The tensions that are unsettling South America have roots running much deeper that the demands that have unleashed the protests: they point to the need for radical economic and social change.
If social revolutions remain alternative projects aiming to upend the existing order, the deeply-rooted and extensive protests that shook Latin America over the last few weeks – as they had never before in this millennium, and which continue to simmer – seem to evoke them without actually proposing them. According to this apparently paradoxical logic, the current political strength of these protests lies in no small part in their lack of ideological fervour. In the demands that brought millions to the streets – from the mixed-race Caribbean to the indigenous Andes and down to Patagonia – there prevails a new consciousness of one’s rights, which is as firm in its principles as it is weak in exploring their actual practicability.
A fitful evolution thus lies ahead, destined to highlight different and sometimes opposing characteristics each time. The protest movement’s perseverance and compactness will be sorely tested once the ‘whys’ turn into ‘hows’. Its protagonists are mainly men and women from the urban middle class – professionals, traders, and white-collar employees – with students as the spearhead. The average age is thus rather low, but pensioners are represented as well. Socio-economic differences are pronounced. The cultural level is markedly high. Political positions are diverse and cut across party boundaries, but are held together by strong liberal democratic instincts and a substantial belief in the principles of equality, albeit general and generic ones.
For some time now, certain sociologists have interpreted these developments as spontaneous class re-grouping movements, filling in for what traditional (and newly-formed) political parties have failed to do in the face of the transformations in production systems and consumer markets. This is far from an exclusively Latin American phenomenon, but it has emerged with particular virulence between the Rio Grande and Tierra del Fuego, given the combination of highly dynamic economies (coinciding with the beginning and end of economic cycles) and the persistent and extreme inequalities that have emerged periodically, as is the case now as 2020 is about to being. The Gini coefficient (developed by the Italian economist Corrado Gini and commonly used to measure the degree of inequality in the distribution of wealth) shows that Latin America is the most unjust region in the global West.
These tensions are shaking institutions much like an earthquake shakes the ground (and South America is a land of active volcanoes). In the not-so-distant past – as we all remember – they would have led to one coup after another. Today, the armed forces and the domestic and international economic interest groups that have traditionally relied on them must find some sort of disguise that at least formally conceals their incompatibility with the constitutional order. The overall deterioration of democratic parameters in the region can thus be measured by the increasing number of high-ranking military officials that are now serving as presidents or ministers. Of course, there are also variations on the theme, as was the case recently in Bolivia, where the armed forces stayed in their barracks but sent their armoured vehicles to accompany a kind, unelected lady to replace President Evo Morales, who had earlier been forced to flee (a classic case of the remedy being worse than the disease…).
In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro’s arbitrary legal acrobatics have fully co-opted the armed forces into his system of power. At the same time, the opposition also actively courts the army, in the awareness that while tanks don’t vote, they certainly have a big say in things. In Brazil, the Vice-President is a general, Hamilton Mourao, with a reputation as a tough guy, and still he has often seemed to be a moderating influence on the head of state, former captain Jair Bolsonaro, and his sons, all of whom have paid little regard to administrative and political propriety. The influence of the military on the conservative governments of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru is evident, and institutional violence is an everyday occurrence there. In Chile they have even officially been, for all intents and purposes, the spark that set off October’s semi-insurrection. In order to put an end to the unrest, President Sebastian Piñera, a right-winger, accepted the protesters’ demands to change the Constitution and cancel the privileges that Pinochet had bestowed upon the army.
The most paradigmatic challenges, however, may well be those faced by two populist centre-left governments at the geographical end points of Latin America: Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico, ravaged by drug trafficking, corruption, and recession; and along the Rio de la Plata in Argentina, where Alberto Fernandez, a moderate Peronist, is called upon to stave off another sovereign debt crisis and the wreckage it would cause. Both were elected by strong majorities reacting to the resounding bankruptcies that resulted from previous neoliberal experiences. Should they fail, no one can rule out the risk of an institutional collapse in either country, and since they are two of the three largest economies in Latin America (the third one, Brazil, is actually the largest of the three), the region as a whole would likely be dragged down into a general crisis (and this is a market of almost 800 million citizens/producers/consumers).
The trade agreement reached with the United States and Canada after gruelling negotiations is the most important, perhaps vital positive development that can give hope to Mexico, but it is also the only one. It allowed AMLO to draw a breath of relief. Argentina’s immediate life jacket may come from agricultural exports, which promise to be particularly strong this year thanks to an excellent harvest, if not for international prices. The tensions caused by the United States’ tariff wars against the entire planet – from China to Russia, the European Union, and Latin America – are however lowering the volume of trade, and while both Washington and Beijing have so far avoided bringing their tit-for-tat reprisals to a critical head, the level of background stress remains consistently high. All of this is happening with Donald Trump under the threat of impeachment in an election year and Wall Street at high risk from real estate and hi-tech (AI, 5G) bubbles that have been stretched to the point of bursting by speculation.