South America: Mounting Tensions, Few Solutions

By Christopher Kambhu*

Protest in Colombia/ Oxi.Ap/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

Across South America, calls for structural change have re-emerged on the streets and at the ballot box, but governments face many obstacles to constructively address them. These calls are a continuation of region-wide protests in 2019, when citizens demanded reforms or rewrites of the existing social contract to address various political, economic, and social inequities. While government pandemic measures pushed protestors off the streets throughout 2020, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the inequities that prompted protests.

  • Inequities in Colombia have sparked nationwide social conflict. Protests against a proposed tax reform have broadened into demands for a basic income and accountability for security forces accused of killing dozens of protesters. Most protests have been peaceful, but radical groups have created “autonomous zones” free of police presence and established roadblocks, causing goods shortages in major cities. Negotiations between the government and protest leaders have yet to gain traction. President Ivan Duque’s approval rating has plummeted to historic lows as he appears unable to meet the moment. Backlash against demonstrators is emerging, with some wealthier residents violently repelling protestors from their neighborhoods.
  • In Ecuador and Peru, citizens have used the ballot box to voice their frustrations, leading to surprising electoral outcomes. Guillermo Lasso, Ecuador’s new center-right president, has formed a governing coalition with indigenous and social-democratic parties that are the second and third largest in the national legislature (Lasso’s party is the fifth largest). In Peru, provincial teacher and union leader Pedro Castillo has narrowly won June’s presidential runoff over Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a controversial former president convicted of corruption and human rights abuses. Castillo’s far-left party, which began contesting national elections only last year, is now the largest in Peru’s legislature, but needs to forge complex alliances to govern effectively.
  • Chile took a different path. Under intense pressure, the government acceded to popular demands for a constitutional rewrite. A national plebiscite last October assented to the rewrite by a wide margin, and elections for the Constituent Assembly in May demonstrated widespread rejection of the current elites. Most members are political independents or newcomers; a sizable number rose to prominence during the initial wave of protests in late 2019. The membership has gender parity, a first for such a body, with 11 percent of seats reserved for representatives of indigenous groups.

Efforts to forge new social contracts are difficult at best and each path faces obstacles to success. Colombia’s current political leadership appears unable to calm tensions, and voters must wait until national elections next year to elect new leaders. While demands for change in Ecuador and Peru have elevated some candidates and parties to unprecedented success, sharp ideological divisions and partisan fragmentation in both legislatures appear likely to limit potential reforms. Castillo’s mandate is tenuous and weakened by Fujimori’s rather Trumpian allegations of fraud and attempts to throw out ballots. In Chile, the ideological diversity of the Constituent Assembly could very well preclude it from reaching the required two-thirds majority needed for any proposal to enter the new Constitution, which will be put to a national referendum in 2022.

  • The inequities exacerbated by COVID-19 and a busy electoral schedule will keep reform issues at the forefront of political discourse; these debates will likely intensify with 11 countries across Latin America holding national elections over the next 18 months. While upcoming elections offer a timely opportunity for citizens to push their countries in new directions, governments will face political, fiscal, and social challenges which threaten implementation of any proposed reforms. At this early stage in the region’s electoral supercycle, political leaders have yet to capably address their citizens’ demands.

July 7, 2021

* Christopher Kambhu is a Program Coordinator at CLALS.

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