Monday, November 11, 2019

Latin America Primed to Explode

From Moisés Naím and Brian Winter, at Foreign Affairs, "Why Latin America Was Primed to Explode: Economic Malaise, More Than Foreign Meddling, Explains the Outpouring of Rage":

In a world aflame with protest, Latin America stands out as a raging ten-alarm fire. From Bolivia to Ecuador, Haiti to Honduras, the closing months of 2019 have seen enormous, sometimes violent demonstrations prompted by a truly dizzying array of grievances, including electoral fraud, corruption, and rising fuel and public transportation prices. Even Chile, the region’s ostensible oasis of calm and prosperity, erupted in protests and riots that left 20 dead and forced President Sebastián Piñera to declare a state of emergency. It is now an open question whether any country in the region can be considered truly stable.

The rapid spread across social media of images of burning buildings and besieged riot police has inspired widespread talk of a conspiracy: specifically, that the protests throughout the hemisphere are being orchestrated from Venezuela and Cuba. These socialist dictatorships, the thinking goes, are hell-bent on distracting from their own domestic crises by destabilizing democracies in the region governed by center-right parties, such as Ecuador and Chile. Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro seemed to confirm the theory when he told an audience that “the plan is going exactly as we hoped,” with “the union of social movements, progressives, and revolutionaries . . . of all of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Maduro has a long history of overstating his influence in the region, hoping to appear all-powerful in the eyes of his countrymen and the world. He has extra incentive to do so now, given Venezuela’s severe economic and humanitarian crisis and the ongoing threat to his rule from Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as the country’s legitimate president by dozens of governments, including the United States. Cuba is also facing hard economic times, owing in part to sanctions from the Trump administration. That said, numerous credible voices, including Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie and Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, have denounced what they see as clear Venezuelan and Cuban interference in the region’s recent unrest. And at the peak of the rioting in Ecuador in early October, that country’s interior minister said that 17 people had been arrested at the airport, “most of them Venezuelans . . . carrying information about the protests.”

At this early stage, it is impossible to say how important foreign interference has been in igniting or sustaining the protests. According to the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, Chilean police have identified several Venezuelans and Cubans who participated in violent attacks in Santiago in mid-October, to cite one example. But the scale and unrelenting nature of the protests, which brought more than one million of Chile’s 18 million citizens into the streets on October 25, suggest that the root causes are large and structural. The focus on conspiracy theories, moreover, risks giving politicians and other elites a handy scapegoat.

Whether or not foreign agitators lit the sparks, much of Latin America was already primed to combust. After a commodity boom in the early years of this millennium raised expectations higher than ever, much of Latin America has entered a long period of disappointing growth. Against the backdrop of stagnating wages and rising costs of living, indignities such as inequality and corruption have become more difficult for many people to swallow. At the same time, Latin Americans have become some of the world’s most dedicated users of social media. They watched as protests erupted from Hong Kong to Beirut to Barcelona. Some doubtlessly wondered: Why not us, too?


The protests now raging across much of Latin America originated from different sparks but are connected by a single common denominator: economic malaise. On average, Latin American and Caribbean economies will grow just 0.2 percent in 2019, the worst performance of any major region in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. By contrast, emerging markets globally are expected to expand by 3.9 percent this year, building on several years of solid growth despite headwinds from the trade war between the United States and China.

To understand why Latin America’s economic slump has generated such outrage, one need only rewind to the beginning of this decade, when the region was outperforming the rest of the world...