Latin America’s Protests Are Likely to Fail

The popular uprisings in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Haiti have many different causes and one thing in common: If history is any indicator, the outlook for genuine, lasting change is grim.

A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag at a barricade during a protest against the government's economic policies in Santiago on Oct. 29.
A demonstrator waves a Chilean flag at a barricade during a protest against the government's economic policies in Santiago on Oct. 29. CLAUDIO REYES/AFP via Getty Images

Chile’s government had big plans for the last two months of 2019. The Southern Cone country has long been a member of international trade agreements and exclusive multilateral organizations and was the first Latin American country to join the OECD in 2010. The country was set to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in November and the United Nations’ COP25 climate summit in December. International observers saw this as the moment for Latin America’s most stable democracy and market economy to take a greater role in global affairs.

Then, demonstrations broke out on Oct. 18 over a planned subway fare hike, growing quickly into a massive wave of popular protests that continue today. The huge demonstrations, punctuated by incidents of violence, led President Sebastián Piñera to declare a state of emergency and call the armed forces to the streets in a show of force that has been eerily reminiscent of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The Chilean government has now called off both the APEC and COP25 meetings, and Piñera continues to scramble to propose changes that protesters will find meaningful. Despite the different causes driving a wave of popular protests across the region, the common interpretation is that the upheavals in Chile, along with protests in Bolivia, Haiti, and Ecuador, were long-overdue popular eruptions over economic and political discontent.

The common interpretation is that the upheavals in Chile—along with protests in Bolivia, Haiti, and Ecuador—were long-overdue popular eruptions over economic and political discontent. It’s more complicated.

While that may be partly true, it also obscures important differences across these cases. While protests in Haiti have stemmed from inflation and popular disgust over government corruption, the Ecuadoran protests have seen the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, emphasize claims of marginalization and discrimination. Alleged election fraud in Bolivia has led to calls to strengthen democratic institutions, and protests in Chile continue to stem from anger over an unaccountable political class and socioeconomic immobility.

First there is the case of Haiti. Six months ago, inflation and government plans to increase fuel taxes sparked protests, which quickly morphed into broader allegations that government leaders—including the president—embezzled an estimated $2.3 billion from the Venezuelan oil program Petrocaribe. While the oil patronage agreement indicated the revenue from the resale of Venezuelan oil was intended to fund desperately needed infrastructure and social programs in the poorest country in the hemisphere, the majority of the proceeds have not been accounted for.

The result has been a near-half year of protest, resulting in at least 20 Haitians dead, broad and continuing calls for the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse, and food shortages. This environment further exacerbates the ongoing impoverishment of the country. More than 6 million Haitians live below the poverty line, and of those 2.5 million fall below the extreme poverty line, relying on only $1.23 per day. Per capita income in Haiti is significantly lower than the Latin American average, as is life expectancy.

In Ecuador, protests began this fall when President Lenín Moreno touched the third rail of Ecuadoran politics: lifting state fuel subsidies. Demonstrations erupted, as they have in the past when governments have attempted to withdraw subsidies, briefly leading Moreno to declare a state of emergency and move the capital from Quito to Guayaquil. For now, an official peace has been negotiated after seven people died and over 1,000 were injured, and the protests hurt the economy by preventing 360,000 barrels a day of oil exports.

As the street protests have settled down, the indigenous group CONAIE has continued its campaign, using the occasion to call attention to its longstanding complaints over economic disparities between cities and rural areas and exclusion and prejudice against indigenous communities. The indigenous movement’s leaders have offered to meet with the government, and it remains a potent force, employing popular mobilization to demand government action to address unmet social and political demands.

In the case of Bolivia, a contested, constitutionally questionable effort at reelection by President Evo Morales has led to nationwide protests and predictable charges of electoral theft. After losing a public referendum to overturn a constitutional ban on a fourth term, Morales turned to his packed constitutional court to allow him to run again, which claimed that both the constitutional ban on reelection and a popular plebiscite rejecting his candidacy constituted a violation of his human right to political participation.

After the first round of elections held on Oct. 20, the electoral council mysteriously suspended vote-counting as it began to appear possible that Morales would fail to achieve the 10-percentage-point margin needed to avoid a runoff. Days later, the council announced the results: Miraculously, Morales had barely surpassed the 10-point margin, precluding a second round. The announcement has sparked weeks of protests over an allegedly stolen election.

The Organization of American States is conducting an external audit of the votes, which should be released in the upcoming weeks, but Bolivia’s opposition has already announced that it will not accept the audit and has called—unsuccessfully—for Morales’s resignation. But as with the other protests across the region, the demonstrations have also brought up other longstanding concerns, in this case over Morales’s consolidation of power, the illegal burning of national forests, slowing economic growth, and declining social mobility.

Most experts, including the authors of a recent Foreign Affairs article, “Why Latin America Was Primed to Explode,” trace the recent spate of protests to inequality, anger over corruption, unaccountable political systems and political elites, and the collapse of rising popular expectations after the end of the commodities boom of the early 2000s. All of these have contributed to popular discontent. But these explanations fail to account for the timing of these protests and fail to examine the different pathways out of these upheavals.

Latin America experienced a boom in economic growth starting in the early 2000s. Between 2003 and 2011, the region’s GDP grew at an average of more than 4 percent. This was a substantial jump from previous decades, as average growth from 1980 to 2002 fell under 2.5 percent. While reaching a peak in 2011, economic growth continued at a stable rate, averaging around 2.3 percent in 2013. Growth, however, was not distributed equally across the region or within countries.

Haiti saw only 0.4 percent GDP growth in 2003, lower than other Latin American states and even more so given their per capita income is less than one-tenth of the Latin American average. Chile and Ecuador, by contrast, experienced an increase of 4.1 percent and 2.7 percent that year, respectively. Between 2004 and 2017, Bolivia recorded an average GDP growth rate of 4.8 percent.

Across the board, countries in the region faced an economic slowdown after a drop in commodity prices in 2014. As a result, the Bolivian government implemented fiscal measures that, while increasing its public debt, maintained stable economic growth. Other countries have not been as successful. Projected growth rates for 2019 have placed Bolivia at 3.9 percent, Chile at 2.5 percent, and Haiti at just 0.1 percent, and estimates show Ecuador’s economy shrinking by 0.5 percent.

With the boom years came an unprecedented but fragile growth of the middle class. From the early 2000s to about 2012, the middle class in Latin America grew by over 1 percent year to year. The shift from 2013 to 2014, however, was a mere 0.2 percent of Latin Americans joining the middle class—a gut punch to upward mobility. The problem with using this growth in the middle class as an assurance of stability, though, was twofold.

First, the World Bank’s definition of “middle class” was too simple: those living between $10 and $50 per day. The international enthusiasm over the growth of the middle class was based on income metrics without regard to the degree of access to formal jobs or services, or the presence of a social safety net. Second, much of the new income came in the form of credit—spent on purchases of flat screen televisions, cars, appliances, and the like. In several countries in the region, despite these trappings of a middle-class life, the majority of the population in both rural and urban areas still labors in the insecure informal sector, with no job security and without access to benefits such as social security.

Recent events are more than just symptoms of a bad economic downturn and dashed expectations. There is also a broader issue of popular distrust and, in some cases, outright rejection of the political class. According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project, more than 80 percent of citizens across the region believe at least half of their politicians are corrupt. In Bolivia, only 16.3 percent of the population trusts political parties; in Haiti, only 13.5 percent have faith in their parties; and in Chile—with the second-lowest level of trust in the hemisphere—only 8.5 percent of citizens have any confidence in their current party options.

In addition to this endemic mistrust, several of these democracies have failed to renew their leadership. In Chile, 30 years of democratic government has failed to produce much-needed new blood at the top. The last four presidential terms were filled by two individuals elected to nonconsecutive terms, Michelle Bachelet (2006 to 2010 and 2014 to 2018) and Piñera (2010 to 2014 and 2018 to present). Despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both Bachelet and Piñera are considered to be part of the political elite, out of touch with concerns of the voters.

While the two passed the presidency between them, several other old guard politicians who had helped lead the 1989 transition to democracy are still publicly waiting their turn for the next presidential elections, including the indefatigable José Miguel Insulza, the minister of interior under former President Ricardo Lagos and former secretary-general of the Organization of American States from 2005 to 2015.

Failure to renew leadership is not unique to Chile—although Morales’s initial ascension to the presidency was seen as a huge break from tradition given his indigenous background, his refusal to concede to a runoff with the opposition indicates a lack of will to step aside.

Some of the governments facing this popular blowback have alleged that international actors are behind the protests. While presidents Moreno and Piñera have denounced the alleged influence of autocratic regimes in Venezuela and Cuba in inciting protests in their countries, Morales in Bolivia has cited imperialists and capitalists.

In several countries in the region, despite the trappings of a middle-class life, the majority of the population in both rural and urban areas still labors in the insecure informal sector, with no job security and without access to benefits such as social securitOn Oct. 16, the Organization of American States secretary-general released a statement highlighting its belief that current unrest could be a result of Venezuela and Cuba’s attempts to spread destabilization and chaos across the region, but the group emphasized that “the intentional and systematic strategy of the two dictatorships to destabilize democracies is no longer as effective as in the past.”

In the end, the confluence of protests in countries as diverse as Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Haiti tell us less about the common roots or—especially—any shared destiny of these movements. While all of them stem in part from unmet socioeconomic expectations and distrust, even disgust, with the political class and incumbents, the solutions are very different.

In Bolivia, a more trustworthy, transparent electoral system is a crucial first step. Election observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union are on the ground helping to evaluate the credibility of the recent elections. In Haiti, polarization over the electoral process and a collapsed, ineffective state have simmered for decades. Turning the corner on an entrenched institutional, economic, and political crisis will require more than dialogue and reform—perhaps even international efforts toward brokering yet another election.

In Ecuador, Moreno’s suggestion of lifting fuel subsidies and International Monetary Fund austerity measures, a policy stumble that was seized upon by his predecessor and nemesis Rafael Correa and the traditional opponents of market-rate fuel prices, forced Moreno to backtrack and restore the subsidies. Going forward, Moreno has an organized broker with whom to negotiate: the indigenous group CONAIE, which also played a role in popular mobilizations against past presidents, including Jamil Mahuad and Lucio Gutiérrez.

No such organized group exists in Chile. For now, the Piñera administration faces a popular movement without an obvious leader, with ever-expanding demands. Recent media coverage attempting to lump all of these events together has only perpetuated an unfortunate misperception: that these protests share common roots, despite the fact that the differences among them are more important. In many cases, these are democratic problems that could be dealt with democratically.

But if past protests from Guatemala and Mexico to Brazil and Venezuela—which were equally different in their geneses—are any indication, the defining similarity of today’s protest movements may be the failure of these demonstrations to produce much-needed institutional reform.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

Anar Bata is the administrator for the United States and Americas program at Chatham House.

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