In Chile, it was sparked by a minor increase in the capital’s subway fare. In Ecuador, it was the end of fuel subsidies, and in Bolivia, a stolen election.
Latin America, which a decade ago harnessed a commodities boom to pull millions out of poverty and offer what many saw as a model of modernization, is in revolt. It’s not another pink tide, nor is it a lurch to the right; the movement is more a non-specific, down-with-the-system rage. Furious commuters are looting cities, governments are on the run, and investors are unloading assets as fast as they can.
With almost three dozen countries and more than 600 million inhabitants, Latin America defies easy generalization, which makes it difficult to predict what will come next. A few weeks ago, Evo Morales, the longstanding president of Bolivia, seemed headed for reelection. Today, he and his top aides are in exile in Mexico while some in his country have taken to the streets again to protest what they say was the military coup that removed him.
In that sense, there are parallels with the Arab Spring, which began in 2010, and the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades earlier. Both were unforeseen and moved in surprising directions, yet they offer lessons in retrospect. “There were a lot of cracks, but no one saw it coming,” says Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts, of events in Bolivia and across the region.
Two common factors stand out, he suggests: commodity dependence and the middle income trap, referring to the stagnation that often sets in after a population climbs out of extreme poverty and then struggles to achieve further development. Latin America is the most unequal, lowest-growth major region in the world right now, offering a cautionary tale for other parts of the globe with similar dynamics.
“Inequality is the main cause of the disenchantment being felt by citizens throughout the region in the face of a stunned political establishment yet to understand that the current development model is unsustainable,” wrote Alicia Bárcena, the executive secretary of the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in a recent essay. The people want to eradicate the culture of privilege, she added.
The region is caught between competing models of government: leftist populism and market-oriented liberalism. Governments of each type have been plagued by incompetence, corruption, and a failure to meet social demands. The result has been a growing fury toward the ruling classes, leading people to the streets.
“People are angry at their political systems,” says James Bosworth, author of the weekly newsletter Latin America Risk Report. “There’s an anti-incumbent wave and governments haven’t dealt with the roots of the problem, and those problems aren’t going away.”
For most people, it could be worse…