Are Protests Useful to Effect Democratic Change in Latin America?

Several cycles of protest and repression have taken place in Latin America during the past ten years, and they form a worrying pattern

One year ago, on July 11th, 2021, the hemisphere was shocked by an unprecedented event: a wave of protests in Cuba. One demonstration that started in the town of San Antonio de Los Baños spread fast to Havana and other cities, and in a matter of hours, several hundred people were shouting slogans against the Cuban regime in power since 1959. They were fed up with the hardships associated with the mismanagement and political resistance to economic reform, the collapse of Venezuelan aid, and the national income fall due to the impact of the pandemic on the island’s tourism industry, but many other issues came to light in a country where citizens have no permission to speak up. 

Protesting Under a Dictatorship

What happened? The Díaz-Canel administration reacted with imprisonment and forced exile for hundreds of ordinary citizens and activists, including some of the young artists of the San Isidro Movement, which contributed to the uprisal climate by staging several gestures of non-violent disobedience pushing for freedom of speech. One year later, it’s more difficult to replicate the protest wave of July 2021, which ended the next day, and the Cuban dictatorship is comfortable in power while the population is struggling again with shortages, inflation and blackouts. 

This story obviously rings a bell with us Venezuelans. Two massive protest waves in 2014 and 2017, plus several demonstrations in 2019, initially looked as a terminal threat to the Maduro regime. We all know what the result was: hundreds of deaths, thousands of people in jail, millions of migrants. The repression unleashed by the Maduro regime brought upon it a set of international sanctions and investigations from the UN human rights bodies and the International Criminal Court, but at this time, nobody could conclude that the chavista rule is fragile. On the contrary, there’s nothing left of what was the most solid democracy in South America in the second half of the 20th century. 

Now, let’s look at another country whose government is close to Cuba and Venezuela’s. In Nicaragua, the protest wave that started with economic demands in April 2018 degenerated into brutal repression by security forces and pro-government paramilitary, just like Venezuela in 2017 but with twice as many deaths. Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo have charged against all the opposition organizations, forcing leaders into exile or putting them in jail, and smashed the civilian organizations with all kinds of intimidation techniques and brute force. The Sandinista regime resisted the (lukewarm) international pressure and cracked down on internal resistance. While well-known intellectuals like writer and former Vice President Sergio Ramírez had to leave the country, Ortega and Murillo are doing just fine.

So, if you look at what’s happened in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua since 2014, protests are not very useful, and serve only to make an already authoritarian regime more brutal. But, what about the rest of the region?

Protesting in a Democracy

In Ecuador, after the government of Lenin Moreno launched a package of economic measures negotiated with the IMF, a wave of protests in October 2019 led to martial law and temporarily moving the government from the capital Quito, paralyzed by violence, to the coastal city of Guayaquil. Some weeks later, after at least ten deaths and many abuses, the Moreno administration negotiated a pact with the Indigenous organizations and some other actors. The conflict ended, the pandemic came soon after, and Moreno’s party lost the next election. Ecuador is, more or less, a democracy: the protest ended with an agreement and the ruling party was replaced in the following election.

In Brazil, a very complex cluster of “culture wars,” economic and social demands and corruption scandals have brewed a climate of protest since 2014 that escalated into a massive political crisis in 2016, when socialist President Dilma Roussef was impeached and replaced by Vice President Michel Temer. Amid the violence, a big political change took place: while the Roussef administration had pushed investigations and punishment against the human rights violations of the military regimes of the 1980s, a senator with a military past (and an evident admiration for Donald Trump) was elected president in the following elections. Jair Bolsonaro has led the most authoritarian government Brazil has had since the country started its democratic transition four decades ago. Is Brazil a democracy? We can reasonably say that it still is, and that the institutions, despite the public unrest and lack of trust, are functional enough to enforce a peaceful transition this year if former President Lula da Silva is reelected, after his time in jail on charges of corruption.  

In Chile, the protest wave that exploded with demands related to inequality in October 2019 led to human rights abuses, the shattering of the country’s image as a stable, peaceful and prosperous South American exception, and a political agreement that brought big changes. Chile started a controversial and difficult process to discuss and write a new Constitution, that should replace the one written under the 1973-1989 military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The new Constitution should be approved through a referendum in September, but in the meantime, the conservative government that faced the protests lost the presidential election against a new leftist coalition led by 36-year-old Gabriel Boric, who was a student leader a few years ago. 

In Colombia, where the 2016 peace accord opened a new political reality where historical unresolved issues like inequality were brought to the main stage, nationwide protests in 2019, 2020, and 2021 undermined the political ground of conservative President Iván Duque. The numerous worker strikes and demonstrations, and the violence from security forces and unidentified armed actors that ensued, contributed to a general climate of unrest that made way for the unprecedented victory of the Left, when Gustavo Petro was elected in a runoff election in June 2022. Once again, economic reasons ignited protests and repression, and the result in a country that is considered a democracy, Colombia, was the defeat of the ruling party and a dramatic political shift.  

While the protest waves against the authoritarian regimes of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba resulted in crackdowns and increased control of the population, and didn’t seem to have any direct effect on the slim economic openness implemented in Venezuela and Cuba, the outcome of the demonstrations in rather democratic Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia included broad agreements between political actors and social movements, and two big historical changes in a couple of cases.  

According to that, protests are useless and even counterproductive against dictatorships, but can destroy the political order in a democracy, bringing unpredictable outsiders to power. 

This is what seems to be happening on the surface and in our region in the last decade. What do researchers say?

Not a Single Rule

There is no consensus on the matter. We still recall tyrannies crumbling after weeks of demonstrations and repression in Romania, Tunisia or Ukraine. But there are also many cases where social uprisings did not achieve their goals, in Iran, Turkey, Hong Kong, Egypt or Kazakhstan, to name just a few recent experiences.

Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that autocracies like China are making an effort to improve their performance in everyday governance because it’s more expensive and dangerous for them to crack down on demonstrations. The Chinese government needs to show that, as its propaganda says, it’s more capable of managing crises than anyone else; nowadays, it couldn’t rest only on its capacity to repress unrest and to have its legitimacy contested by the mob. At the same time, Berman suggests, protests like the ones that have been occurring in the U.S. can make a democracy stronger by forcing its institutions to accommodate the needs of the population. 

A different view was offered in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science by Peter L. Lorentzen, from the University of California. He concluded that the Chinese government allows and even stimulates some low-scale protests as a tool to collect information about the demands and grievances of the people. That way the regime has no need to grant freedom of speech, but this behavior questions, according to this author, the traditional belief that protests are bad news for dictatorships, as we like to think. 

For Venezuelan political scientist and professor María Isabel Puerta Riera, it depends mostly on the strength of the inner alliances in a dictatorship, which determines how far those regimes can go when it comes to repression. The regimes in power in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba possess a solid grasp on repressive capacities and control of the institutions, and use it when they face protests. For a dictatorship, whose only goal is to remain in power by all means, brutality is less costly than for a democratic government. “Democracies like Ecuador and Colombia cannot respond with repression, theoretically at least,” Puerta Riera says, “but in these countries, the recent changes are happening through elections, not insurrections.” Another factor is the nature of protests: non-violent protests can be effective against dictatorships, and peaceful protests that turn violent, even under democracies, escalate into reciprocal violence. 

Crossing all these perspectives, perhaps the rule could be this: explosions of social unrest are effective against weak dictatorships, but useful to strong dictatorships. How to weaken a dictatorship, then, is another discussion (and another article). 

One year ago, Cuba reminded us of just how much the 21st century has failed us regarding the promise of definitive democratization we briefly believed in the 1990s. Now that we see Venezuela drowning in the depressing prospects of the Pax Bodegonica, Argentina approaching another possible economic and political mess, and Brazil wondering if Bolsonaro is preparing a January-6th-style insurrection if he loses against Lula, we will have more occasions to wonder whether protests, and the different ways of protesting, can change things for the best, or not.

Latin American authoritarian regimes remain untouchable