Social Movements across Latin America - Pranali Deshmukh

Social Movements across Latin America - Pranali Deshmukh

Latin American today is amid "Primavera Latinoamericana" also known as the Latin America Spring. Inequality, austerity measures, authoritarian rule, and corruption scandals are the major reasons behind the civil disobedience in the countries. The protests were developing separately throughout the year in each country, but by October 2019 they have taken an active form. Latin America has witnessed such unified protests historically during the severe austerity in the 1980s and again during the political and economic crises from 1998 to 2002. A unifying element of these protests is considered to be the period of economic downturn and instability following a boom in the early years of the 21 stcentury. The region is comprised of countries with varying wealth and political leanings, the shared regional history has given these protests a fueling background. 

With a population of more than 425 million people, these countries are among the world's largest exporters and producers of coffee in Colombia, oil-rich reserves in Venezuela, wine from Argentina and Chile, natural gas in Bolivia, and copper from Chile and Peru. The region is still considered to be one of the most unequal regions in the world. A huge gap still exists between the wealthy and the poor countries in the region. The protests taking place today across the continent are an indication that the people are no longer willing to tolerate the inequality and the skyrocketing prices of basic goods and services which are essential for survival. 

Chile: How the metro fare hike paved the way for a new constitution 

The unrest in the country began by a student-led protest against a 30 pesos metro fare hike in Santiago in October 2019. The protests have since broadened into a nationwide uprising against inequality. The higher cost of living, income inequality, privatization of healthcare and miserable pension schemes are the main causes behind these protests. Initially, a state of emergency was declared by President Sebastian Pinera to curb the unrest in the country. Although the country is no longer under a state of emergency protestors are furious over how the situation was handled by the use of tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and pellets which have prompted the alleged abuse of rights of the people. According to Jose Miguel Ahumada, a political economist and associate professor at the University of Chile it is " 

Protestors have demanded a change in the pension system, higher wages, affordable healthcare, and education. Chileans have also demanded a new constitution. A poll by Cadem suggests that 82 percent of Chileans support replacing the current dictatorship-era constitution, 60 percent want it drawn out by popular assembly, whereas 35 percent want a mix with politicians. A referendum has been promised in 2020 to ask the Chileans whether they want a new constitution. The constitution will either be a mixed citizen legislator or all-citizen convention. A new constitution is one of the main reasons why the protestors were out on the street along with immediate improvements in other aspects of life. It will be riveting to see the 2020 referendum and the nature of the new constitution that will be drafted by the government. One of the cries in the rallies being "It's not 30 pesos but 30 years" referring to the rough economic development in the country since the end of the military dictatorship 30 years ago. Most of the major financial gains have gone to the richest people in the country. College tuition fees are highest in Chile, and as much as 75 percent of the average Chilean income goes to debt. 

Chile was known as the "Latin American tiger" by the international community for its political stability and economic development. However, over the years, this country has unfortunately found itself on the wrong side of the development spectrum. Protests in Chile today are a result of the high economic inequality that has existed in the country for decades; The price hike in the metro fare served as a trigger for the people bringing to surface the underlying frustration with the system which has only continued to strengthen the inequality among the citizens of the country. The UN has accused the Chilean police of human rights abuse, amid all these tensions there is no turning back for the Chilean people as they continue to fight for equality and a just government. A new constitution has been promised to the people.

Bolivia: Protests lead to the downfall of one of the longest-serving leaders in Latin America 

In Bolivia, the primary candidate needs to win 50 percent of the vote, or a 40 percent vote with a 10 point lead over the runner up which prevents the race from going to a second round. There's a debate around whether or not President Eva Morales has fulfilled these requirements. The surmise first started when the election results were halted for 24 hours without an explanation. The opposition accused the government of swindling which in turn sparked protests in the country. The Organization of American States intervened, declaring it a "clear manipulation" of the vote. Morales had to resign on 10th  November 2019, is now in exile in Mexico.  

Morales has created the world's most socially inclusive constitution, in which 39 indigenous languages ​​are recognized as official state languages ​​alongside Spanish. Under this, no one can be denied social services or ballot rights for not speaking Spanish. Over time, the Morales regime shifted the focus from institutional reform to legitimizing their own power. Morales lost the support of the indigenous people in 2011 when he proposed to build a road through a national park they held sacred. All of the underlying issues have added up to the massive protests which were sparked due to the electoral fraud.

Fresh elections have been promised in Bolivia by the self-appointed interim president, Jeanine Anez. Yet, the future of Bolivia remains in the dark. The socialist lawmakers which are a majority in Congress have rejected her appointment further deepening the country's crisis. The elections do offer fresh hope for the people in Bolivia only if they will be conducted in a free and fair manner. Carlos Mesa, the main opposition candidate has also announced his running while Morales' party movement for Socialism (Mas) has announced that it will put forward young candidates. It will be interesting to see if the people of Bolivia put their faith again in the Mas or will this be the beginning of a new history in the country. 

Ecuador: Mass movements lead to a reversal in fuel subsidies  

The Ecuadorian protests were a series of protests and riots against the austerity measures including the cancellation of fuel subsidies, adopted by President Ecuador Lenin Moreno and his administration. The Ecuadorian government took a loan of $4.2 billion from the IMF on the condition to cut off the budget deficits. The government cut down on fuel subsidies which were costing $1.3 billion a year which in turn sparked protests across the country.

Protests came to an end after President Moreno signed a deal with the indigenous leaders. Moreno promised to withdraw the International Monetary Fund backed austerity package named 'Decree 883' which included a sharp rise in the fuel prices. The indigenous leaders, in turn, promised to call off the protests. Ecuador has had a long history of political instability. Since 1997, the movements largely led by the indigenous groups have forced three presidents to leave the office. The last administration which was forced to resign was the Gutierrez government after it tried to implement harsh austerity measures with its agreement with IMF in 2003. People have now begun to voice their dissatisfaction with the government, and demand what is just and right without any fear . 

These protests have once again proved the power that lies with the citizens of the country as they decide to raise their voice against the government, and compelled it to address the underlying problems. After all, the government's function is to bring stability to the lives of its citizens, not to disrupt it. These protests also compel us to think as to how beneficial are the austerity measures implemented by the West. Even in Argentina, the government took the highest ever loan from the IMF which did not benefit the people but instead lead to a situation of crisis in the country, we need to think as to whether or not the measures suggested by the west benefit the developing economies; put a question mark on the effectiveness of multilateral institutions in handling the crisis of developing countries. 

Haiti: People continue to demand the installation of a transitional government 

Protests are still going on in Haiti since July 2018. The causes of the protest remain to be the increasing taxes on gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. It is not just the economic crisis that has sparked outrage among the people but also the corruption charges at the highest level which has gone unnoticed. Although the country has received millions of dollars in aid since the earthquake in 2010 the public infrastructure and services have remained to be the same.

Haitian people from all walks of life are protesting demanding transparency about the use of wealth by the government. Protestors are calling for the resignation of President Jovenel Moise. Haitians are furious over the shortage of fuel since the collapse of the PetroCaribe program under which Venezuela offered aid and cheap financing to several Caribbean nations to buy fuel products. According to reports, 6 million people live below the poverty line in the country out of which 2.5 million live below the extreme poverty line, relying on an income of $ 1.25 per day. The PetroCaribe program included funds for infrastructure development which never took place. 

There is a need for the government in Haiti to bring in more transparency in its activities. The creation of an accountable public service administration will bring in more transparency and accountability to the government. There is no one solution to the ongoing crisis in Haiti. The protests have now dwindled in the country, yet the crisis is far from over. Emphasis needs to be placed more on the building of the formal institutions rather than on informal institutions. Public servants need to be given more freedom of action while serving in a transparent and accountable manner. Focus now remains on bringing back normalcy to the lives of the people after months of disturbance in the country. 


Latin America is a continent rich in diversity. There are people from all walks of life, both rich and poor, residing in different countries. What makes these protests unique is that right from the businessman to university professors to the common man everyone today is on the streets united by the protest culture asking fearlessly for what is rightfully theirs. The fact that the protests in Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador have compelled the respective governments to take action, has brought in more unity in these protests. The leaders initially worked to bring about social reforms but overtime lost a track of their vision, focusing more on legitimizing their own authority at the cost of social and economic development. The countries have huge potential to walk on the path of economic development with rich natural resources and the young population yet the inadequacies of the government are a hindrance to the development of this continent. These protests bring to the forefront the need for the government to consider the demands of the grassroots population. Although the protests have a destabilizing effect currently, they are striving for a stable economy and for the maintenance of a strong social fabric. This is a strong indicator of the fact that despite our differences we all have the same basic needs. Unity always plays a big factor in any social movements, the people of Latin America have shown unity and that is where they win.

(Pranali Deshmukh is a first year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2019-21 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.