Grassroots Mobilization in South America Today: Weakened Allies, Emboldened Opponents, and the Challenge of Sustaining Influence

In recent years, a central question for politics in South America has centered on the effect that the emergence of right-wing governments will have on grassroots mobilization throughout the region. Will organizations whose influence expanded during the “pink tide” of progressive administrations decline substantially? Or will they be able to use the resources, expertise, and networks accumulated since the early 2000s to maintain their leverage?

While this question is far from settled, events in the last few months reinforce the picture of a challenging scenario for left-wing activists, marked by the emboldening of antagonistic administrations and the weakening of political allies. In Chile, President Michelle Bachellet’s center-left coalition was defeated in the presidential elections[1]. In Peru, the government pardoned former president Alberto Fujimori, who was serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations and corruption during the 1990s[2]. In Brazil, former president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva, front-runner for this year’s election and a key ally of several grassroots coalitions, was found guilty of corruption charges in a trial that many see as a biased attempt to thwart his candidacy[3]. Venezuela continues to be marred by deepening violence and economic problems, which threaten the stability of the country[4]. Finally, in Ecuador, the coalition that supported the 2007-2017 administration of Rafael Correa collapsed following a bitter split between Correa and his successor and former vice president, Lenin Moreno[5].

Another example of the emboldening of adversaries is the case of Argentina. The last two decades saw an overall strengthening of different social movement organizations in the country, many of which emerged prior to the economic collapse of 2001-2002. However, since 2015, the new administration of President Mauricio Macri and his allies at the subnational level have adopted a more confrontative stance towards a majority of these groups.

To some extent, the conflict between government and left wing organizations has manifested itself in cuts to welfare programs administered by activists. However, there has also been an increase in legal and physical repression, especially outside of the nation’s capital, which has led to tragic consequences and has raised the alarms of international human rights organizations. In the province of Jujuy, the local government has succeeded in dismantling one of the country’s largest grassroots groups, the Tupac Amaru Neighborhood Organization. Many of the group’s leaders have been prosecuted and incarcerated under questionable charges[6]. In August of 2017, the national gendarmerie suppressed a small roadblock by indigenous groups in the province of Chubut, leading to the death under confusing circumstances of one protester, Santiago Maldonado[7]. In November, federal forces repressed a similar protest in the province of Rio Negro, killing activist Rafael Nahuel[8].

These developments are not only tragic, but also very concerning for the future, as they may indicate a change in a central aspect of Argentina’s politics during the last decade and a half. After the economic collapse of 2001-2002, physical repression of demonstrations carried a steep political cost for office holders. The violent suppression of protests in December 2001, in which thirty people lost their lives, precipitated the fall of the Fernando De La Rua administration. The police murder of two young men during a roadblock in June of 2002 forced then President Eduardo Duhalde to call for early presidential elections. The 2007 assassination of a teacher at a protest in the province of Neuquén ended the political career of a governor with presidential ambitions. Regardless of their ideological inclinations, governments at different levels instituted formal and informal controls regarding the policing of public demonstrations, which strongly reduced the risks associated with protests and generated a powerful tool for social movement organizations to exert political influence.

Despite these antecedents, it is unclear whether the current government’s hardline stance towards grassroots movements has been politically harmful. In the legislative elections of 2017, which took place days after the discovery of Santiago Maldonado’s body, President Macri’s coalition obtained a crucial victory, winning a plurality of the nationwide vote. The government interpreted the result as a mandate to deepen its policies. One of the first projects approved by the new legislature was a controversial pension reform, which triggered massive clashes between the police and protesters in front of the National Congress[9].

Cases like Argentina raise doubts about the capacity of South American social movements to sustain the strength and influence accumulated in the last couple of decades. The crucial question is whether the balance of costs and benefits of keeping good relations with grassroots organizations has changed for governments in the region. If antagonizing left-wing activists and their allies becomes a less harmful -or even advantageous- political strategy, we can expect sustained increases in the repression of protest, with dangerous consequences.











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