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Opinion: Tipping toward chaos in Latin America

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Uta Thofern
December 27, 2019

Peaceful demonstrators have taken to the streets in Bolivia, Chile, Columbia and Ecuador. They have been greeted by the iron fists of security forces. DW's Uta Thofern sees Latin American democracy trembling in 2020.

Argentina: Pro-Morales Demonstration
Bolivians protest what they call a coup against MoralesImage: picture alliance/AP/G. Garello

At first glance, the protests in Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia and most recently Colombia seem to have much in common. They were largely peaceful demonstrations, with occasional instances of violence and vandalism and security forces suppressing any mayhem with an iron fist. The protests have also had far-reaching consequences. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales was forced to step down. In Ecuador, Chile and Colombia, protesters forced lawmakers to scrap various policies and plans.  

Though the political and economic situations of these four countries differ, the protests have common roots: the blindness of elites to glaring injustice, the arrogance of those who hold power and the absence of economic systems that balance competition and profit with social equity. Chileans disagree over the best way forward. The same is true in Colombia. Bolivia is more politically divided than ever. Ecuador's current calm is deceptive.

The protests are aimed not at dictators, but at democratically elected leaders. Even Bolivia, where ex-President Evo Morales sought to hold onto his power with quasi-autocratic determination, remains a far cry from a dictatorship. In fact, Bolivians initially took to the street to defend their democracy. However, Morales' resignation spurred his supporters to protest. Both they and the counterprotesters have radicalized — and all while Bolivia's interim government stands by idly.

Instead of calming tensions, interim President Jeanine Anez has broken off diplomatic relations with Venezuela and reestablished them with Israel — two symbolic moves that could have just as well been carried out at the behest of the US. She brandished a bible at her swearing-in-ceremony, which must have been taken as a deliberate show of cultural disdain by those indigenous groups that had turned against Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president.

Bolivia's former opposition movement, which would have the best chances in fresh elections, is increasingly fragmented, and moderate forces are losing popularity as Bolivia grows ever more polarized.

Hidden problems emerge

The same can be said for Chile and Colombia, where the various opposition camps and governments are increasingly at loggerheads. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and his Colombian counterpart Ivan Duque have overcome their initial stubbornness and given in to many of the protesters' demands, while also signaling an openness to engage in dialogue. Yet this has done nothing to placate protesters. All trust in the Chilean and Colombian states dissolved after security forces used unnecessary brutality to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Yet some individuals have capitalized on every new demonstration to steal and vandalize property, which has provoked further violence and left ordinary citizens fearing for their safety. 

In both countries, protesters and leaders seems to be talking past each other. In Chile, the country's emergence from the Pinochet dictatorship in the 90s and its robust economic growth distracted from growing societal polarization. And in Colombia, decades of struggles against armed guerrillas overshadowed many of its societal problems.

Now, however, people are angry and fed up with lawmakers promising to engage in talks or honor the rule of law. The possibility of a constitutional referendum in Chile has not mollified protesters, who do not even have designated negotiator to talk to the government. And in Colombia, a strike committee comprised of union and student activists claims to represent the entirely of protesters and refuses to even talk to other societal groups, which makes serious negotiations impossible.

Read more: South American leaders form Prosur to replace Unasur bloc

Thofern, Uta
DW's Uta Thofern

Too many disparate demands

The protesters also seem to want everything and want it fast: affordable education, less misygonist violence, higher pensions, less racism, better health care and more protection for environmental and social activists. But of course, the state is not able to fulfill all these demands, let alone over night. Not even a dictatorship would be able to do so. 

Lawmakers have so far struggled to strike the right tone to engage with protesters. And the demonstrators, in turn, seem unwilling to reach some sort of compromise. For now, they are too enthralled by the feeling of finally having power, a feeling that inhibits rational thinking. Besides, a sense of deep distrust toward the violent state persists.

But for there to be progress, protesters and leaders will have to eventually come together for talks, and they must acknowledge that no one can claim to speak for all people. They can only ever represent a part of, never the entire populace.

Democracy needs time. It is the wearisome search for compromise and balance between differing interests. The South American protesters don't seem to want to do this anymore. They've waited too long and been disappointed too often. This is understandable, yet there is no good alternative to democracy, either. Without it, there is chaos and then the rule of the strong man. And that is not justice.

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