Protests Rage Across Latin America

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Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, spoke with Ian Masters of Background Briefing to discuss recent unrest in South America. The two discussed inequality and social immobility as underlying causes of unrest in the region, the case of Venezuela, and the political class’ inability to react.

Comments by Michael Shifter: 

“I think the region overall is at a pretty low moment. There are always ups and downs and this moment I think is very difficult and troubling in many countries in the region. The situation in each country reflects the particular national circumstances.”

“The Chilean case is so dramatic because it is the country with the highest per capita income. It is seen as a model of stability, economic growth, and good governance. Chile is the case that people have always pointed to as being the most successful. However, a sense of discontent has been building over the last couple of years. Chile is prosperous but very unequal. People have access to information and they know about this inequality. In addition, the economy has slowed. This was all being pent up and then there was the spark or the trigger that was the increase in the cost of the metro, and things really exploded after that.”

“It is striking how long it has gone on already and the intensity of protests in a country that everyone thought was very tranquil. I do not think anyone really predicted what we are seeing in Chile.”

“I should mention that Piñera has canceled the APEC meeting in Santiago, which was supposed to be held in two weeks. There was talk of President Trump signing an agreement with China, with President Xi. Cop25 was also supposed to be held in Santiago, and Chile was very proud of having these two very important international events. Now both of them have been cancelled because of the chaotic and violent situation that continues.”

“Yes, I think they are the product of national circumstances in each country, but I think there are some cross-cutting issues. The big one is inequality, which has always been the Achilles heel of Latin America. This is the most unequal region in the world, and it has always been a serious problem. I think people are maybe finally awakening to see that they have to address inequality more seriously than they have up until now. In addition, it is the most violent region in the world, so that aggravates an already very difficult situation overall. However, I think it really has to do with the politics. The political parties and political leaders just do not seem capable of addressing these problems. You see it very clearly in Chile today with President Pinera just not knowing what to do. He has a new cabinet and announced some new measures, but none of these actions has quieted things down in Santiago. Despite these attempts to bring public order and get things under control, the violence continues, so there is obviously deep and widespread anger and frustration.”

“None of the cases we talk about there is no comparison to Venezuela. It is the worst crisis the hemisphere has ever seen. It is a humanitarian disaster with over 5 million Venezuelans having left the country and Venezuelans continuing to leave. This not only an economy and a democracy that has been destroyed but a country that has been destroyed. Even if we imagine the best-case scenario, it is going to take at least a generation to get it back in shape. It is a very tragic situation.”

“I think there has been an absence of serious attention to social problems that are very deep. People are being left out and left behind. They are being forgotten, and this is what we are seeing in Chile with people rising up. I think the solution is something more along the lines of what we saw with FDR in this country in the 1930s. I know many Venezuelans who voted for Chavez thought that he was going to be FDR, and that he was going to be what they needed. They saw him as being able to deliver some of those policies to address social problems. He just went much too far and was not able to do that. He destroyed the economy and destroyed the country. However, that was the hope and I think that is still the hope in most Latin American countries. The solution is not a model that eliminates the market or trade but one that is much more attuned to the social needs and the demands of the middle class.”

“Lain America had a good decade. It grew between 2003 and 2013 or 2014. There was a commodity boom and many of the countries, like Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, that sell commodities really did very well. They grew and inequality went down, but many of the people that benefited entered the middle class and expected to continue to improve. They thought that they were on this trajectory of social mobility that would go up and up. Now the economy in many places has stagnated and people are frustrated because they were led to believe that this would continue. It has not, and that’s a recipe for real frustration and anger.”

Listen to the full interview in Background Briefing with Ian Masters