Author: Irina KHALTURINA
Perhaps the year 2019 will be remembered by new interpretations of environmental problems and social injustice in the Western media. The wave of protests taking place all over the world gives rise to speculations about the new "1968 movement". Gilets jaunes (yellow vests) have held weekly protests in France since the last year. Protests still rage in Spanish Catalonia. Hundreds of thousands of people have expressed their discontent with the Hong Kong government for several months now. The protests of varying intensity rock in Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, and particularly in Iraq and Lebanon, resembling a revival of the Arab Spring. Finally, the anti-government protest movement has reached the shores of Latin America. The reasons are different everywhere ranging from purely economic and political to the demand for independence. For example, the latter is true for Catalonia and Hong Kong, ruled by Britain as a colony but returned to China in 1997, where protesters oppose the government’s plans to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. In Lebanon, it was the government's decision to introduce tax on voice calls made through WhatsApp and other Internet call services that poured the people into the streets. Iraqis, among other things, demand a revision of the confessional system of the power distribution. However, the chief reason in all countries and continents is the uneven distribution of income. Therefore, judging by the scale of social inequality in Latin America, it is fair to assume that the ongoing protest movement is consistent with the past events. But our assumption will be incomplete if we do not contemplate the details of the problem.
So what is going on in Latin America?
Obviously, the main news hitting the headlines in mid-November came from Bolivia, where Evo Morales, the first ethnic Indian president of the country and the leader of the Movement for Socialism party, resigned. Morales decided to resign after mass protests, and also because the army supported the protesters. The former president, granted asylum in Mexico, called the incident a coup d'etat and called on his supporters not to give up. He is most known by reforms that granted rights to the most disadvantaged segments of the population, i.e. indigenous people of Bolivia, as well as the nationalisation of the oil and gas industry. The welfare of the people have grown until the first symptoms of crisis began to appear.
It was the biggest economic crisis that had triggered political changes in Argentina, where the right-wing politician Mauricio Macri lost the election to the centre-left opposition candidate Alberto Fernandez, who belongs to the Peronist movement and was supported by the former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a well-known populist politician who ruled the country until 2015. Eventually, Macri failed to cope with the economic crisis he had inherited from Kirchner, making the situation even worse: the national currency collapsed several times and inflation reached gigantic proportions triggering the rise of public debt and pushing every third resident of the country below the poverty line. Moreover, last year Argentina suffered from the worst drought in half a century making the country harvest the worst crop of soybeans, the major export commodity of Argentina, in a decade. Fernandez promised to change the economic model and not to raise utility tariffs and gas prices but given the scale of the problems, he is unlikely to succeed.
In Chile, where the economic situation is more or less favourable, an increase in metro fares has led to massive demonstrations against the government and hundreds of thousands of people taken to the streets. The toll of accidents includes 17 people killed, several hundred people injured, and 7,000 protesters detained. Centre-right president Sebastián Piñera dissolved the cabinet to form a new government and carry out social reforms. He promised to increase pensions, minimum wages and other reforms, but this did not help stop the rallies. Some protesters still demand Piñera's resignation.
Meanwhile, the political crisis in Venezuela, where in fact two centres, sparkled with new intensity in 2019. The incumbent legitimate president of the country is Nicolas Maduro but the United States, the member states of the Lima Group (except Mexico), Australia, Israel, as well as several EU countries support the speaker of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido. On the other hand, Russia, China, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Iran, Turkey and South Africa declared their support for Maduro.
Protests going on in Ecuador since the beginning of October after the abolition of state subsidies for fuel and economic reforms mainly include the indigenous people of the country. In September, President Martin Vizcarra dissolved the parliament of Peru. In response, deputies removed him from the power declaring early elections scheduled for the next year. Similar protests take place in Guatemala and Haiti.
Situation in Brazil, currently ruled by Jair Messias Bolsonaru, who has been nicknamed the Latin American Donald Trump for his far-right, nationalist and conservative views, as well as scandalous statements, still remains calm. Nevertheless, this summer the country was the of a fiery protests against the pension reform, situation of the indigenous population and severe fires in the rain forests of the Amazon. Mexican president Andres M. L. Obrador still fails to recover the country from a constant state of instability due to armed clashes between drug cartels and the official authorities.
In fact, political turmoil and economic crises have always been an integral part of the natural course of events in Latin America. Latin American governments constantly swing from one extreme to the other, being leftist today and rightist tomorrow, fixing the rate of national currencies, then suddenly lifting the restrictions, opening borders for trade, then closing them, carrying out large-scale privatisation campaigns, which are unexpectedly replaced by the nationalisation. According to the public opinion poll Latinobarómetro, 75% of Latin Americans believe that their governments do not protect the interests of the majority.
A bit of history
Why do the countries of South America, which for the most part is a continent of immigrants (indigenous Indians make up the majority of the population in Bolivia and Paraguay and about half of it in Guatemala and Ecuador), cannot afford living as rich as the population of the neighbouring North America?
The current states began to appear on the continent after the 1810-1826 war for the independence of the Spanish colonies. Together with his supporters, the leader of the national liberation struggle, Simon Bolivar, proposed the creation of a common confederation called the United States of South America. However, the idea has failed presumably because of the Western European countries, including the Great Britain, France and especially the US, which did not want a strong geopolitical rival with huge natural and human resources and reliable water borders (the Atlantic and Pacific oceans) by its side. That's where the good old principle of "divide and conquer" came into play. Soon after the adoption of the famous Monroe Doctrine (1823), Europeans distanced themselves from the continent, while the United States, on the contrary, guaranteed complete freedom of action. During the 1846-1848 war between the US and Mexico, the states of California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico were annexed to the United States, with Texas joining the country earlier in 1845. In 1903, the US helped Panama become independent from Colombia, hence consolidating its presence in the strategic zone of the Panama Canal. Soon Latin America was teeming with American energy, mining and food companies, as well as numerous military bases. For a long time, the continent has been the scene of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA, especially the territories of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Nicaragua, and Colombia.
Realities of our time
Nothing has changed in the modern world. The US continue to zealously defend its interests in Latin America, Russia is getting increasingly interested in the continent again, China is in active search of ways to penetrate the continent, where the ideas of unification are still alive (Bolivarian Alliance), with its capital. A quick glimpse at the political affiliation of the rulers of Latin American countries shows the same scheme behind the game of powers: in Bolivia, the leftist and anti-Western Morales government is likely to be replaced by a pro-American one, while an avid supporter of the US, Macri, has left the scene in Argentina. Similar scenarios may take place in Chile and Venezuela. As before, Washington and Moscow continue to accuse each other of meddling in the internal affairs of Latin American countries. "We have intel that Russia's actions adversely affect the course of negotiations in Chile," said an official of the US State Department who wished to remain anonymous. Moscow, on the other hand, views the resignation of Morales as a coup. Moreover, unlike the Middle East, which has always been a spot with the colliding interests of too many powers, the White House's reaction to the ongoing events in Latin America is twice as nervous, since the US consider the neighbouring a zone of its exclusive interests due to the large reserves of oil and gas, rare minerals, great opportunities for agriculture, as well as fresh water reserves (35% of the world's hydropower reserves, including the Guarani aquifer—a reservoir of renewable groundwater) and forests (about 25%). Not to mention the Panama Canal—the most important interoceanic artery, which gives an advantage in trade.
It would be ridiculous to assume that the ongoing protest movement arouse out of thin air. Social inequality has always been and still is part of our reality. Yet it cannot be eradicated by mass protests simply because they have never been an ultimate goal but only a facility to express the level of discontent. That is why all of the above cases of popular discontent from France to Chile have important intrinsic traits: no vector, no programme, no ideology and most importantly — no bright leaders and a clear political agenda. Protests do not emerge just because the people suddenly wake up having realised that what they had endured for decades was the unexpected increase of the metro fares. That is why some popular demands undergo chaotic metamorphosis turning into those of a completely different type and nature. It is probably no coincidence that Todd Phillips's Joker, which has immediately become an iconic feature film among quite a large group of people ardently discussing it in the media and social networks, was released in 2019. "Joker is a symbol of a dying era, a symbol of the end of hope, a symbol of generation, a symbol of the end of the 2010s. Depression, despair and hopelessness. Everything appears to be going to hell, and it remains only to laugh at our own helplessness," commented one of the fans. That is true, since the protagonist does not even know what he really wants, who is the object of his protest—snobbish white collars who wanted to beat him in the subway, coloured boys kicking him by the trash can, colleagues who do not laugh at his jokes, a tired nurse, or himself—and what is the ultimate meaning of all this.
Does the meaning exist after all?
It does. Indeed, unlike the hallucinations of Arthur Fleck, the social inequality and climate change are real challenges affecting the lives of millions of people who suffer from them. The seemingly beautiful yet disappointing ideas of globalisation and open borders continue to push many people to the edge of misery. It is the heavy burden of debt to the IMF, which hampers development and prosperity in Argentina. People are disillusioned with the elites and electoral systems (e.g., the Brexit crisis).
We, therefore, arrive at the following inescapable conclusion that the alteration of relations between the states, as well as the polarisation of different political views are useless without taking into account the interests of ordinary citizens, because in this day and age of the Internet and the increasingly growing information society, one can no longer reliably protect his own playground transferring all the negative action onto the neighbour's backyard. Otherwise, the protests may transform into a special kind of movement with its own "network philosophy", which can turn everything we had known about its nature upside down. And no one knows what will come out of it. So, let's hope that the following line from Arthur Fleck never comes true: "I think I felt better when I was locked up in a hospital."