual assessment, though, the government’s reaction highlighted an unprecedented fact: social media had influenced the course of an election.
Bolivia, however, is only the latest country in Latin America where social media have played a major political role. Since 2013, mobilizations in Brazil put to the fore their importance as a means of coordination and dissemination. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa is an active user of Twitter, and his government follows different strategies to counter critics in the social media. In Venezuela, the opposition has managed to gain a foothold and give international visibility to its demands through these channels, and in Argentina the last election campaign was intensely fought in such spaces.
It is certainly paradoxical that governments that came to power with the help of an excellent communicational ability, are finding today their Achilles heel precisely in political communication. At a time when communication needs to be bidirectional, they insist on using unidirectional models, and the contempt they show for social media is outright astonishing.
To this indifference for the new communication channels should be added these governments’ background exhaustion. Those who used to play a leading role for change are now striving to appeal to the status quo, and resorting to sending messages of fear to try to prevent the potential access to power of new political forces. In contrast, this new communicational space is where opponents are growing stronger. They have managed to connect with the frustration felt by young people and to create the impression that they are listening: they use an inspiring framing and an image of openness, dialogue and reconciliation.
Mauricio Macri’s campaign last December is the best example of this. Before the start of the race for the presidency of Argentina, few would have bet on his victory, and most would have taken for granted the triumph of Daniel Scioli, the Kirchnerist candidate. Social media were key in the overturn. Through them, Macri managed to generate an optimistic environment, earn many people’s trust, and appear as a close, street-wise, concerned candidate. He projected a light-hearted image, used emotional language, and appealed to hope and fancy, whereas Scioli’s campaign, based on too negative a discourse, did not quite connect with the voters.
Despite the actual changes, a return to neoliberal policies in the region is not expected, nor - even less - any authoritarian solution. In this respect, those who are seeking power today have to adapt their discourse and recognize the achievements of the last decade before a generation that wants political alternation, but nevertheless harbours mixed feelings.