On January 8, Brazil suffered a harsh moment under the world’s spotlight as thousands of protesters stormed its congressional and supreme court buildings to express their outrage at the election loss of former president Jair Bolsonaro. The event was a depressing repeat of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, fueled by false claims that the election was stolen and promises of secret possibilities for overturning democracy and reinstalling Bolsonaro, who was sheltering in Florida.
Garnering less attention are Peru’s ongoing violent protests in support of impeached former president Pedro Castilla, which have led to dozens of deaths. Bolivia has also been in crisis for weeks, as protesters block highways in outrage at the arrests of opposition leaders. What should we make of all this political turmoil?
Protests reflect deficient democracies
In fact, disruptive, massive protests are common across the region, especially in Central America and the Andean nations. In recent years, protests have led to some major changes, such as in Chile, but they more often fizzle out, as in Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia. For reasons having to do with their histories and institutional cultures, many governments consistently fail to address the frustrations of the general public, including a lack of economic development and good jobs, poor or nonexistent public services and crime and insecurity. Amid persistently high levels of economic inequality, political corruption and theft abound. As a result, people lose faith in the ballot box and traditional democratic processes and take to the streets, too often destructively and without any clear or specific demands. It's not uncommon for opportunistic opposition groups, parties or special interests to exploit these frustrations and bus in protesters from around the country to block traffic and disrupt life in the capital.
Importantly, such protests and movements emerge from both the left (recently in Chile, Peru and Colombia) and the right (in Brazil) and their demands for immediate, direct action creates the recurring pattern of populism. Charismatic leaders arise, promising to do away with corruption and foreign influences and instead direct state resources directly to the people, however, they are defined — societal thralls that end in financial ruin (see contemporary Venezuela or Argentina).
But the current environment is especially unstable
Today’s protests, however, occur under especially difficult circumstances. Like in the U.S., across the hemisphere, democratic politics have become sharply polarized and vitriolic. Both sides of these political divisions demonize the other and accuse it of corruption and even treason. Fueled by social media and the click-bait news culture that rewards emotion rather than thought, they treat their democratic institutions as battlefields rather than arenas for compromise and competition. Governments in El Salvador, Bolivia and Mexico seem to be following Venezuela and Nicaragua into authoritarianism, persecuting the opposition and attacking media companies deemed disloyal. Making matters worse, recent elections including those in Brazil and Peru have been extremely close, intensifying the losers’ frustration and suspicions. Democracy — governance through the peaceful, regular transfer of power following fair elections — still dominates the region, but increasing tolerance for these behaviors puts it at risk.
The economic environment looks generally dire as well. High gas prices, food shortages and the rise of U.S. interest rates have brought on severe inflation at a time when many economies are still struggling to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. Economists warn about the prospect of a decade of lost economic growth across the region resembling the 1980s, as the countries of the region are buffeted by outside forces and political dysfunction. In such a context, we should expect political protests to continue. We must hope they do not evolve into their virulent, violent cousin: armed insurgency.
The role of the United States
The internal problems in Latin American countries are institutionally rooted. The change will have to come from within their societies and will evolve slowly but surely. However, in many cases, the United States has also aided and abetted political dysfunction over the decades while pursuing its own short-term interests. Now is as good a time as ever for Washington to realize the critical importance of Latin America to its own economic and national security and to invest in long-term stability. U.S. policymakers, especially in Congress, should take seriously the need to stop policies that contribute to their problems, such as prioritizing cooperation against drug trafficking and migration over corruption and good governance, and invest seriously in others that may help, like strategic economic development and loosening trade restrictions.