Elcano Royal Institute’s Associated Researcher
At the beginning of the current decade, the then president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, dared to diagnose that “this can and should be the decade of Latin America. Almost ten years after they were pronounced, the voluntarism contained in those words has become evident. And from those muds (the high expectations of sustained socio-economic development) to the current sludge (the wave of disaffection that runs through Latin America). If anything underlies in common behind these dissimilar, heterogeneous and diverse protests is precisely the frustration of expectations. The region goes through a period marked by three interconnected phenomena that mutually feed back: the crisis of the productive matrix (lower economic growth) reactivates a growing social malaise that has resulted in a complex governability fed by citizen disaffection towards parties, institutions and the political class in general.
During the “Golden Decade” (2003-2013), economic expansion and the consequent greater financial muscle of the states led to a considerable reduction in poverty and inequality, which contributed to elevating broad social sectors to the category of middle class. These boom years allowed the persistent social malaise regarding the malfunctioning of public services, corruption and citizen insecurity to be overshadowed. But when the region has entered into economic slowdown (2013-2015), degrowth (2016-17) and stagnation (2018-2019) all the accumulated contradictions, tensions and social resentments have emerged. The urban middle classes are the protagonists of this malaise, especially the vulnerable ones -who are the majority- and the young people, better educated but with growing problems to enter the labour market. All of them are punished by labor informality, low wages and a complex access to quality public goods (education, health, transportation, pensions and security).
Social unrest arising from the frustration of expectations regarding intergenerational improvement, fear of not progressing socially (consolidated middle class) and even losing the status achieved (vulnerable middle class) has led to the current tide of “social rebellions” that populate the Latin American region and that, although very heterogeneous, contain abundant common links. The population has reacted by taking to the streets of Santiago de Chile or Bogotá to show their disaffection with political systems that are not very transparent, in which clientelism and corruption are the norm and which do not channel social demands or promote a return to the times of economic prosperity. The protest is directed against systems of dysfunctional parties that continue to do politics as in the 1980s – at the height of social networks – and that, burdened by fragmentation and increasing centrifugal polarization, do not guarantee governability.
Protests that bring together very dissimilar elements (the alliance against Evo Morales between the cruceño – “white”- Fernando Camacho and the indigenous Potosino Marco Pumari in Bolivia is a good example), which have shown to have veto power: have managed to paralyze the adjustment promoted by Lenín Moreno in Ecuador, have changed the roadmap in Colombia and Chile whose governments have now moved to prioritize an ambitious social agenda (Piñera and Duque) or an institutional change (Piñera); and even those outbursts have managed to collapse the regime of Evo Morales.
Latin America is entering a new period in its history. A volatile era of uncertainties and challenges in which Latin American countries are forced to change their economic matrix in order to accelerate their expansion by becoming more productive and competitive and not so dependent on the export of raw materials. Growth based not only on efficiency but also on equity and environmentally sustainable.
These three variables will form part of the new social contract that will emerge after these turbulent times: because without growth there is no equity (there is nothing to distribute) and without equity and sustainability the expansion is not possible to prolong it in time, it has feet of mud and ends up becoming the seed for new waves of protests that damage the viability of democracies.
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