Dispatch

The Pandemic’s Legacy Will Spur New Protests in Latin America

Increased economic inequality has only added to widespread discontent.

By , a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia.
People protest the Brazilian president.
Demonstrators hold a banner reading, “550 thousand deaths! Bolsonaro out!” during a protest against the government in Brasília, Brazil, on July 24. EVARISTO SA/AFP via Getty Images

CALI, Colombia—When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Latin America in early March 2020—bringing with it the same lockdowns and economic shutdowns seen elsewhere—it stopped a regional wave of protests in its tracks. Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia had all seen mass demonstrations, sometimes quelled violently by authorities, since late 2019. Different dynamics drove each country’s unrest, and different techniques were employed by those marching and those in government. But the main driver behind these protests was similar: long-held outrage against deepening economic disparity and social injustice.

Now, as the region grapples with varying degrees of inoculation success and continued case surges in some countries, people are again taking to the streets, reigniting a movement that a year ago appeared to have been halted by the coronavirus. “There’s now a culture of social protest across Latin America,” said Javiera Arce, a political scientist at the University of Valparaíso in Chile.

In recent months, the pandemic turbocharged unrest globally. Latin America and the Caribbean in particular were unequal before and are only more so now. COVID-19 forced 4.7 million people in the region out of the middle class and into poverty or vulnerability, according to a World Bank report published in June. Brazil offered generous but unsustainable temporary social transfers, which have provided some relief. If it had not, the regional number would have been much higher.

CALI, Colombia—When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Latin America in early March 2020—bringing with it the same lockdowns and economic shutdowns seen elsewhere—it stopped a regional wave of protests in its tracks. Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia had all seen mass demonstrations, sometimes quelled violently by authorities, since late 2019. Different dynamics drove each country’s unrest, and different techniques were employed by those marching and those in government. But the main driver behind these protests was similar: long-held outrage against deepening economic disparity and social injustice.

Now, as the region grapples with varying degrees of inoculation success and continued case surges in some countries, people are again taking to the streets, reigniting a movement that a year ago appeared to have been halted by the coronavirus. “There’s now a culture of social protest across Latin America,” said Javiera Arce, a political scientist at the University of Valparaíso in Chile.

In recent months, the pandemic turbocharged unrest globally. Latin America and the Caribbean in particular were unequal before and are only more so now. COVID-19 forced 4.7 million people in the region out of the middle class and into poverty or vulnerability, according to a World Bank report published in June. Brazil offered generous but unsustainable temporary social transfers, which have provided some relief. If it had not, the regional number would have been much higher.

That workforce was practically cut out of the economy last year by the pandemic, which forced most people indoors for months on end.

These numbers don’t include those living precariously before face masks and hand sanitizer became ubiquitous. Earnings from the “informal economy”—which includes street vendors, construction workers, and domestic laborers—represented more than a third of GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2010 to 2014, as per the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. That workforce was practically cut out of the economy last year by the pandemic, which forced most people indoors for months on end. Without bank accounts or other access to the financial system, many informal workers could not count on any cash support from the government, such as the support offered in Brazil. In Colombia, for example, red rags were hung outside homes as a signal those inside were hungry.

More than a year later, the pandemic’s legacy is clear in almost every nation in the region. “There is no question that social fault lines were widening in many nations of Latin America prior to the arrival of COVID-19, but it is also clear that the pandemic has reinforced and increased the income, wealth, and education gaps among the region’s rich, middle class, and poor,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “The largest setbacks were among the most vulnerable groups—who lived in more crowded spaces, worked in the most precarious jobs, suffered the highest rates of unemployment, often were forced to live from hand to mouth, and had the least adequate access to health services and education for themselves and their children.”

And as people got poorer, they also got sicker. Latin America, where vaccine rollout has been slow, is one of the regions most battered by COVID-19. Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Argentina have all lost more than 100,000 lives to the virus. In June, four countries in the region ranked among the top five countries with the highest weekly coronavirus death counts. Poor public health management has only widened the gap between politicians and their constituents. In Brazil, hard-line President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly sown doubt about the efficacy of vaccinations while officials in Brazil, Bolivia, and Honduras have been accused of pandemic-related fraud. Senior politicians in both Peru and Argentina have come under fire for jumping ahead of the vaccine queue. Meanwhile, those with the means to do so have traveled to the United States, where vaccines are abundant, to inoculate themselves and their families as the virus continues to spread among the unvaccinated in more marginalized communities.

During the first half of this year, discontent was driven in many countries by failed responses to the pandemic. But although unrest shares regional traits—especially the generational aspect of youth-led marches and heavy-handed police responses—other dynamics are unique to each country. In Colombia, anger over the right-wing government’s slow walking of a 2016 peace deal with leftist rebels has factored into wider protests, sparked by a proposed tax hike. The promises of rural reform and a more equitable society offered by the controversial accords remain unfulfilled, angering Indigenous leaders, such as Aida Quilcue, who traveled to the city of Cali, Colombia, to represent the Páez (or Nasa) Indigenous community in demonstrations in May. “We want our concerns to be taken seriously and not to be ignored or smeared as has happened for years and years,” Quilcue said.

In Cuba, where dissent is seldom tolerated, citizens have taken to the streets to march against the dictatorship. Over the years, the Caribbean country’s much-celebrated medical missions have been good for branding abroad, but its system has been unable to stem the tide of COVID-19 at home, and its vaccine rollout has been slow. For Cubans, this has been one more example of the deficiencies of a stagnant system. Brazil regularly sees its city streets packed with demonstrators calling for ousting Bolsonaro after several legal scandals. The president has faced high levels of disapproval at several points during the pandemic, but his government’s cash transfer program has kept his unpopularity at nonfatal levels. “That Bolsonaro is proposing to once again open the vault and resume larger payments suggests that he is betting the economy will be the crucial determinant of his electoral fortunes next year,” Shifter said.

With elections in Colombia, Chile, and Brazil taking place in 2021 and 2022, some analysts see a potential off ramp for societal unrest, even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to strain health and economic systems.

With elections in Colombia, Chile, and Brazil taking place in 2021 and 2022, some analysts see a potential off ramp for societal unrest.

“Elections help diffuse tensions,” said Benjamin Gedan, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin America program. “In Peru, fed up voters rallied behind Pedro Castillo, a far-left rural schoolteacher who was little known before the presidential election. In Argentina, voters will have a chance to punish their government in the November midterms. Chileans are in the middle of a presidential election and constitutional reform.”

Chile, the most economically developed country in the region, has indeed seen organizing take place beyond street marches as the pandemic paused protests. Mass marches in 2019 forced the government to permit a referendum on a new constitution to replace the one implemented in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. With wide support among voters in the October 2020 referendum, a new constitution will now be drafted by a directly elected assembly, the members of which campaigned during the first half of this year. Chileans say these results demonstrate fundamental changes to the country’s political status quo. “[Chilean President Sebastián] Piñera used the pandemic to silence all of us,” Arce said, adding people are no longer afraid to speak out.

The dynamics behind continued protests may be local, but to those supporting demonstrations, they also form part of a regional push for social justice that responds to conditions predating the pandemic. “We are all part of America, and, of course, our struggles are the same,” said Patricia Rodriguez, a 43-year-old community organizer in Bogotá, Colombia, at a recent march that would later be broken up by riot police. “We’ll keep turning up until we see real change.”

Joe Parkin Daniels is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. Twitter: @joeparkdan

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