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Opinion: Latin America needs solidarity

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Uta Thofern
October 29, 2019

Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela: Large parts of Latin America are on fire with protest. Some simple truths would be worth keeping in mind to solve the problems, says DW's Uta Thofern.

A protester stands in front of a fire in Santiago, Chile
Image: picture-alliance/AP/R. Abd

From a political point of view, Venezuela and Chile, Bolivia and Brazil are worlds apart. But they share some similarities when it comes to the arrogance of power and the reasons behind the recent protests that turned violent at times.

Latin America lacks any real efforts, and especially any sustainable efforts, to achieve social equilibrium. Instead, there is a visible tendency toward either socialist distribution policies or (neo)liberal consolidation policies that tend to take into account only the policymakers' own clientele and punish their political opponents, or at least treat them with disdain.

Even Chile — a country that is less politically polarized, more used to building consensus and doing better economically than the others — has not managed any policies of social equality. The rifts that have become visible in Chile are not between political camps, but between people who have everything and those who want more but get nothing.

Absolute poverty in Chile has gone down drastically in recent years, as it has in Bolivia and Brazil. However, the new middle class also wants opportunities to get ahead; people want real participation, a better future for their children and above all not to fall back into poverty. The failure to recognize and understand these needs testifies to the frightening indifference of Chile's well-to-do citizens.

Policies of pure redistribution 

Bolivia and Venezuela, but also Brazil when it was ruled by the leftist Workers' Party, adhered to pure redistribution policies without seriously investing in education, infrastructure and solidarity-based insurance systems. As long as commodity prices were right, the government could generously distribute subsidies to the poorer classes. Such good deeds, however, are nothing but charity as long as there is no legally binding, mutual social obligation, such as the implicit contract between generations that unlies a decent pension scheme.

Read more: Mining projects foment unrest across Latin America 

There has been no political discussion involving the wealthy classes and their political representatives. Instead, the opposition has been ostracized, and the distribution of wealth misused as a means of maintaining power. The result is glaringly obvious: Venezuela is a dictatorship, and Bolivia and Brazil are headed in that direction, albeit on different paths.

Argentina has been swinging back and forth between extremes for decades without ever reaching a real consensus between its various social groups. The only constant seems to be a total lack of willingness to trust or even invest in the country. To this day, rich Argentines prefer to keep their wealth in dollars rather than in their own currency — no matter who is in power.

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Uta Thofern is the head of DW's Latin America program

'Take what you can get'

Solidarity with all fellow citizens, no matter the social class? Solidarity with the state, or at least with the country where one lives? Taxes and social security contributions for the common good? Not one bit. The motto almost everywhere and among all social classes is: Take what you can get.

Tax rates are often far too low, as is the number of taxpayers, and tax avoidance attempts pervade all sectors of society — it is no coincidence that Latin America's gray economy is so large. As a result, the state finances itself through consumer taxes, which in turn places a greater burden on the poorer population. Uruguay may very well be the only country in Latin America that has managed to achieve something of a balance in tax legislation, although that consensus is already crumbling.

There are various reasons for the distrust and rejection within society. They range from the repercussions of the colonial era, with its legacy of exploitation and racism, to the different ways of processing civil wars, as in Colombia or Peru, or dictatorships, as in Chile, where it has been extremely insufficient. The reasons also include the current, omnipresent polarization between different social classes and political groups, all of which is fueled by "social" networks. And let's not forget ubiquitous corruption.

In addition, Latin American's long experience with dictatorships often means reelections of politicians are not part of the plan, or maybe just once. This greatly limits political responsibility, while at the same time presidential systems restrict democratic control.

Dialogue and consensus

Latin America faces a mountain of problems, but it should be clear by now that tackling them will not work without a joint effort and social consensus. Add to that a few truisms:

  • No, nobody's background entitles them to have more privileges than others.
  • Yes, people who work more and have more responsibility should earn more, as long as they pay more taxes.
  • Yes, everyone has a right to participation and development. But this cannot be achieved without effort and through redistribution alone. The cake will be gone fast if no one makes new dough, no matter how big or small the pieces are.
  • A state that does not levy and collect adequate taxes has failed. Those who do not want to pay their taxes are not citizens.
  • No compromise is not a solution.
  • Violence, whether against people or things, whether state repression or vandalism without regard to human life, triggers counterviolence.
  • Dialogue and consensus, measure and center may sound boring, but they would do Latin America good.

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Uta Thofern Head of DW's Latin America departments with a focus on democracy, rule of law and human rights