The Rebellion Against the Elites in Latin America

Latin America

Street protests roiled cities across the world in 2019. Latin America in particular experienced greater social unrest than at any time in recent memory. Political crises and mass mobilizations broke out in Haiti, Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile and elsewhere. In recent weeks, protests have subsided but not ceased, and 2020 may well bring more turmoil.

The upheaval stems from many of the region’s persistent problems, more salient in some countries than others: economic stagnation, politicized judiciaries, corruption, crime and, in a few cases, authoritarian rule. Latin America is the second most unequal region in the world. The failure to address these problems — and to fulfill promises made — has caused governments to lose legitimacy in the eyes of their people. These citizens are increasingly dissatisfied with how democracy works — or doesn’t work — in their countries.

But just as germane to the current moment is the widespread perception of a lack of fairness — that economic and political elites enjoy a set of privileges and prerogatives denied to most citizens. Some of the region’s pent-up resentments are aimed at the sense of entitlement exhibited by those who hold the most power and influence and who too often do not give others the respect and dignity they deserve.

The protests, amplified by social media, revealed that despite some real social and economic gains — especially in South America’s commodity-producing countries in the late 2000s — the path of social mobility for most citizens remains precarious. Anger was contained until economic growth began to slow down in 2013. Social fractures surfaced, compounded by governments’ incapacity to satisfy heightened expectations of new middle classes.

Nowhere has the demonstrations been more surprising — and violent — than in Chile, long regarded as among the region’s best economic performers and a model of social peace and political stability. That perception was shattered in October, when millions took to the streets to demand profound changes to the country’s economic and institutional model. Lucía Dammert, a professor at the University of Santiago in Chile, suggests that though warning signs were evident, the country’s favorable image makes Chile “the unthinkable crisis.”

When I lived in Chile in the early years of the democratic transition after the dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990, most citizens desired a consensus, and the governing parties generally delivered. But they were also constrained by the outmoded Constitution imposed by the dictatorship. Over time, a disconnect developed between political parties of all stripes and groups of citizens who felt poorly represented.

Chile has one of Latin America’s highest per capita incomes, but education and health services are out of reach for many citizens, household debt is high and most economic power remains in the hands of just a few. New generations, not shaped by the Pinochet years, have been less complacent and more demanding of wide-ranging reforms. As Ms. Dammert noted, a new Chile is being forged that “has a young face and much less fear in expressing discontent.”

The generational shift is profound and fundamental to understanding what is happening elsewhere in Latin America (and around the world). The divide can also be discerned in Colombia, where university students have been at the forefront of anti-government protests. To be sure, student protests were common when I studied in Colombia in the mid-1970s. Today, however, demonstrators connect rapidly through social media and have multiple grievances and demands, including better public services, higher pensions and the full implementation of the 2016 peace accord between the government and the former Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia, or FARC, rebels.

In Peru, strong economic growth in recent decades has been offset by a political class that has been mired in a crisis of credibility. In the 1980s, I saw firsthand the inability to curb hyperinflation and a virulent insurgency that brought down political parties. In late September, riding a wave of anti-corruption popular sentiment — all of Peru’s living former presidents are facing corruption charges — President Martin Vizcarra dissolved Congress, viewed as corrupt and divorced from the will of the people. Like elsewhere in Latin America, society’s rising demands and expectations are outpacing the capacity of the government to respond.

The term elite also applies to governments in the region, spanning across the ideological spectrum. It captures both political party cadres in democratic societies such as Chile, Peru and Colombia, but also governments that, in the name of ridding the country of the traditional establishment, have amassed enormous wealth and power, destroying or eroding democratic institutions in the process.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, who led the left-wing Sandinistas to help overthrow the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, now heads a repressive, authoritarian regime and wields vast political and economic power. Although former President Evo Morales of Bolivia presided over significant economic growth and poverty reduction, his refusal to give up power and comply with democratic rules has enraged many citizens. Venezuela, which was Latin America’s richest economy when I lived there in the early 1980s, is the most tragic example of how anti-elite sentiment can be manipulated to destroy democracy and install a dictatorship.

Latin American political and economic elites are far from homogeneous. Some are committed to serious social and political reforms that deal with underlying causes of ongoing unrest. Some favor increasing taxes on the wealthy. There are countless examples, especially at the local level, of innovative programs that helped level the playing field by revamping education systems or generating opportunities for social and economic development. Responding to a real social demand, in Chile all parties have agreed to draft a new Constitution to replace the one enacted under Pinochet. Though this will hardly resolve the crisis, it is a step in the right direction.

Unlike some other countries in the region, Chile has the resources it needs to, for example, enlarge pensions and improve public services such as education and health care. Such measures are important to increasing incomes and helping reduce the wide gap between rich and poor.

But after living in Latin America over the course of five decades, I have seen too few sustained efforts to create paths of social mobility that are secure and stable. Undoing that trend demands not only sound growth and redistribution policies, but also the opening up of greater access to economic and political power, breaking the nexus between private interests and the political class, and attaining equal justice under the law. At the dawn of a new decade, that urgent cry can be heard on streets throughout Latin America.

Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focusing on Western Hemisphere affairs.

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