Between October and December 2019, mass protests swept Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador. A year later, the legacies of these episodes of contention look very different. While in Chile protests enforced the initiation of a constitutional reform process that continues on track, recent elections in Bolivia reversed last year’s political about-face. In Ecuador and Colombia, the 2019 mass protests did not initiate comparable policy changes to begin with – but this doesn’t mean they had no lasting effects.
This is an English version of an article that has been published in French in the journal “Alternatives Economiques”: Jonas Wolff, Amérique latine : qu’ont obtenu les mobilisations populaires?, Alternatives Economiques, Hors-Série No 122, 01/2021, pp. 44-45. Please refer to the original version when citing.
2019 has been widely perceived as a year of mass protests. Latin America was certainly no exception to this trend, with major protests shaking a whole series of countries. The most spectacular cases included Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador. In Bolivia, in October 2019, contested elections and allegations of electoral fraud provoked mass protests, which culminated, with a little help from the police and the military, in the resignation of president Evo Morales. In the same month, neighboring Chile, the supposed poster child of liberal democracy and political stability, saw the outbreak of a massive “social explosion” sparked by a small increase in the capital’s subway fare. When protests started in Chile in mid-October, Ecuador had just experienced 12 days of social unrest, in this case provoked by the government’s decision to withdraw fuel subsidies in order to comply with an IMF agreement. Finally, in November, hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets of Bogotá and other cities for what would become the largest wave of protest in Colombia’s recent history.
Success stories with different outcomes: Chile and Bolivia
A year later, as 2020 comes to an end, the legacy of these four protest movements is remarkably diverse. The most successful case is, without a doubt, the Chilean one. During thirty years of democratic rule since the end of the military dictatorship in 1990, governments either did not try or failed to replace the constitution that dates back to the dark years of the Pinochet era. It took the massive wave of protests in October and November 2019 to force the political elite into accepting a path towards constitutional reform. Even if with a delay of several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chilean population just consolidated this remarkable achievement: In a referendum on 25 October, an overwhelming majority of almost 80% voted in favor of rewriting the constitution and, more specifically, in favor of doing so by means of a fully elected constitutional convention. Of course, it remains to be seen what will come out of this convention, which is to be elected in April 2021. But having forced the governing center-right coalition into something they would have never accepted otherwise is simply astonishing.
Similarly, the protests that erupted in Bolivia in response to serious allegations of electoral fraud following the elections in October 2019 had a result that virtually no one would have expected a month before: the annulment of the contested elections and the resignation of president Morales who had governed the country for almost 15 years. Yet, already at that time, the situation looked quite different than in neighboring Chile. In Bolivia, it was not the societal protest movement as such that succeeded in preventing the disputed re-election of Morales and toppling the government of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS); the active participation of the political opposition, later the police and finally the military were also crucial components. In fact, Morales’s forced resignation, which had at least coup-like features, also provoked mass protests – this time on the part of the MAS supporters. But it took the new elections in October 2020, which brought MAS candidate Luis Arce an undisputable absolute majority, to openly reveal the dramatic misperception within the anti-MAS camp: While Morales’s bid for yet another re-election and the serious allegations of fraud did provoke widespread resistance among the Bolivian population, there was never a majority in favor of a political about-turn as envisioned by the anti-MAS opposition. Ironically, by forcing the MAS to eventually look for an alternative to Morales, the postelectoral protests unwillingly facilitated a renewal of both the party and its ties with society.
Remobilization in Ecuador, Reconfiguration in Colombia
In Ecuador and Colombia, it is much more difficult to assess the legacy of the 2019 protests. The immediate result of the 12 days of protest, unrest and repression in Ecuador was the decision on the part of the government of Lenín Moreno to withdraw the very measure that had triggered the mobilization. This year, however, the collapse of the oil price in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic enabled the government to eventually withdraw the withdrawal, that is, to end the fuel subsidies without provoking yet another outburst of protest. Still, the legacies of the protests go beyond individual policy measures: With the “crisis of October”, Ecuador’s indigenous movement, once again, showed its impressive capacity for mobilization and re-established itself as the dominant actor within the camp of progressive forces – a role it had already played during the anti-neoliberal protests of the 1990s and early 2000s. As the elections of February 2021 draw nearer, opinion polls place the indigenous presidential candidate Yaku Pérez among the three top favorites – with reasonable chances of making it to the second round.
In Colombia, the protest movement put forward a whole series of demands, including the abandonment of planned neoliberal reforms, anti-corruption measures, police reform and the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla. This diverse agenda made possible the broad alliance of trade unions and students, environmentalists and feminists, Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups that joined in the “national strike”. Yet, it also meant that the protest movement lacked the kind of specific demand that enabled the success of its counterparts in Chile, Bolivia and Ecuador. Again, this should not be read as a simple failure, however. As decades of social movement research demonstrate, immediate, tangible achievements are one type of potential consequences only (see, for instance, here and here). Social movements that initially seem to fail can well have important effects in the medium to long run: They may, for instance, bring previously marginalized topics and voices onto the public agenda and shift the terms of the political debate. Colombia’s 2019 national strike, in this sense, can be understood as a further step in the reconfiguration of the sociopolitical landscape that has been enabled by the 2016 peace agreement. This reconfiguration is, however, not without contradictions. As the recent wave of targeted assassinations of social leaders shows, in Colombia progressive forces still face much more serious constraints than in the other countries.
What do these four experiences tell us?
In a nutshell, the Chilean story confirms the well-known fact that social movements and mass protests can be key forces that enable political change, in particular when official politics is all-too elite-centered and institutionally constrained. Bolivia reminds us that protest movements can trigger change, but are usually unable to control its course and outcome. In Ecuador, the indigenous movement and its allies demonstrated the capacity of mobilized societal groups to effectively block the implementation of deeply unpopular political decisions – as well as the fact that it is much more difficult to push for political alternatives, in particular in times of economic crisis. Colombia, finally, leads us to see mass protests as embedded in broader dynamics of sociopolitical change, which both stimulate and are shaped by social movements.