Could protests be South Amer­ica’s Arab up­ris­ing?

The National - News - - OPINION - Sholto Byrnes is a com­men­ta­tor and con­sul­tant in Kuala Lumpur and a cor­re­spond­ing fel­low of the Eras­mus Fo­rum

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 ver­dict of Brazil’s 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.

Ob­servers try­ing to make sense of it 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 21st cen­tury? Or was it the start of a South Amer­i­can “Arab Spring”?

But 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.

It might seem strange to in­clude Bo­livia’s Mr Mo­rales given that he rose to na­tional pol­i­tics through 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. 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 but his neo-lib­eral poli­cies and spend­ing cuts have hurt the poor­est hard­est 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 was the match that lit the flames of protest as hard-pressed stu­dents jumped sta­tion turn­stiles to avoid pay­ing. Thou­sands joined the marches and the un­rest es­ca­lated to 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 cash­strapped 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 con­sider who would suf­fer most from his scrap­ping of fuel sub­si­dies? This was the cause of the mass protests. It might be

What we are see­ing across the re­gion is the ex­pres­sion of anger boiling over against the rule of elites

true that cheap fuel was be­ing smug­gled but it would have been bet­ter if Mr Moreno had come up with a for­mula that pre­served sub­si­dies for the poor while elim­i­nat­ing them for the wealthy. 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: does he un­der­stand their im­pact on those who feel the cuts the most? Ex­treme in­equal­ity un­der­mines the sol­i­dar­ity needed to pre­serve the sense of com­mu­nity that makes a na­tion. If lead­ers act as though they are above the rules, pop­u­la­tions no­tice. 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. 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.

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