by Omar LopezDecember 14, 2020
With contributions from Jessenia Medina and Joseling Olivares
The pandemic this year hasn’t stopped people in Latin America from gathering and pushing for their rights, justice, and democracy agendas. In some cases, government mismanagement or inaction on COVID-19 even provoked mass demonstrations, as was the case in Brazil.
Yet this is not the only civil resistance trend one may identify in the region this year. Although violence remains an instrument of choice for many non-state groups, by and large, the stereotype of the armed guerrilla fighter as the symbol of a freedom fighter, which has plagued the collective conscience of Latin America for centuries, has now been replaced by the figure of a young person armed with a cell phone and a laptop. The very good adherence to nonviolent discipline that was observed with many movements this year attests to this.
On a strategic level, several movements that were part of the major wave of civil resistance across the continent in 2019 have left the streets and are channeling their energy into institutional politics.
On a tactical level, technology increasingly empowers ordinary people to operate and organize campaigns without the ominous presence of repressive forces. Artivism—the strategic use of creative expression to challenge injustice—and the use of social media are the new vehicles to organize and promote nonviolent campaigns in the region.
An overview of some prominent Latin American cases—Peru, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Brazil—illustrates these mixed trends, shedding light for us on the future of civil resistance in the region.
From November 10 to November 15, a nonviolent movement led by young students and professionals forced the resignation of President Manuel Merino, appointed by the Congress after a recourse of “vacancy” placed against the previous president, Martín Vizcarra. According to media and NGOs, thousands of people mobilized in all the main cities of the 25 Peruvian provinces using all kinds of social media (the classic networks of Facebook and Twitter, but also Instagram and TikTok) as their main tool to articulate demands and organize actions.
The movement gathered around the slogan “You messed with the wrong generation,” establishing their main identity as a youth movement. Commissions for health, security, supplies, etc. were created to support the demonstrations.
A noticeable characteristic was the capacity of the demonstrators to remain nonviolent facing high levels of violence by the riot police. Two students were killed, and the result was an increase in the number of participants in the demonstrations. They kept their nonviolent stance despite violent provocations.
The appointment of Juan Guaidó as president in January 2019 by the National Assembly (Parliament) channeled the energy of the pro-democracy movement, founded in the early 2000s, toward the political and parliamentarian sphere. Although a strategic choice that can benefit movements in the long run, in the short term the move has diminished the level of extra-institutional action.
More than 50 countries, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the U.S. government officially recognized Guaidó’s appointment, undermining Nicolas Maduro’s authority. Yet this emphasis on international efforts to produce results has also slowed nonviolent action and fragmented movement unity.
Although Guaidó has announced a return to street demonstrations and a national plan for transition to democracy, nothing has been done yet. The permanency of Guaidó’s government, in spite of all attempts from the Maduro regime to eliminate it, can nevertheless be considered a huge achievement. A parallel government is alive and functioning in Venezuela.
Believed to have originated with outside forces, Operation Gideon, a military effort to bring down Maduro’s regime, took place in May 2020. Guaidó adamantly denied any part in it and condemned the use of force. Although several opposition leaders have been pressuring for a military intervention to take Maduro out, Guaidó has remained committed to using nonviolent means—international pressure, nonviolent tactics, or a combination of both.
Two years ago, massive protests erupted against the Ortega-Murillo regime against a new social security tax. Soon developing into demands for new elections, the protests were mainly led by young professionals and students. More recently, the movement has deviated, as what happened in Venezuela, toward essentially political and parliamentarian activities, betting on the 2021 presidential elections as the primary way to achieve change.
On June 26, 2020, an attempt to create a wide-based national coalition of movements, political parties, and student organizations failed due to internal disputes.
In spite of statements from the opposition leaders (Medardo Mairena, leader of the Farmers Movement: “We have to restart the civic and peaceful struggle, so that the regime will sit down again”), there are still no signs of mass-based nonviolent resistance at the national level. However, the opposition has maintained a nonviolent stance, in spite of facing high levels of violence at the hands of the Ortega-Murillo regime and the set of repressive laws that the National Assembly, controlled by the government party, recently passed.
On November 26, members of the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists and performers focused on artivism, were violently arrested in Havana. In an unprecedented event, a large crowd of more than 300 artists gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture building the next day, and forced a meeting with the vice minister, demanding the release of all arrested and a national discussion on freedom of expression. The newly formed movement adopted the name 27N, and they have received ample coverage on international media. Same as other movements in Latin America, they have effectively used social media and mobile phones as their main tool to articulate their demands.
In May 2020, a wave of massive protests erupted in Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, and Sao Paulo, among others, against President Jair Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the May 18 police brutality case in Rio that resulted in the killing of Joao Pedro Pinto, a 14-year-old black teenager, the protests have expanded to include anti-racism demands. After the death of Joao Alberto Silveira Freitas, a black man killed on November 19 by two white guards at a Carrefour grocery store in Porto Alegre, the movement adopted the Black Lives Matter identity. One notable characteristic has been the wide base of participants, including women, indigenous, afro descendants, and labor unions.
Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic—and in some cases fueled by government mismanagement of it—2020 has been a mixed year for the prospects of nonviolent action. Adherence to nonviolent discipline has been strong across the board, but movements shifting their efforts toward institutional political action has slowed street action. Movements may do well to seize the opportunity to engage in parallel struggles—both in the streets to raise the pressure on powerholders, and from within the corridors to negotiate reform. In 2021, we will likely see an increase of the use of civil resistance in the region, and a distancing from the violent revolutionary tactics of yore.
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Check out our "Top 10 Civil Resistance Stories of 2020, Looking Forward" countdown, with new posts rolling out every Monday from December 14, 2020 through February 15, 2021.
Omar Lopez is President of the Latin American Center for Nonviolence and Human Rights Director at the Cuban American National Foundation. Previously, he worked as a radio talk show host with Radio Television Marti for 25 years. He is a regular contributor to a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites on human rights, literature, and international relations.Read More