Protests on the Rise in Latin America: Towards A New Uprising?

By Ociel Ali Lopez – Aug 17, 2020

The protest mobilizations that are taking place in Bolivia and Chile these days of August represent a challenge that will guide the actions of social movements throughout Latin America. They are not the first since the beginning of the pandemic, but they are the ones which have established a schedule of intense protests with a unified demand.

In the case of the Bolivian movement, it is worth noting the caution with which it has launched mobilizations since Evo’s departure. Their inability to react successfully to the Añez coup deepened with the arrival of the pandemic and the quarantine. But this month, after a new postponement of the presidential elections, they have started to block roads of various regions of the country with the specific demand of a definitive date [for the vote].

The mobilizations have not been in Bolivia only. In Chile, the Mapuches have started a confrontation that has been intensifying with the more than 100 days of the hunger strike of their political prisoners.

In Peru, in the Amazon, on August 9, a protest by indigenous people against a Canadian oil company left three protesters dead.

If these protests produce victories, the probability of reaching a scenario in which, as in 2019, the outbreaks return, although in worse social conditions and, therefore, with the possibility of having a greater impact on weaker governments opens up. Although it must be borne in mind that, no matter how hard the governments of the region are hit, they feel in turn more legitimized to use force against the public due to the mandatory quarantine.

With these events we ask ourselves how this 2020 will end up in political terms. And for this, it is worth remembering what happened in 2019, and its prolongation until the advent of the pandemic, whose first Latin American case we learned about on February 26.

House of cards
The houses of cards did not fall in 2019, they were exploding one by one. Governments remained, but political models such as Chile, Colombia, and Peru, among others, were incinerated.

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In general terms, 2019, and especially its second semester, represented for the region the sociopolitical moment of greatest upheaval in recent decades.

And the unprecedented thing is that they occurred one after another, as we had seen in Eastern Europe or in the Arab countries, but never in Latin America.

In Haiti, the massive mobilizations did not stop throughout the year. In Puerto Rico the urban movement overthrew the governor in July, something that had never happened. Beginning in October, the indigenous movement in Ecuador reversed the increase on fuel and other neoliberal reforms. In mid-October, Chile saw the most powerful and continuous protests since the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship, forcing the government to convene a constituent process that the pandemic has postponed. Then Colombia broke out with a street conflict that lasted for weeks, starting on November 21, and that took over the main cities under various forms of protests.

In Chile and Colombia the protests continued with force during January and February 2020.

What happened in 2019 was unheard of for the neoliberal consensus, but it finally happened and crunched the social model imposed since the 80s in Latin America.

The coronavirus outbreak
For how 2020 began in Chile and Colombia, for example, with a high degree of political turmoil, in addition to all the experiences of popular struggle in 2019, the rest of this year’s journey has been quite calm in terms of demonstrations, and there was no another option: all the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) are directed towards social distancing and quarantine, which is why public gatherings generate high doses of danger for the participants themselves.

Beyond the governments being interested in this forced pause to reduce conflict, the movements had to make a responsible decision to call off street actions.

Although calling off of street actions does not imply disappearing from the public-political sphere, surviving on social networks is not enough to interact with the mobilized sectors, which in many cases are excluded from connections or do not have the necessary devices to use them.

So the movements need to resurge, albeit symbolically, and not only through virtual channels, which reach an audience that is not always the same one that is usually mobilized.

That is the importance of the hunger strike of the Mapuches, because it is a symbolic act, it does not imply the levels of risk of public demonstrations and keeps the level of conflict required so that the trajectory and the political struggle accumulated from last year does not disappear, in which Chilean society not only came out to protest energetically, but also became aware of the principles of the Mapuche struggle. With this hunger strike, the Mapuche movement is still alive and engaging in politics even though it cannot summon the great national mobilizations of 2019.

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The disconnected and excluded social sectors, who are not aware of the statements and tweets of political leaders and movements, also present a daily fight for economic survival and feel closely the risk of the virus. These populations have lagged behind politically compared to 2019, when they were leading actors, and what is being rehearsed this August is an attempt to challenge them again and re-invoke the spirit of the struggles of 2019.

The pandemic forces withdrawal
In addition, the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) projects that the economy of the subcontinent will slow down by 9.2%, which is a catastrophe for our countries and their most vulnerable areas.

We are not talking only about the more than 200,000 deaths that already occur in the subcontinent, but about the falls in GDP in Peru (-13%), Argentina (-10.5%), Brazil (-9.5%), Mexico (-9%), El Salvador (-8.6%,) and Chile (-7.9%) are going to generate a dire situation.

Stores closed during the coronavirus pandemic, La Paz, April 20, 2020. Aizar Raldes / AFP

All countries are already feeling the economic ravages and this is going to change the configuration of the protest: it can increase it due to the increase in social demands, but it can also decrease it because social exclusion, which is being accentuated, reduces the possibility of political mobilization.

What is being rehearsed this August (of the resumption of mobilizations) is whether the social movements can once again revive the 2019 turnout and have effective advances in their demands or will they have to bet on another type of action, which in both Bolivia and Chile could be electoral.

Defrosting the frozen protest
For this reason, what has started the Bolivian trade union center and the peasant movement is key.

These Bolivian sectors were especially cautious with the fall of the government of Evo Morales. Faced with the onslaught of the right, in October last year, they tried some mobilizations, but they did not have the capacity to cope with the rise of the masses and opinion caused by the right-wing sectors that managed to impose a new government.

After the coup and the coronavirus arrived, the government of Jeanine Áñez has suspended the elections twice, which has overflowed the glass and sent the militants of the movements to roadblocks, a type of mobilization that is used to activate high social pressure but it can also bring contagion among protesters or obstruction of public servants to confront the pandemic.

Therefore, it is a trial that might not necessarily be successful.

It is possible that the moment is perfect to put pressure on the government, in fact, they have already achieved an “urgent date for the elections”, but it can also generate antipathies in the popular sectors that are not only not mobilized at the moment, but do not agree in breaking the quarantine. These are essential sectors to be able to reverse the Añez coup in an electoral way and the least one indicated is to irritate them.

Obviously, the protesters have been criminalized for obstructing traffic and Evo himself has called on them “not to fall into provocations” that could “lead to violence,” requesting that the date set by the Electoral Tribunal be observed: October 18.

So this unfreezing of the protests could be the beginning of a new chain of protests in the region, but it could also be a sign that the situation of the pandemic does not allow the same form of mobilization and it will be non-extendable to apply to the new conditions (new normal), which seem to take longer than originally thought. Especially in Latin America.

We will be detecting these new forms.

For now, the continent looks at the electoral processes that are coming in Chile, Bolivia, Venezuela and the United States and how they will be affected by the pandemic.

Featured image: Protest in Chile. File photo.

(Actualidad RT)

Translation: OT/JRE/EF

Ociel Ali Lopez

Ociel Alí López is a political analyst, professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, and contributor to various Venezuelan, Latin American, and European outlets. His book Dale más Gasolina won the municipal literature award in social research.

Ociel Ali Lopez

Ociel Alí López is a political analyst, professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, and contributor to various Venezuelan, Latin American, and European outlets. His book Dale más Gasolina won the municipal literature award in social research.