By Samar Fatima Ali, BA Economics and Politics
2019 has seen Latin America spiral out of control. Some are calling it the “Latin Spring”. In January, Venezuelans began protesting and continue to do so as a humanitarian crisis grips the nation. October brought with it an eruption of unrest in Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia characterised by widespread protests and violent clashes with the authorities.
The current Venezuelan and Bolivian governments are byproducts of the Pink Tide of socialism that spread across Latin America in the late 1990s and 2000s. The direct reaction to the Pink Tide, was the Conservative Wave, or Blue Tide, of the 2010s in support of right-wing politics and neoliberalism. Within the context of the Conservative Wave and the rise of the far-right in Brazil with the election of Jair Bolsanaro in 2018 – recent protests could be seen as the final fall of socialism in Latin America. In Chile and Ecuador, however, the protests are against conservative, capitalist governments of Sebastian Pinera and Lenin Moreno. This makes it impossible to generalise the reasons behind the protests as a unified phenomenon based on political alignment. There are, however, a commonality between the protests. Michael Reid, the author of Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America’s Soul, describes the reasons as economic inequality, corruption and a lack of political transparency alongside the pancontinental wave of movements challenging the status quo.
Latin America exemplifies how frustrations based on inequality and corruption, emboldened by a global wave of resistance, threaten the stability of any regime, regardless of its political alignment.
Severe hyperinflation in Venezuela was clocked at 200,000% in 2019 by the IMF. This has resulted in extreme poverty, food and water shortages and a healthcare crisis. As a result, President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government is losing ground as frustrations mount. Chile, the ‘oasis’ of Latin American neoliberalism, is effectively the polar opposite of Venezuela. Globally recognised as the most stable Latin American state (until recently), Chile has one of the worst inequality rates, ranking as the 3rd most unequal country in the OECD index. A rise in subway ticket prices acted as the impetus for recent unrest. In Ecuador, President Moreno came to power through a largely centre-left party, Alianza País (Country Alliance), but has shifted his stance towards increasingly conservative policies. The opposition to his ‘betrayal’ came to a head when fuel subsidies were removed. While the policy was reversed on October 13 and protests quelled, instability lingers.
Bolivia is the only outlier where the October protests were not based on economic concerns, but rather solely on the claims of electoral fraud, leading to President Evo Morales’ resignation on 10 November. Moreover, protests in Venezuela, despite being rooted in economic inequality, were sparked by Maduro’s undemocratic inauguration as President for a second term. While dissent in Chile is based largely on economic factors, democracy is wavering there too. Pinera’s reaction to the protests in the form of violent repression has been dubbed, as ‘the behaviour of a dictator’. Stating that Pinera ‘did what they all do – the Trumps, the Bolsonaros, the Johnsons of this world’. This notion of similarity between the protests and world leaders brings us to the next reason behind the wave of unrest – a pancontinental domino effect.
From 2016 onwards, the world has seen a global wave of nationalism; the election of Donald Trump in the US, the U.K. voting to leave the E.U. on account of ‘making Britain great again’ and the rise of conservatives Bolsanaro and Pinera, amongst others. Foreign Policy (FPGroup) refers to this phenomenon as the ‘Trumpification of the Latin American Right’. The Washington Post attributes the economic slump, which is the leading cause for the wave of protests, to this rise in populism that has led to ‘short-sighted policies that are stunting long-term growth’. The protests can also be seen as a part of a global wave of frustration extending from Hong Kong to Lebanon to Latin America. The Guardian notes a ‘copy-cat element’ within the protests referring to the use of similar methods of dissent such as the use of ‘frontliners’ in Hong Kong and then Chile and Ecuador. Protestors are also gaining inspiration from others within Latin America. Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaido, announced three days of protests on account of Bolivia’s success in ousting its President, rallying Venezuelans to remain hopeful and follow suit.
The complexities of the current Latin American crisis renders a simplification into Pink vs. Blue almost impossible. It is no longer socialist governments alone that are losing ground. Instead, Latin America exemplifies how frustrations based on inequality and corruption, emboldened by a global wave of resistance, threaten the stability of any regime, regardless of its political alignment. In terms of the success of the protests in achieving real political change, there is no right answer. While Bolivia may have successfully ousted Moreno and Ecuador reversed the removal of fuel subsidies, it is only the triggers of the protests that have been dealt with – not the deeper problems they represent. Furthermore, the situations in Chile and Venezuela are continuing to escalate with no indications of change. At this stage, however, it would be hasty to conclude as to whether or not the protests will amount to substantial change.