Protests from Chile to Bolivia: is this South America's version of the Arab uprisings?

We're seeing across the region an expression of anger boiling over against the rule of out-of-touch elites

Demonstrators protest against the government in Santiago, Chile, Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. Chile has been facing weeks of unrest, triggered by a relatively minor increase in subway fares. The protests have shaken a nation noted for economic stability over the past decades, which has seen steadily declining poverty despite persistent high rates of inequality. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
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These are tumultuous times in South America. Chile and Ecuador have been convulsed by violent protests that have led to declarations of states of emergency, the military on the streets of Santiago and Quito, the use of rubber bullets and tear gas, and in Chile to the deaths of at least 20 people. There the unrest has been so bad that the government has even pulled out of hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation and United Nations COP25 climate summits. Bolivia stands on a knife edge after Evo Morales was elected to a fourth term as president – a victory disputed by his opponents, one of whom has called for the military to intervene if Mr Morales does not stand down and allow a new election under close international supervision.

Argentinians have just returned to office Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as vice president, a surprise rebound for the leftist politician who was vilified over alleged corruption charges when she stood down as president in 2015. "Argentina chose badly," was the blunt verdict of Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, whose son Eduardo has caused controversy by suggesting the country revive some of the repressive measures used by its past military dictatorship.

Mr Bolsonaro Jr claimed Cuba was funding a conspiracy to bring revolution to the region. Others have pointed the finger at Venezuela’s socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro. Chile’s president Sebastian Pinera said that his country was “at war against a powerful enemy” – assumed to be Mr Maduro – who “was willing to use violence and criminality with no limits even when it means the loss of lives”.

Mr Maduro himself has veered between taking credit for the uprisings and joking: “They think I move my moustache and bring governments down”. Bolivia’s Mr Morales has also denounced foreign interference, just not by his ally Mr Maduro; having thrown an American ambassador and a US federal agency out of the country before, he might well mean the US.

The measures that caused the protests in Chile and Ecuador have both been withdrawn. The question now is whether that will be enough to quell the fury of protestors

Observers trying to make sense of it all have looked to past trends: was this a return to the “pink tide” that saw left-leaning governments come to power through much of Latin America in the first decade or so of the 21st century? Or was it the start of a South American “Arab Spring"?

But perhaps neither label is apt and attempting to cast all these events as symptoms of the same malaise might be an oversimplification. What they do have in common, however, is an expression of anger boiling over against the rule of what are perceived as out-of-touch elites.

At first glance, it might seem strange to include Bolivia’s Mr Morales in such a characterisation. His country’s first indigenous president, Mr Morales comes from a poor, rural background and his rise to national politics came through his trade union activism. Surely he is a true man of the people? Perhaps, but his fourth presidential victory comes at the expense of both the 2009 constitution and a 2016 referendum that reaffirmed a limit of two terms for the presidency and vice presidency. In 2017, the country’s highest court scrapped those limits – a decision that was described, with some justification, by an opposition senator as “a coup against the constitution and a mockery of the referendum results”. The normal rules, it seems, do not apply to Mr Morales.

Chile’s Mr Pinera is a billionaire, and the outgoing president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, is the son of a business tycoon. Mr Macri may have wanted to boost jobs and productivity to reduce poverty but his neo-liberal policies and spending cuts have hurt the poorest hardest while the growth he expected has failed to materialise and inflation is running at 50 per cent. In Chile, raising the fare for the metro in Santiago by 30 pesos (about 15 fils) last month might have seemed a paltry sum to Mr Pinera, but that was the match that lit the flames of protest as hard-pressed students jumped station turnstiles to avoid paying, hundreds of thousands joined the marches and the unrest escalated to rioting and buildings set ablaze.

The context to remember is that Latin America suffers some of the worst income inequality on the planet. Poverty might technically be declining in Argentina but according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1 per cent of the population own nearly 27 per cent of the country’s wealth. It is safe to assume that neither Mr Pinera nor Mr Macri have ever experienced the pain and anxiety that even a small increase in the price of a basic necessity induces in the cash-strapped masses – and their rage shows that they know it.

Likewise in Ecuador, when president Lenin Moreno announced austerity measures in accordance with a deal with the International Monetary Fund, did he really take into consideration who would suffer most from his scrapping of long-standing fuel subsidies? This was the cause of the mass protests. It might be true that cheap fuel was being smuggled but it would have been far better if Mr Moreno had come up with a formula that preserved subsidies for the poor while eliminating them for wealthier consumers who have no need of them. Again, it does not matter how many economists praise Mr Moreno for moving away from the socialism of his predecessor, Rafael Correa, by reducing public spending and redistributive policies: does he really understand their impact on those who feel the cuts the most?

Extreme inequality is a scourge on any society. It undermines the solidarity needed to preserve the sense of community that makes a nation. If leaders are too removed from the consequences of their actions or act as though they are above the rules that apply to everyone else, populations notice – especially when economic divides are stark and, as today, when the internet and social media provide instant transparency and information.

If this is the lesson of last month’s violent upheavals, South American leaders appear to have heeded it. The measures that caused the protests in Chile and Ecuador have both been withdrawn, for instance. The question now is whether that will be enough to quell the fury; or whether, now it has been roused, it will end up consuming the governments that dared enrage their populations in the first place.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum