“What’s happening in Latin America?” That’s the question I’ve been getting in recent weeks from those who may not necessarily be familiar with the region but have noticed a spike in headlines this year about Latin America and the turmoil that countries like Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and most recently Colombia have experienced.
As mostly stable democracies erupt into chaos across the region, it would be overly simplistic to point to a single common denominator or trigger. But there are some keys to understanding how turmoil in one place can feed turmoil elsewhere, and even be exacerbated by government reactions.
People are angry
What we’ve heard from people in different countries is that they are angry. In Ecuador people were angry about a proposed end to fuel subsidies, in Chile about a metro fare hike, in Bolivia about former President Evo Morales’ insistence on staying in power and in Colombia about inequality and lack of opportunity in general. Though the protest have died down, the issues remain.
The common denominator? They feel their governments do not have their best interests at heart, either because the country’s leaders are corrupted by an ideology that seems to be working for nobody except those in power (i.e. Venezuela’s socialists), or because government policies have only benefited some, as protesters in Chile have been telling the world at the top of their lungs.
As striking Chilean students in Santiago, the capital, told me years ago, “the pie is big enough for everybody, but those in power do not want to share with the middle and lower classes.”
When I met them outside the University of Chile, the oldest in the country, in July of 2013, it was president Sebastián Piñera’s first term in office. Then as now, he was being criticized for not doing enough to fight against inequality. The Chilean economic model has been the same since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, even when the country was governed by moderate socialist Michelle Bachelet.
Competing ideologies are trading power across the region. Argentina’s populist Peronists capitalized on center-right president Mauricio Macri’s austerity measures to defeat him in October. Followers of Ecuador’s former president, leftist Rafael Correa, also staged angry demonstrations when his successor, Lenin Moreno, announced the end of fuel subsidies. Interestingly, Moreno came from Correa’s party and was his vice-president, but after becoming president denounced the policies of his predecessor.
But this year’s demands for change are not all left-leaning – in Bolivia, socialist president Evo Morales was forced to resign, opening an opportunity for right-wing legislators to form an interim government.
Chaos is contagious
Was Bolivia’s wave of protests and national strike prompted by similar mobilizations in Ecuador and Chile? And is this turmoil is caused by a contagion effect?
It appears that protesters in Ecuador who forced president Lenin Moreno to stand down on plans to end fuel subsidies might’ve been seen as a sign by some in Chile that they could achieve similar results. Chaos ensued when Chilean president Sebastián Piñera decided a metro fare hike. And in Colombia, unions, indigenous and human rights groups among others, decided to stage a national strike shortly after the events in the other countries.
The specter of foreign meddling looms
Since the turmoil started in Ecuador in early October (followed by Chile, Bolivia and then Colombia), all governments at one point or another have blamed foreign meddling, at least in part.
Foreign nationals have been arrested amid meddling concerns in Bolivia and Colombia. Colombian authorities, as of last Monday, had detained and expelled 61 foreign nationals, but CNN has not been able to confirm any accusations of instigating unrest. Could this be just paranoia – or scapegoating to delegitimize democratic dissent? Right-wing governments say foreign interference is real, while leftists call it a smokescreen.
Just shy of having been in his post for 24 hours, Arturo Murillo, the new Bolivian Interior Minister, told CNN that during the nearly 14 years that Evo Morales was in the presidency, there were foreign agents in Bolivia “who received protection in our country so that they could devote themselves to subversive acts at specific times.”
Morales hasn’t responded to this claim so far.
Karen Longaric, the new Bolivian Foreign Minister, announced in mid-November that her country was expelling 725 Cuban nationals who had been living in its territory. Among the 725 are some doctors and medical staff who were working in Bolivia under an agreement with the Morales government. Brazil also recently expelled thousands of Cuban doctors who had been working in Brazil.
Last month, the government of Colombia took the unusual step of temporarily shutting its borders with all of its neighbors including Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, and Perú. Government officials said they were trying to prevent operatives from those countries to enter Colombia with the purpose of “acting as agitators” in a nationwide protest.
In the days leading up to the planned protests, Colombian officials said they had arrested more than 10 foreign nationals and accused them of trying to infiltrate the marches with the purpose of creating chaos.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government has been accusing Colombia for years of sending “mercenaries” to its territory with the sole purpose of destabilizing the country, although the evidence has been scarce.
Colombian political analyst Vicente Torrijos believes that foreign meddling could play a part in the turmoil in South American countries – but only in addition to real popular angst. “There’s a model of insurrection in Latin America sponsored by agents that are closely tied with the Bolivarian Revolution and [Venezuelan President] Nicolás Maduro, but it would be a mistake to say that, in the case of Colombia, it all happened because somebody promoted it from abroad,” Torrijos said.
In other words, if populations were satisfied their leaders were looking out for them, foreign meddling would be less effective. All of the countries that have had recent turmoil share a populace with a deep dissatisfaction and indignation when it comes to pensions, labor rights, wages and access to higher education, Torrijos said.
The blame game is good for politics
Latin America, as other regions around the world, is getting increasingly polarized. Those in power have realized that blaming their political opponents for every ill that ails their countries makes for good politics. This situation can exacerbate domestic political unrest, which in turn creates the appearance of poor governing and increased dissatisfaction. A vicious cycle can’t be far away.
For years, the Cuban regime has convinced most Cubans that mismanagement, corruption or failed socialist policies are not to blame for the island’s perpetual crisis, but the “imperialist power” to the north. Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolutionaries” have adopted the Cuban blame book and added its own local flavor, calling the opposition “the oligarchic right” and “puppets of the empire.” More recently, the Venezuelan government has attributed hyperinflation and devaluation of the Bolivar, the country’s currency, to U.S. government sanctions.
In Mexico, as I wrote earlier this year: “Those who support [President López Obrador’s] nationalist and populist brand of politics proudly call themselves ‘chairos.’ The president himself calls those who voted against him ‘fifís,’ a derogatory, although not obscene, term. This division mirrors a socioeconomic and racial tensions that have existed in Mexico for centuries. But now the epithets are coming from the top and in a very public way.”
All this creates a toxic political environment where consensus is brushed aside in favor of antagonism and discord. Sound familiar?
But while blame and upset can end up delivering political advantages to some parties or officials, the recent chaos has proven very costly to local economies. Ibo Blazicevic, president of Bolivia’s national chamber of industries, said the country’s industrial sector had lost $1.1 billion in just the first three weeks of the national crisis after the October 20 presidential elections.
Damage to public transportation, businesses and infrastructure in Chile after weeks of violent protests that included widespread acts of vandalism has been devastating.
And in Colombia, the acts of vandalism moved beyond the public square: Some criminals took advantage of the riots and the fact that security forces were stretched too thin to rob private houses.
The violence has only increased finger-pointing. Christian Krüger Sarmiento, head of Colombia’s migration agency, attributed violence to foreign nationals, saying that the dozens detained during recent protests were “affecting security and order and staging acts of vandalism during [last week’s] marches.”
And General Óscar Atehortúa, director of the Colombian National Police, claimed at a Nov 16 press conference that intelligence showed the “the National Liberation Army [ELN] has infiltrated 20 colleges across the country so that students adhere and follow their anarchist, anti-fascist and violent ideology.” Atehortúa also said the police has strengthened security at colleges where ELN presence has been detected. No proof was shown at the press briefing, although authorities claim they have found followers of guerrilla activities in colleges across the country this year.
Obstacles to a solution
Such a volatile mix makes it difficult for any country to open a national dialogue and have different factions sit at the table in order to find solutions. Who would be willing to talk to a masked protester holding a Molotov bomb? Police in riot gear don’t necessarily feel very approachable either.
While mass protests have delivered democratic results and changes in government in the past, the region also risks falling into a vicious cycle where legitimate societal concerns can be weaponized by those interested in destabilizing a country and creating an environment in which it is even more difficult to address real problems.
Whether the protests were aggravated by foreign meddling or political factions bent on destabilizing a given country, there are plenty of legitimate concerns that have been loudly and unequivocally expressed. Ignoring those claims can be costly for any country, not only in terms of destruction as a result of acts of vandalism during the protests as discussed, but, more importantly, in terms of long-term stability and growth.