The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to make sense of the many protests raging across South America

A demonstrator plays a guitar in front of a burning barricade in Santiago, Chile, on Tuesday. (Esteban Felix/Associated Press)

In Ecuador, a government besieged by protesters forced to flee the capital. In Chile, 2,500 injured and least 20 dead in weeks of unrest. In Bolivia, police stations attacked, homes of politicians torched and Latin America’s longest-serving president driven into exile.

South America is no stranger to unrest. But from the Caribbean coast to Patagonia, the outbreak of popular uprisings this year is already the region’s strongest and most widespread in decades.

Some are calling it a Latin Spring. But unlike the popular rebellions across the Arab world nearly a decade ago, when oppressed and impoverished citizens revolted against apathetic dictatorships, the actors and causes of the still-unfolding uprisings in South America are as varied as the countries themselves.

In Chile, fury over a pocketbook issue — a subway fare increase — has snowballed into a deeper movement against elites and a right-leaning, democratically elected government. In Peru, the street rose up to back President Martín Vizcarra in his crusade to close down a corrupt Congress.

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Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said Chile would cancel the APEC trade summit in November and the COP25 climate summit in December after weeks of unrest. (Video: Reuters)

In Ecuador, indigenous groups and left-leaning students pressured their government into restoring gasoline subsidies. In Bolivia, pro-democracy and right-wing forces drove power-clinging president Evo Morales from office after his socialists stood accused of stealing an election.

In Venezuela, an outlier in the current protests, a starving nation has risen up — unsuccessfully, so far — against a socialist dictatorship accused of destroying the economy. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has called for more demonstrations Saturday.

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But all of these events are taking place against a shared backdrop: the painful aftermath of a commodities boom. Rising prices of the fuels, minerals and crops at the heart of the region’s resource-rich economies at the start of the 21st century helped lift millions out of poverty. The revenue also raised expectations — expectations now unmet in the half-dozen years since the boom went bust. A new middle class fears slipping back down the socioeconomic ladder.

As nations tighten their belts in leaner times, the pressure is hitting the poor and middle classes disproportionately, while elites are largely shielded — fueling grass-roots rage. Add weak institutions, structural inequality, political polarization and a corrupt ruling class unwilling to cede power, and you have a recipe for regional unrest.

“The millions of Latin Americans who joined the middle class in the past two decades are bearing the brunt of economic adjustment and austerity,” said Moisés Naím, a former executive director of the World Bank. “The difference is that now, this larger middle class is activated, better informed, more educated, deeply connected by social media, and more able to resist and protest.”

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Analysts also point to the “inspiration factor” from nation to nation — and not only South American neighbors. Activists in Chile and Bolivia, for instance, have studied and adopted tactics employed by protesters in Hong Kong. And in some nations — particularly Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador — protests have been fueled in part by the fact that they’re getting results.

The upheaval now is a far cry from the military coups and dirty wars that scarred the region during the Cold War.

Yet analysts remain fearful of the long-term consequences, particularly at a time when support for democracy is flagging significantly across the region. They point to massive street protests in Brazil in 2013 that many say laid the groundwork for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s far-right president, who critics say has deepened divisions and undermined democracy in Latin America’s largest nation.

“You cannot be certain that more of these countries are not going to revert back to populism because the people are angry, and they don’t trust anything else,” said Patricio Navia, a political scientist at Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile. “It can be on the left, like in Venezuela, or right, like in Brazil. But discontent can take you in the wrong direction.”

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'Incredibly happy moment'

Indeed, there’s discontent at both ends of the political spectrum.

In the chilly mountain city of La Paz, Bolivia, on Sunday morning, activist Jhanisse Vaca, 26, was bleary-eyed but determined. She had spent the night in the street with other protesters in front of a police station. Their aim: persuade the police to join the fight to oust the socialist Morales.

At 5 a.m., the Organization of American States issued a damning audit of the Oct. 20 elections, showing that they had been rigged to put Morales over the threshold he needed to win in the first round and avoid a risky runoff.

The 60-year old socialist had claimed victory.

The opposition claimed fraud.

Was the resignation of Bolivia's Evo Morales due to a coup? Washington Post South American bureau chief Anthony Faiola says that depends on your political view. (Video: Alexa Ard/The Washington Post)

The protests began on election night — some peaceful, some not. Vaca, who founded a nonviolent pro-democracy group in 2017 and supported Morales’s top rival, former president Carlos Mesa, drew inspiration from protest movements worldwide. Her group watched videos on social media of the student protests in Hong Kong, where demonstrators sang “Happy Birthday” to warn of infiltrators entering their ranks. Vaca’s group adopted a similar tactic — singing the Bolivian national anthem instead.

Vaca had long considered Morales a tyrant. But her father, a physician, had once supported Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was credited with reducing poverty and lifting up the country’s indigenous majority.

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“We thought he’d really fight for the people,” she said. “But instead, he focused on amassing power.”

Morales ran for a fourth term despite losing a 2016 referendum to extend term limits. As public pressure grew Sunday, he offered new elections. But it wasn’t enough.

Thousands of furious protesters took to the streets, and the heads of the armed forces and national police called on him to resign. Vaca was near the presidential palace when word spread through the crowd: After nearly 14 years in office, Morales was stepping down.

“Everyone was jumping and shouting,” she said. “A friend confirmed it on his phone, and it was just an incredibly happy moment. We hugged the policemen who passed by.”

Yet Bolivia’s future remains clouded. Morales’s departure for Mexico has not ended violent protests. The ex-president and his socialists, still a massive force in the country, have decried a “coup.” Jeanine Áñez, the anti-Morales second vice president of the Senate, claimed the presidency Tuesday and vowed to call new elections within 90 days. But socialist lawmakers, a majority in Congress, have rejected her appointment, deepening the country’s crisis.

“I’m a little worried about what’s coming,” Vaca said. “But I still have hope.”

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'Inside, it's rotten'

On the other side of the Andes, two days before the Bolivian elections, Sebastián Candia, a 26-year old lawyer in Chile, was about to join a very different kind of uprising.

For days, students in Chile — South America’s model of a free-market economy and an oasis of regional stability — had been jumping turnstiles at subway stations to protest the transit rate increase. The increase was part of right-wing billionaire President Sebastián Piñera’s plan to control spending as the Chilean economy slowed.

On a bus trip from his home in coastal Vina del Mar to a birthday party in the capital of Santiago, Candia looked out the window and saw hundreds of police officers struggling to control a legion of protesters behind makeshift barricades. It was Oct. 18, the day protests in Chile escalated to a full-scale national emergency.

He felt a rush of excitement. The nation was standing up.

“Chile is a pretty-looking tin-roofed house in the slum that is Latin America,” he said. “But when you look inside, it’s rotten.”

South America’s wealthiest nation had achieved a massive reduction in poverty since 2000. But it remains one of the region’s most unequal. Candia is a product of the “new Chile” — the son of a carpenter who became the first in his family to attend college.

But after graduating last year with a law degree from one of the nation’s top universities, he was saddled with $19,000 in debt and unable to find a job. Meanwhile, his family was drowning amid the climbing cost of living in free-market Chile, which lacks many of the state subsidies offered in other nations in the region. Their electricity and gas were cut off for three months a couple of years ago because they couldn’t pay the bills.

“Good jobs are reserved for the elite with connections,” Candia said. “I feel deceived, disappointed.”

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The next day, he decided to join the protests, Chile’s largest uprising since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Candia and a group of friends began banging pots and pans — a classic form of protest in Latin America. He has gone out almost every day since.

Piñera soon rescinded the transit price increase, but for protesters — now backed by left-wing parties and labor unions — it was no longer enough. Clashes with police accused of torturing, raping and blinding protesters have raged for weeks. Thousands of demonstrators have been arrested, and some have been charged with setting deadly fires. But the protests — and Candia — have not stopped.

As opposition politicians and activists have joined the demonstrations, demands have grown from rescinding the subway fare increase to throwing out the constitution, drafted during the ruthless, right-wing dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

On Monday, a day after Morales’s fall, Piñera agreed to start the process to draft a new one. But the government’s suggested path — a document to be drafted by lawmakers — has not been enough to quiet the Chilean street, which is demanding the direct involvement of the people.

“What do we want?” Candia asked. “A new society where we can actually take part in the country’s progress.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world