Fevers that rise in Latin America – J-J. Kourliandsky

Politicians from the left-right political spectrum as well as renowned experts have been surprised by what has occurred lately in countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Indeed, as if things had been previously agreed on, all of them faced an acute crisis, though with various translations. In Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay, people expressed their unrest through their vote. In Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, they went demonstrating into the streets. But some countries, such as Central America and Venezuela, saw part of their population flee, out of desperation.

The question is: how did this all happen?

The media was fast in giving elementary responses., while complex problems and situations need more than a tweet.

Some suggested establishing a parallel between Latin America and the Arab countries: according to them, it was as if Latin America was inaugurating its own “spring”.

Others resorted to the alleged theory of cycles: after the era of dictatorships, ultraliberal democracies had come to Latin America, followed by progressist national democracies, and then an ultraliberal cycle. And from here to the fact that we would now be going back to a leftist cycle.

Some also pointed out the alleged existence of a plot, though they did not all agree on its origins: while some talked about a North American imperialist conspiracy, others were more prompt to see the hand of Cuban and/or Venezuelan communisms behind events.

But these “explanations” do not make sense: they seek to give a unique answer to different realities. The Arab Spring may have come as an answer to an unaccomplished dream of democracy, but Latin America had already overcome this stage at the end of the 20th century. Cycles do allow us to explain recent history in a seemingly convincing way, but they do not allow us to understand why, periods of dictatorship put aside, Latin American countries did not end up living situations similar to one another.

Indeed, the Cold War explains why Latin America in general, encouraged by the United States, was so prompt to favor authoritarian regimes; this was meant to put obstacles to the Soviet enemy and its quest to influence the continent. Nevertheless, the cycles that followed did not have this coherence: they all saw the coexistence of groups with different political or ideological orientations, extending from the liberal to the national-progressive spectrum.

But conspiracy theories are as powerful as new technologies when it comes to spreading massively fake news: they end up convincing the convinced and the unconvinced.

After this long but necessary prologue, the question remains: why did these fevers of different natures end up affecting Latin America almost simultaneously? In Argentina, Mexico, and Uruguay, voters chose brutal alternatives, though they did not necessarily share the same orientations. In Argentina and in Mexico, they sanctioned the liberals; but in Uruguay, they decided to punish the left. In Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, angry people expressed their dissatisfaction against liberal governments; but they did not support leftist alternatives in return. The same contradictory tendencies prevail regarding citizens that decided to leave their countries: in Central America, they left a right-wing government, while in Venezuela, they were fleeing a government from the left.

There are two main factors that have unfolded over the last few months which can explain these fevers.

The first one is the economy. Since the end of the first primary boom, there was a rise in the prices of raw materials, agriculture, energy, and mining, all pillars of Latin American economies. In contrast, gross domestic products, state budgets, and the ability of governments to maintain social policies fell down. In addition, social unemployment and informal work also increased. A discontent followed, though it was obviously more evident in democratic countries where people can vote or demonstrate. Ruling right-wing governments were sanctioned via votes, social protests or with their citizens migrating. But the same exactly happened in countries where the left was ruling.

Likewise, we cannot dismiss the importance of local political factors. By dismantling democratic institutions, governments fed a pressure cooker that exploded brutally, adding sometimes to social unrest. Latin America is the most unequal “continent” in the world. The democracy that had been allegedly recovered at the end of the 20th century was nothing more than an institutional move. As an example, the social debt that had formed in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship has not been addressed adequately by the democratic governments that followed. The Chilean youth asks today for efficient public services that perform correctly in the fields of education, transport, and health. This requires the suspension of the fundamental Law that has been inherited from the dictatorship era and the adoption of a Constitution that cares about social rights. In Bolivia as in Brazil, there were soft coups d’état led by some elites that did not see in democracy anything more than a ritual exercise, limiting, therefore, the perimeter of democracy to the distribution of public positions.

But people are aware of the institutional manipulations that some “leftist” governments use in order for them to keep indefinitely in power, as it is the case with Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia. Both thus gave their opponents from the right and from the center an opportunity to criticize them and to mobilize demonstrators, thus acting in the same way Michel Temer and the Brazilian elites did.

Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky is a researcher on the Iberic world at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). He is also the director of the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

J-J Kourliandsky (2020). “Fevers that rise in Latin America”, Observatory on contemporary crises, March 18, 2020, URL: https://crisesobservatory.es/fevers-that-rise-in-latin-america-j-j-kourliandsky/