Why So Many Violent Anti-government Protests in Latin America?

Several countries in Latin America are currently experiencing disturbing popular protests. Happening at an organic level, this is part of a continent-wide contagion. The trend is spreading fast across the region and has caused the citizenry to attack their own elected governments.

To put things in perspective, Brazil has just witnessed physical attack on its highest political institutions by a rampaging mob — dissatisfied with the election to the top office by a former left-wing leader and president. In Peru, several dozen protesters have died in clashes with the security forces while demanding the reinstatement of a now deposed left-wing president. In Bolivia, supporters of a right-wing opposition leader have created chaos in parts of the country by blocking key highways. Their demand — removal of the left-wing government and fresh elections. Until recently, Venezuela had two sets of government – one led by the populist Nicolas Maduro and other propped up by the international community and the regime’s detractors. 

In the semantics of contemporary Latin American popular protest politics, every regime in power is a dictatorial one by default. According to this self-indulgent worldview, the organised extremists blocking highways, storming airports, ransacking government edifices are legitimate in their grievances. The hallmark of this agitprop initiative appears to be the use of violence to force one’s views on the majority who prefer to use the ballot box.

These protests would make sense if they were against authoritarian regimes with no democratic mandate. Ironically, the uprisings are against democratically elected governments. The fundamental question that begs an answer, therefore, is what triggers such uprisings.

It’s the ideology stupid

A successful vibrant democracy needs political parties of every hue and colour. In contemporary Latin American political landscape, however, populist leaders use democracy as window dressing to flout their own extreme ideological positions. They use the institutions of democracy to demonise their opponents, stress how intimate their own brand of politics is to democratic values, while conveniently lambasting the opposition if it follows a similar rhetoric.  

Ideological polarisation between the left and the right has meant the right candidates for the top job are ejected out of the political process. Thanks to their ideological convictions the leaders often take the country to a polarised political arena where people are forced to choose sides. Take the case of Brazil, for example. In its last presidential election, populist rhetoric and ideological polarisation forced the Brazilians to choose two of the most controversial candidates over some of the other best for the top job. The consequence: an eternal war between the supporters of current president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva versus his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro. 

As a popular Latin American saying goes, “the more you beat the devil, the more he grows in proportion”. Hence rather than deflating them, the fight against populists only emboldens them making them ever more charismatic with self-styled messianic objectives. Thus, we have ended up with populists who seem to define national destiny like the protagonist in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch”. 

Accordingly, consolidation of extreme ideological positions between leaders has led to a situation where the society is split right in the middle, with no prospect for national political reconciliation or economic progress, as is the case with Venezuela. These extreme conditions have forced millions of Venezuelans to flee their once rich country. In those other polities, such as Bolivia and Peru, where ideological polarisation is not that stark and the populist leaders enjoy only limited support, there are succession of political riots and on a regular basis.  

Politics of populism creates a political condition where leaders create specific personas around themselves, revel in personality cult and force the masses to take sides. They dabble in the politics of paranoia.  Consequently, they are always in a confrontational mode. They are constantly in the lookout for an enemy to consolidate their own ideology and personal position. Their policy undertakings seek to legitimise all manners of incendiary ideas, such as: misogyny, anti-indigenous, anti-environmental, violence against the political opponents at large and so on. In the hands of the left-leaning populist leader, every counter political idea is dismissed as fascist and averse to quotidian needs.

Little wonder, when Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva “Lula” speaks of his own extreme left-wing ideology, it is couched in democracy, whereas his opponent representing the extreme right is a fascist. This holier than thou and self-righteous politics of Latin American populist leaders has not only undermined the emergence of balanced debate on democracy but weeded out mainstream leaders with a composite and inclusive national vision.

Regressive politics

These uprisings have created a crisis of governance across Latin America. Populist leaders across Latin America and the governments they lead have surreptitiously eroded the neutrality and transparency of traditional democratic institutions in their respective countries. This trend, started by Juan Domingo Peron in Argentina in the 1950s is continued to this day in every Latin American country from Argentina’s Kirchner to Maduro’s Venezuela while traversing all the way to Lopez Obrador’s Mexico. Their brands of populist politics have not only been injurious to the democratic health of the continent but has also stalled progress on every front. 

Instead of progressive governments thinking about all round development of their nation, we encounter reactionary authoritarian movements and forces led by populist leaders whose primary objective is to constantly seek out the fall guys to shield them against their own failures. 

Under the guise of people’s mandate, current Mexican president has scrapped many big infrastructural projects initiated by his predecessor. Critics say annulling these projects make little economic sense, bar giving the populist leader more elan before his supporters. Stories of stalled developmental initiates, whenever one populist leader takes over from his opponent, is far too common across the continent. In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela ordinary citizens talk of decades lost in their developmental calendar, due to the “petty populist politics” of their governments. 

Luckily not all Latin American republics have fallen prey to the allure of fanatic populism. There are rare exceptions to this rule. Uruguay, with its commitment to consensual pragmatism, has not only managed to avoid the pitfalls of populist politics, but has succeeded in registering adequate economic growth while maintaining social stability. 

Silver Lining

In an authoritarian political system, people do not resist the status quo – at least not openly. They are fearful of courting the regime’s wrath. They stay constrained afraid of the repercussion that their open political revolts might court. If anything, these popular protests demonstrates that Latin American political culture has come of age. Gone are the days when the soldiers from barracks would storm the presidential palace to oust one populist leader whenever he faced the slightest political dissent. Gone too is the threat of street fighters fighting ideological battles being whisked away by the regime concerned, to be dropped later from airplanes over the seas. 

While these violent popular uprisings against their governments may seem outwardly perverse, there is a silver lining to it. It demonstrates the existence of a free political ambience that allows for protests. On the plus side, the fact that so many people with firm ideological convictions are out in the open across Latin Americas – on its streets and cities is a testament to the political freedom that they have come to enjoy. It demonstrates the absence of “terror politics” that Latin America was synonymous with for well over fifty years in the last century. 

[Photo by TV BrasilGov, via Wikimedia Commons]

Amalendu Misra is a Professor of International Politics, Lancaster University, United Kingdom. Author of Towards a Philosophy of Narco Violence in Mexico, New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Follow Professor Misra on Twitter: @MisraAmalendu.

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