Awakened Activists Won’t Mend Shattered Latin America Politics

(Bloomberg Opinion) – When a forest fire ravaged Bolivia’s Chiquitania region last year, razing a swath of forest the size of Belgium, the official response was lukewarm. Then-president Evo Morales had encouraged the fires with an executive order allowing farmers – a key constituency for any leader seeking re-election – to more easily clean their land with fire. There was also not much commotion from abroad, where all the talk was about the Brazilian Amazon on fire. Jhanisse Vaca Daza and his group of fellow human rights activists have therefore been creative.

While waiting for nightfall, they released footage of the blaze on the side of the Environment Ministry building in La Paz, turning the blaze into a national spectacle. The guerrilla theater sparked public outrage and ultimately shamed the new Bolivian government by repealing the incendiary executive decree – a rare victory for civil society accustomed to reducing and burning partisan politics and government by decree.

Latin Americans should take note. In a hemisphere plagued by populists and institutional grip, democracy and the rule of law are too often seen as damaged goods. While the region boasts the highest level of voter turnout in the world, corruption is rampant and income inequality is unparalleled. In a recent survey, Latinobarometro found that support for democracy had fallen to a dismal 48%, while those professing indifference to authoritarianism had more than doubled to 28% since 2009. “Never in the past the last four decades the future of democracy has not been so threatened. as it is today, ”concluded Daniel Zovatto of the Brookings Institution.

The funk filled the streets with protesters and mutineers last year. The coronavirus dampened the protests, but only deepened the frustrations. As growth collapsed, the burden fell disproportionately on the poor, especially those who work day to day in what Manuel Orozco, an economist at Creative Associates International, called the world’s largest informal economy. And because crime loves poverty, the epidemic of violent crime in Latin America – with 8% of the world’s population but 37% of its homicides – is unlikely to decrease.

Thus, aspiring young adults could be forgiven for viewing organized politics as the pre-existing condition of Latin America. It’s a lot more energizing to take to the streets wearing a Guy Fawkes mask than getting votes in parties led by costumed fossils. “If you are a young idealist in Latin America, you do not join a political party but a movement. Parties are seen as the hotbed of opportunists and crooks. This is bad because that way the parties stay what they are today, ”says Moises Naim, a distinguished member of the Carnegie Endowment.

Bolivian politics are dominated by caciques – party leaders – who take advantage of class, racial and cultural divisions for electoral advantage. This toxic combination helped poison last year’s elections, which resulted in cries of electoral fraud, insurgency and a so-called coup. Morales, a left-wing populist turned authoritarian, has been replaced by right-wing populist Jeanine Anez, who has turned her seat from guardian to throne. Although neither is on the ballot (Morales is in exile and Anez has been forced to drop her candidacy), next month’s three-time-delayed elections threaten to do even more. “There is always a great risk that the elections will be unsuccessful, with no path to a smooth transition,” said Rodrigo Riaza, of the Economist Intelligence Unit. Therefore, Riaza added, the next government could face not only an economy ravaged by Covid-19 and worsening budget and current account deficits, but also a crisis of governability.

Daza, 27, knows the drill. As a growing voice of dissent, she was a trap for struggling party elders looking for viable candidates. Daza opposed it, put off by Bolivia’s corrosive policy. She was also not convinced by the Andean nation’s weary trope of dissent, with marches, roadblocks, takeovers of public buildings and strikes accounting for around 90% of all public protests.

“We realized that these protests were repetitive and easy for the authorities to ignore,” Daza told me. She founded Standing Rivers, a civic group, to revive activism, through non-violence and civil disobedience. Inspiration for Daza came from Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Greta Thunberg, Park Yeonmi from North Korea and his daughter and indigenous feminist Domitila Chungara. “Political parties have a very vertical structure and a militant mindset,” she said. “Movements are more agile, can grow quickly, and have shared leadership, which makes us less predictable. “

Whether movements are better for effecting change is an open question.

What the region needs is not just rage but renovation. Renan Ferreirinha took the plunge. As a child in Sao Goncalo, a predominantly poor and crime-ravaged city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, he knew a lot about life on the back burner of Brazil’s unbalanced democracy. He landed a scholarship at Harvard, studied politics with democracy scholar Steven Levitsky, and returned determined to rebel from within, winning a seat in the Rio State Legislature in 2018. Why get into politics while his peers marched? “The only way to change Brazil is through education, and the only way to strengthen education is through political decisions. “

Rio was a critical case, where substantive politicians had done their best. Four of the five previous state governors have been jailed or involved in crimes. A sixth, Wilson Witzel, is on the brink of impeachment for his alleged links to a ploy to plunder the public health system amid the coronavirus pandemic. A 26-year-old freshman lawmaker, Ferreirinha helped litigate the case. His report pointed to seven planned field hospitals approved under Witzel’s watch in various states of disrepair, with only around 200 of the 1,300 beds pledged for the treatment of Covid-19 patients active. On September 23, the state assembly voted 69-0 to send Witzel to an impeachment court. Ferreirinha called it a victory for politics.

“When I first saw the Brazilian Congress, my friends called it a zoo. I thought it was fascinating. This is the place where decisions are made to spend billions that change lives, ”he told me. “Young people have energy and idealism, but we have to channel it. We cannot fix democracy if we do not strengthen the institutions and are not part of the process.

It’s no mystery what Latin America suffers from. “Why is the region lagging behind in terms of global competitiveness? Why are we leading the world in violent crime, inequality and the informal economy? »Said Naïm. “We know the list. The way forward is through reform, and it is a political process. “

For the young and the frustrated, it may seem like the bottom line to a better world. Yet Latin Americans need to be both alert and effective, and that means finding their way from the barricades to the polls.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier”.

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