How it all kicked off in Latin America

Mike Phipps reviews A Chant from the South: Chronicle and analysis of a Latin American social explosion (October-December 2019), edited by Adrián Atehortúa, Daniela Sánchez and Francesc Badia i Dalmases, published by Democracia Abierta.

Just over a year ago, social outbursts engulfed key countries in Latin America – Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, and Bolivia. These events have had long-term consequences in all of these states, so Democracia Abierta’s decision to reproduce these pieces of journalism written at the time is truly useful in conveying the dynamics and nuances of these struggles.

As Francesc Badia i Dalmases says in an opening overview, “Nobody expected that the so-liberal and stable Chilean democracy would explode in such a violent way.” But today people are more globally connected than ever before. They see the second Arab spring, the protests in Hong Kong, the gilets jaunes in France, and yet in the Global South, imperialism continues the same old story: extractvist exploitation and IMF-imposed austerity. And Latin Americans realise, as elsewhere, that they can narrate their own story.

In both Chile and Ecuador, the spark that ignited the explosion was the imposition of harsh austerity measures. But the underlying grievances ran deeper, particularly within the indigenous communities, who were not only hard hit by the budget cuts, but also environmentally impacted by the neo-colonial extraction of natural resources.

With their lives at stake and nothing to lose, indigenous people in Ecuador marched on Quito. They were joined by a national strike of transport workers. President Moreno was forced to move his government out of the capital and accused his poplar predecessor Rafael Correa of orchestrating a coup. After 12 days facing ruthless repression from riot police trained in US urban warfare tactics, the protestors won the solidarity of many people in Quito and succeeded in getting negotiations with the government, leading to the overturning of the decree raising fuel prices. While the indigenous people then set about cleaning up the mess with rags and brooms, the police were forced to carry the coffins of the people they had shot dead. Victory on the economic front came at a high human cost: eight killed, 1,340 injured and the detention of 1,192 civilians.

This repression did not intimidate the inhabitants of other nations: the sacrifice inspired protests in Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela. In Chile, it began as an act of disobedience by the school student movement that invited citizens not to pay the recently increased fare on the Santiago subway. But it ballooned quickly. In less than a week, 1.2 million people gathered in the capital Santiago to protest against poor quality education and health services and unaffordable fees in the private sector, which are only accessible to the elites and which perpetuate strong structural inequality. These problems were compounded by the constant insecurity and violence that Chileans, especially women, experience.

As elsewhere, the government responded with curfews and repression. By the end of 2019, 29 people were dead, with nearly 2,500 injured and 2,840 arrested. Human rights organisations received several reports of violations conducted against protestors by security forces, largely unreconstructed since the days of the military dictatorship, including eye mutilation, torture and sexual assault.

But again, the protests won, achieving far more than was originally demanded.  Within a month of the first protest over the fares hike, Chile’s parliament agreed to hold a national referendum to completely rewrite the constitution, which was overwhelmingly passed a few weeks ago. As the popular slogan had it, however, it was not about 30 pesos, the fare increase, but about 30 years of abuse of power, starting with the 1980 constitution by which the Pinochet regime imposed a market economy and very limited political choice on Chile.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors also took to the streets of Colombia in November 2019. Income inequality, corruption and police brutality were also factors, but a unique source of anger was the government’s repeated violation of the Peace Accords, which had sought to end the long-running civil war. Between August 2018 and 2019, 226 murders of social leaders and human rights defenders had been reported and 2019 saw 36 massacres across the country. In early November 2019, news was revealed that the National Army had killed eight minors when it bombed a camp of FARC dissidents, and then concealed the incident.

The immediate trigger for the protests was the government’s plans for tax, labour and pension reforms, which sparked a national strike, backed by students, workers, teachers, trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists, indigenous people, victims’ and human rights organisations.  It led to the first nationwide protests since 1977, but this was larger – the biggest protest s Colombia has ever witnessed. The government responded with fierce repression, killing three, including a high school student, and injuring 700. Former president Uribe, the current president’s mentor, had his twitter account suspended for inciting violence against overwhelmingly peaceful protestors. Later the Supreme Court ruled the state’s reaction was excessive and said the Defence Minister should apologise.

On December 22nd, huge marches and a massive concert took place in Medellín, unprecedented in the violent stronghold of the narco-paramilitary extreme right. The protests across the country were all the more remarkable, given the weak state of the left: they happened without political leadership. And they erupted again in Bogotà in September following another incident of extreme police brutality – a man died after being pinned to the ground and repeatedly tasered by police. In the unrest that followed, the police shot dead 13 protestors. Once again, the underlying issues remain entirely unresolved.

Little of this gets reported in the western media.  The situation in Bolivia, in contrast, is much more widely known. Western outlets fell over themselves in their haste to report electoral fraud in last year’s elections, to justify the long-prepared coup against President Morales, who, subsequent investigations showed, had won the poll fairly.

As Labour Hub reported earlier, “Only the New York Times has had the integrity to reappraise its original credulity. From other newspapers that praised the coup leaders for ‘defending democracy’ – nothing.  And that includes the UK’s Economist – which supported the military’s overthrow of Morales last year… – and the Observer, which even went so far as to warn Morales, who had fled the country fearing for his safety, not to orchestrate his own coup to return to power.”

Bolivia constitutes the weakest section of this book. One of the articles is sympathetic to the manufactured hostility to Morales’ re-election last year, without grasping the broader social context. The subsequent persecution of his supporters under the new, illegitimate government underlines that the ousting of Morales was not a blow for democracy, but a violent backlash by a racist elite.

There’s a more thoughtful analysis by Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now on the mistakes Morales made that contributed to his beleaguered position. But I was left wondering, if this book was about popular upsurges against neoliberal, repressive pseudo-democratic governments, why Bolivia had been included at all. A more accurate expression of the popular mood would be the vindication of support for Morales’ party when Luis Arce was elected in October of this year, followed by the return from exile of the former president to massive crowds of supporters, bringing to an end the illegitimate, corrupt coup government, which presided over one of the worst responses to coronavirus anywhere on the planet.

Overall, however, the book is a mine of information and has some superb photographs of the protests. The contemporary accounts reproduced here give an indispensable flavour of the events as they unfolded. With the poorest sections of society being hardest hit by the COVD-19 pandemic, there is a very strong sense that the social explosions of a year ago down the spine of Latin America are not over yet.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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