Analysis - Socio-Cultural Interactions

Socio-economic Indicators

Latin America goes back to the streets

Writer : Santiago Villar

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Socio-economic Indicators

In September 2013, the Friederich Ebert Foundation and Initiative for Policy Dialogue published a comprehensive study on protests around the world[1]. It was estimated that between January 2006 and July 2013, 843 protests had taken place worldwide. In Latin America, only 141 demonstrations took place, despite it being perceived as a rebellious region as its citizens constantly clash with their government in order to claim their rights.  During the last decade, the region has notably enhanced its socio-economic indicators thanks to better wealth redistribution policies and a favorable global context (e.g.: high prices of its export commodities). Nevertheless, the financial crisis altered this scenario. The study reflects that only in the first six months of 2013 there was almost the same number of protests as there was throughout 2012. One of the main demands during Latin American demonstrations, in line with claims in Europe, was real democracy through means of citizen participation and government transparency.

By the end of 2010, many countries in Latin America experienced a deceleration in their economies, which reached stagnation in some states. Despite this, most of the protests demands were not related to economic concerns alone, but included other issues. Some of the most relevant cases of protests in Latin America in the past few years will be presented in order to better understand these developments.

Massive demonstrations in Brazil from mid-2013, and mainly during the FIFA World Cup 2014, have had a strong impact outside the region. Unlike the demands for jobs and housing – as what occurred during the 80s and 90s - people were requesting quality public services, better jobs and security. The trigger for these protests was a 20 cents increase in bus transport costs, which were then followed by other claims. In fact, one of the groups promoting these street mobilizations was named “Passe Livre” (Free Pass). President Lula Da Silva won the 2002 election, and was reelected in 2006. During this period, levels of poverty have strongly decreased thanks to inclusive policies and a better allocation of resources. A large number of Brazilians, despite having survived extreme poverty, are still part of the low economic class, and were asking for better public services such as health, education and transport.

In 2010, Dilma Rousseff (from the same party as Lula) took office. Rousseff had a relatively high positive image, but without Lula’s strength. During her first period in office, mega-infrastructures were built for the World Cup, where overspending, bribery and corruption cases emerged. In addition a large-scale scandal with the state-run company (Petrobras) implicated more than 100 executives, high officials and politicians[ii]. In 2014, Dilma won her second election in the second round with a minimum difference over the conservator Aecio Neves, but her social approval was already in free fall. Many demonstrations, mainly in Sao Paulo were organized to denounce corruption and some people asked for impeachment to Dilma.

In the case of Chile, the main demand during protests was education. The educational system in Chile –a “legacy” from Pinochet’s dictatorship- is highly expensive for a low/mid-class family, due to the fact that only 25% of the costs are supported by the State. During the presidency of Sebastian Piñera (2010-2014), students took to the streets demanding reforms in the education system. Few and limited changes were introduced by the government, and demonstrations continued until the socialist candidate and ex-president Michelle Bachelet made important pre-election promises.

These promises included a reform of the Constitution. Once elected in 2014, this issue was not addressed as promised and students returned to the streets. In March 2015, the professor’s trade union called for a national strike.  As a result massive protests and marches were organized in many cities. In some cases, protests turned violent, causing damages to public buildings. As a result of the repression carried out by security forces in May 2015, two demonstrators were killed and dozens were wounded. By June 2015, during the most important football event of the continent (Copa America) and celebrated in Chile, protests were seen all around the region. Less than two years have passed since Michelle Bachelet took office in March 2014 and her approval ratings in Chile have reached around 24%[iii].

The atrocity committed in Mexico in September 2014 received global coverage. In one of Mexico's most violent States, Guerrero, 43 students were kidnapped and then killed by members of an organized crime gang. Several demonstrations in solidarity with families of the victims were convoked in Mexico and other countries. Additionally to claim justice for the massacre, people marched asking for security and protection against drug cartels and gangs. In June 2015, legislative, local and regional elections took place, and in many cities large protests organized boycotts to the elections. Under the motto “Ya me cansé” (I’m tired), people from diverse sectors manifested against corruption of the political class (government and opposition) and called for justice, security and impunity.

In Argentina social tension and protests have regained strength in the past few years. The opposition to Cristina Kirchner’s government (in power since 2007) has led massive protests against some controversial measures taken by the administration. In 2009 an increase of taxes on agricultural products resulted in a national strike and mass mobilizations across the country. In 2011 protests were against the ban on buying foreign currency, in 2013 citizens were against the official proposal to reform the judiciary power and during 2014 protests called for denouncing corruption and clientelism. In addition, the National Statistic Institute (INDEC) was accused, by national and international organizations, of distorting national statistical figures[iv]. In 2015, in response to the doubtful death of the prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, who was in charge of the investigation of the 1994 terrorist attack in Buenos Aires, thousands of people marched in many cities of Argentina, calling for the clarification of his death. However, Cristina Fernandez still maintains high levels of popular support, at almost 50%.

On the other hand, Peru has been certainly one of the Latin American countries with better economic performance in the last 15 years, enjoying a constant positive growth since 2001. Nevertheless, a wave of protests started in July 2013 against the appointment of some members of the national Constitutional Court who were suspected of corruption. Young Peruvians took to the streets to protest against the political class under the motto “No nos representan” (You do not represent us). In May 2015, several protests paralyzed the Southern Peru Copper Company project “Tia Maria”, in the southern region of Arequipa. This mine is considered an investment of almost $1.4 billion, which creates thousands of new jobs[v]. The government of the president Ollanta Humala ordered the deployment of military forces and after many violent episodes, the result was 3 casualties and more than 200 people wounded. These recent facts have derived a significant downfall in the popularity of the President: from 21% in June 2014 to 10% in June 2015.

In Bolivia, protests were related to extractive industries. In May 2013 workers of the country’s largest mine (Huanuni), situated in the region of Oruro, organized several demonstrations, suspended the activities in the mine and blocked more than 40 routes, including those which connect Bolivia with Chile and Argentina. Workers from other sectors as industry, health, and education and also from civil society organizations supported miners. The Bolivian government, headed by President Evo Morales, launched a strong response to people that ended up in violent clashes with security force.

In the last decade, the situation in Ecuador has notably improved both in social and economic aspects. However, President Rafael Correa’s government has faced massive protests. Recently a series of internal and external factors (such as the oil price drop) has produced a deceleration of growth. In order to sustain social programs, government has been forced to make some macroeconomic adjustments, including raising taxes. In particular, the tax on heritage has triggered an immediate response in the most populated city of the country, Guayaquil. The mayor of the city, Jaime Nebot, has led demonstrations against this tax, gaining support from Ecuador’s middle and upper classes.

Central America has also seen scenarios of massive demonstrations in 2015. In Guatemala a large sector of mid-class people –which represents around 10% of the total population- decided to take to the streets. The protests started after a large-scale corruption scandal erupted, whereby politicians and high-level officials were involved. This notorious case forced the resignation of some members of the government, including Vice-President Roxana Baldetti[vi]. Moreover, moved by these protesters, students, farmers, trade unions have organized mobilizations to claim for integral State reforms. Other demands include better work conditions and citizen security, an endemic disease of Latin America, and particularly of Central America. All these protests are generating tensions among political parties ahead of the presidential elections that will take place this September.

In Honduras protests against the government of the National Party (PN) –in power since 2010- gathered more and more people after a corruption scandal which involved the PN and the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS), came to light. Apparently the PN financed its presidential campaign through a deviation of funds from the IHSS and it was estimated that this misuse cost around $350 million to contributors.

In the case of Colombia, during 2013, farmers have been the main driving force behind revolts. In August that year representatives of the agricultural sector called for a national strike to protest against the high costs of supplies, the drops in export prices and the exigencies derived from the Free Trade Agreement signed with the US.


[1] IsabelOrtiz et al.,“World Protests 2006-2013”, Working Paper, Initiative for Policy Dialogue and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung New York (September 2013).






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