Nov 22, 2019

South America's uprisings are about more than politics

Taking cover from a water cannon in Santiago, Chile. Photo: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Venezuela, Brazil, and more recently Ecuador, Bolivia and Chile have been in the news because of violent protests and uprisings.

The big picture: One thing's for sure — it's not because of any one political system. Venezuela has had a quasi-communist regime for almost 20 years, Chile has had a totally different pro-market approach, while Bolivia and Ecuador have had their own peculiar mixes of socialism and capitalism. But each society has gone through similar social crises in recent months.

Flashback: For a whole decade, the region experienced a boom linked with China's apparently endless need for commodities — copper, soybean, oil.

  • This sudden prosperity allowed for extensive welfare programs with which every government was able to cover up a lot of the endemic problems in a region with terrible records on crime, inequality and corruption.
  • As this wave of imported prosperity waned, social dissatisfaction grew, particularly in countries where the new wealth was channeled into subsidies and programs meant to buy social peace rather than to finance deep reforms.

But there is another reason for this sudden mess: Latin America's historic deficit in democratic institutions.

  • No region in the world has a similar record of coups, revolutions and regime change caused by social instability.
  • Add a love for populism and demagogic leaders, and mix in modern elements like social media and fake news, and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.

That's what you are witnessing in many countries of the region these days.

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