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The legacy of the pandemic will spark new protests in Latin America

CALI, Colombia – When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Latin America in early March 2020 – bringing with it the same lockdowns and economic closings as elsewhere – it halted a regional wave of protests. Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia had seen mass demonstrations since late 2019, some of which were violently suppressed by the authorities. Different dynamics fueled the unrest in each country, and protesters and government officials used different techniques. But the main reason for these protests was similar: prolonged outrage over deepening economic inequalities and social injustice.

Now that the region is struggling with varying levels of vaccination success and sustained increases in cases in some countries, people are taking to the streets again, sparking a movement that the coronavirus apparently stopped a year ago. “There is now a culture of social protest across Latin America,” says Javiera Arce, political scientist at Valparaíso University in Chile.

CALI, Colombia – When the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect Latin America in early March 2020 – bringing with it the same lockdowns and economic closings as elsewhere – it halted a regional wave of protests. Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia had seen mass demonstrations since late 2019, some of which were violently suppressed by the authorities. Different dynamics fueled the unrest in each country, and protesters and government officials used different techniques. But the main reason for these protests was similar: prolonged outrage over deepening economic inequalities and social injustice.

Now that the region is struggling with varying levels of vaccination success and sustained increases in cases in some countries, people are taking to the streets again, sparking a movement that the coronavirus apparently stopped a year ago. “There is now a culture of social protest across Latin America,” says Javiera Arce, political scientist at Valparaíso University in Chile.

In recent months, the pandemic has fueled unrest around the world. Latin America and the Caribbean in particular used to be unequal and are even more so now. COVID-19 has displaced 4.7 million people in the region from the middle class and into poverty or vulnerability, according to a World Bank report released in June. Brazil offered generous but unsustainable temporary social transfers that have brought some relief. If not, the regional number would have been much higher.

These numbers don't include those living in precarious living conditions before face masks and hand sanitizer became ubiquitous. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, income from the “informal economy” – which includes street vendors, construction workers and domestic workers – accounted for more than a third of GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2010 to 2014. These workers were virtually eliminated from the economy last year by the pandemic that forced most people indoors for months. Without bank accounts or other access to the financial system, many informal workers would not be able to count on government cash assistance such as that offered in Brazil. In Colombia, for example, red rags were hung in front of houses to signal hunger.

More than a year later, the legacy of the pandemic is clear in almost every country in the region. “There is no question that the social fault lines widened in many Latin American countries prior to the arrival of COVID-19, but it is also clear that the pandemic is widening and widening the income, wealth and education gaps among the rich in the region has, middle class and poor, ”said Michael Shifter, President of the Inter-American Dialogue. “The biggest setbacks were among the most vulnerable groups – those who lived in confined spaces, worked in the most precarious jobs, had the highest unemployment, often hand to mouth, and had the least adequate access to health services and education for yourself and your children. "

And as people got poorer, they got sicker too. Latin America, where vaccine adoption has been slow, is one of the regions hardest hit by COVID-19. Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Argentina all lost more than 100,000 lives to the virus. In June, four countries in the region were among the top five countries with the highest weekly coronavirus deaths. Poor public health management has only widened the gap between politicians and their voters. In Brazil, tough President Jair Bolsonaro has publicly sowed doubts about the effectiveness of vaccinations, while officials in Brazil, Bolivia and Honduras have been accused of pandemic-related fraud. Senior politicians in both Peru and Argentina have come under fire for jumping ahead of the vaccination line. In the meantime, those who have the means have traveled to the United States, where vaccines are abundant to vaccinate themselves and their families as the virus continues to spread among the unvaccinated in marginalized communities.

During the first half of this year, discontent in many countries was driven by failed responses to the pandemic. But while the riots have regional characteristics – particularly the intergenerational aspect of youth-led marches and clumsy police responses – other dynamics are unique to each country. In Colombia, anger over the slow move by the right-wing government on a peace deal with left-wing rebels in 2016 has sparked broader protests sparked by a proposed tax hike. The promises of rural reform and a fairer society that the controversial agreements offer go unfulfilled and anger indigenous leaders like Aida Quilcue, who traveled to the Colombian city of Cali to meet the Páez (or Nasa) indigenous community at demonstrations in Kann. "We want our concerns to be taken seriously and not ignored or slandered as has been the case for years," said Quilcue.

In Cuba, where dissenting opinions are seldom tolerated, citizens have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the dictatorship. Over the years, the Caribbean country's much-acclaimed medical missions have been good for branding overseas, but its system has been unable to contain the tide of COVID-19 at home and vaccine adoption has been slow. For Cubans, this is another example of the shortcomings of a stagnant system. Brazil regularly sees its streets full of demonstrators calling for Bolsonaro to be overthrown after several right-wing scandals. The president faced high levels of disapproval in several places during the pandemic, but his administration's money transfer program has kept his unpopularity at a non-fatal level. "Bolsonaro's suggesting reopening the vault and resuming larger payments suggests that he is betting that the economy will be the deciding factor in his electoral fortune over the next year," Shifter said.

Given the elections in Colombia, Chile and Brazil in 2021 and 2022, some analysts see a possible outbreak of social unrest, even if the coronavirus pandemic continues to weigh on health and economic systems.

"Elections help ease tension," said Benjamin Gedan, assistant director of the Wilson Center's Latin America program. “In Peru, massive voters rallied behind Pedro Castillo, a far-left rural school teacher who was little known before the presidential election. In Argentina, voters have the option to punish their government in the mid-term elections in November. The Chileans are in the middle of a presidential election and constitutional reform. "

Chile, the most economically developed country in the region, has indeed seen beyond street marches organized when the pandemic halted protests. Mass marches in 2019 forced the government to allow a referendum on a new constitution to replace the one introduced in 1980 during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. With broad voter approval in the referendum in October 2020, a new constitution is now being drawn up by a directly elected assembly whose members campaigned in the first half of this year. Chileans say these results show fundamental changes in the country's political status quo. "(Chilean President Sebastián) Piñera used the pandemic to silence us all," said Arce, adding that people are no longer afraid to speak out.

The dynamic behind the ongoing protests may be local, but for those who support demonstrations, they are also part of a regional pursuit of social justice that is responsive to pre-pandemic conditions. "We are all part of America, and of course our struggles are the same," said Patricia Rodriguez, a 43-year-old community organizer in Bogotá, Colombia, on a recent march that was later broken up by riot police. "We'll keep popping up until we see real change."

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