by María Gabriela Mata CarnevaliMarch 11, 2020
Last year was a bustling year for societies around the world that took up the cause of civil resistance. Nonviolent actions for rights, justice, and freedom were incredibly diverse, energetic, and inspiring in Latin America, where a peaceful popular awakening shook regimes, toppled governments, and captured the world’s attention.
Across the region—in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, and Bolivia—a spirit of determination continues to grow into the year 2020. A comparative review of country cases reveals a number of underlying causes and dynamics that set this region-wide awakening into motion.
In Venezuela and Nicaragua, things have been far from “normal” for a long time now, despite the efforts of autocratic governments to convince the people otherwise.
In January 2019, in Venezuela’s capital city of Caracas, a new opposition leadership took the nation by surprise and boosted hopes for change. Massive protests against Maduro's narco regime took over the streets with Juan Guaidó at the forefront. Although they did not reach the historical figures of previous years, Guaidó of the Voluntad Popular party proclaimed himself interim president and promised the cessation of usurpation, a transitional government, and free and transparent elections—interpreting the nation´s most cherished dream.
Two months later, across the Caribbean Sea, a new capital city took the spotlight as Nicaragua entered its worst political crisis of the past several decades. Amid thousands of political exiles and millions of dollars in economic losses, the city of Managua erupted in a renewed revolt against authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega, who has held power in the country since the 1980s. The protests were triggered by a controversial social security reform, but then police repression of activists backfired and Nicaraguans began demanding a full-scale regime change—an ambition that has yet to be realized.
Similar to the Maduro regime’s response to Venezuelan protests in 2017, Ortega and his establishment sought to delegitimize the uprising, led mostly by students. They called the protests childish guarimbas—a word with a highly negative connotation among regime supporters.
Both Ortega and Maduro adopted delaying tactics while raising the volume of repression, despite growing international repudiation. Some analysts have interpreted this as the failure of multilateralism (especially the Organization of American States) to curb the setback of democracy in the region.
The similarities between the uprisings in Venezuela and Nicaragua do not stop here. Together with other members of civil society, the Catholic Church has emerged as a courageous defender of human rights in both countries promoting a "just peace" that, for now, remains an aspiration.
In July came Puerto Rico’s turn to take the stage. Summoned by renowned artists such as Ricky Martín, Bad Bunny, and other celebrities of the archipelago, people spoke out against corruption and social prejudice, raised the gay pride flag next to the national star, and ultimately forced the resignation of Governor Ricardo Roselló in retribution for his indiscretions on social networks and mismanagement of public funds during the tragedy caused by Hurricane Maria.
Taken together, the diverse and artistic nonviolent tactics that the people of Puerto Rico used have become a case study for the strategic importance of artists' involvement in nonviolent struggles.
In the last quarter of 2019, Latin America was again abuzz with historic protests, this time against the neo-liberal measures implemented by two countries separated by 3,000 km: Ecuador and Chile.
The Ecuadorian uprising began after the government reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to obtain loans for more than U.S. $4.2 billion. In return, President Moreno agreed to reduce the fiscal deficit. To this end, he announced an austerity plan that, among other measures, included the elimination of fuel subsidies in force for four decades. This caused a rise in the prices of public transportation and stoked anger among Ecuadorian people, particularly ethnic minorities.
Demonstrators took over the streets of several cities in the country and were successful in negating Moreno’s plans. Indigenous groups and the Ecuadorian government reached a deal to reverse the austerity measures within a matter of days, beginning a collaboration on how to combat overspending and public debt.
A similar uprising took place in Chile after President Sebastián Piñera announced a 30-peso increase in subway fare. In response, Chileans began the infamous "mass evasions," which resulted in a handful of vandalism scenes being disseminated around the world in seconds.
Although both the Ecuadorian and Chilean governments yielded to protesters’ demands, Ecuador was alone in quelling the people’s anger. Despite surprisingly good rankings in international indexes, Chile has not been able to overcome the enormous inequalities that characterize its society. The discontent is fueled by the Socialismo del siglo XXI doctrine promoted from Venezuela, as well as a sense of frustration that has accumulated over the course of more than 30 years. This gave rise to the popular slogan, "It's not 30 pesos, it's 30 years," a phrase that inundated media coverage of last year’s uprising.
These two countries were followed by Colombia, where discontent spread over complications resulting from the peace agreement, which still lacks domestic support. President Iván Duque Márquez is in trouble, having to answer critics for securing peace at the expense of justice. Nevertheless, some think he is not the only one to blame, and fingers are also being pointed at former President Uribe.
One of these fingers belongs to Maduro, whose regime is accused of staining the vindictive struggles of Colombians, Chileans, and Ecuadorians with money and militias. This accusation has yet to be proven, but Maduro has not denied it.
To the world’s great surprise, toward the end of last year, Bolivia triumphed in regaining its freedom and democracy, snatching it from the hands of Evo Morales, who had declared himself the winner of the October 20 fraudulent elections—elections for which, according to the Constitution, he did not even have the right to be a candidate.
Despite having followed the Venezuelan script to the letter, the movement took an unexpected turn near the end when state security forces shifted their support in favor of the popular revolt. It was the coup de grâce and the delegitimized indigenous leader resigned shortly after the defections.
Now, Jeanine Añez is the head of the government as the president in charge of promoting and organizing free and transparent elections. This multiethnic and multicultural country seems to have avoided a civil war, instead pursuing a path of peace and reconciliation.
With a few exceptions named above, Latin America proudly enrolled in this worldly demonstration of popular power with a variety of causes, shaking and toppling regimes that for years had been surfing past criticism.
The cases summarized here show the importance of identifying pillars of support, such as academia, minorities groups, the Catholic Church, state security forces, the media, artists, and of course, the international community. When nonviolent activists and organizers focus their message on defending human rights—a rallying cause for diverse groups across society—the path toward democracy is never too far.
As we continue into the new decade, we see that political ideologies are still very deep-seated in the region and will likely continue to shape its future. Yet we know that ideologies can sometimes polarize societies—and this plays into the hands of entrenched leaders. This is where uniting around causes like human rights and democratic governance becomes a potentially strategic move.
Power is neither monolithic nor invincible, as we witnessed in the cases of Puerto Rico and Bolivia last year. Pluralistic power, derived from people united around nonviolent action, can challenge abusive systems and lay the foundations for real change.
This article has also been translated into Spanish.
María Gabriela Mata Carnevali is an internationalist from Venezuela with a Master’s degree in African Studies from El Colegio de Mexico and a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV). She is a professor and researcher in International Relations at UCV, as well as a human rights activist, artist, and author. She is an alumna of the ICNC online course “People Power: The Strategic Dynamics of Civil Resistance.”Read More