After a Decade of Austerity, South America Rebels

An anti-government demonstrator waves a Chilean flag in Santiago, Chile on Monday at a barricade against police. (AP photo/Matias Delacroix)

(CN) — With 20-some countries and 600 million people, the circumstances across Latin America are wildly variable. But the size and persistence of recent demonstrations indicate that the entire continent of South America is passing through one of those times when the stuff of history books is being made.

While voters in Argentina predictably defeated incumbent President Mauricio Macri on Sunday, across the Plata River in Uruguay a late surge by religious rightists forced the presidential election into a second round.

In Argentina, pollsters had predicted a much larger victory for the Frente de Todos coalition of Alberto Fernández and his running mate, former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (no relation). But with voter turnout of 80% the center left won handily, according to La Nación.

Fearing a run on the U.S. dollar, the Central Bank immediately restricted to $200 a month the amount that Argentinians could buy if one has a bank account, and $100 a month if one has no bank account is a foreigner or tourist. Previously the limit on dollar purchases was $10,000 a month.

These measures had the effect of strengthening the Argentine peso on Monday, according to Ámbito, a financial news page, which predicts a surge of the dollar’s value on the black market.

In Chile, roiled by a week of paralyzing strikes, freeway barricades and turmoil that resulted in hundreds shot and more than 1,000 arrests, the mass protests continued Monday, accompanied by more vandalism against the transport system and arson attacks in the city center.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera gave in to the demands of the insurrection, canceled a 4-cent transit fare increase, announced an increase in pension payments, withdrew electricity rate increases and raised the minimum wage, according to El Mostrador, an online Chilean news page, and the BBC.

In addition, Piñera sacked his entire cabinet over the weekend, but demands for the ouster of Piñera himself and free tuition at public colleges and universities keep the protesters from halting the rebellion.

While the rebellion in Chile is based on nonviolent tactics there are several thousand masked men throwing firebombs and torching buildings and transport facilities in the capital, Santiago.

This is a grim development. The mayhem appears designed to provoke a repressive response from security forces. The victories won by the massive peaceful demonstrations could be endangered if the response is a state of siege by the army, which has happened before in Chile, under the long dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

In Ecuador the state of emergency was lifted and things were returning to normal after a general strike. But President Lenín Moreno has been severely weakened after giving in to every demand by the mass movement except that he resign.

The Ecuadoran mass movement disclosed protesters’ capacity to cripple the state, something most governments would prefer that workers and peasants not know.

Uruguay’s voters backed the center-left Frente Amplio, which has governed for 15 years, but not by enough to avoid a runoff election, to be held on Nov. 24.

The neoliberal Partido Nacional came in second with 28% of the vote and immediately appealed to other right-wing parties to form an anti-liberal coalition of pro-church, pro-military and pro-law and order elements to contest the November runoff.

What alarmed both moderates and liberals was the surprising showing by a new right-wing party, Cabildo Abierto, which scored 10% of the vote.

Cabildo is led by a military officer who was fired recently for criticizing the jail terms for military personnel still imprisoned for torture and murder during the military dictatorship (1973-1984). The return of the extreme right and its alliance with the hard right represents a serious challenge to the most liberal government in Latin America, according to the Spanish daily El País.

National elections also were held in Colombia on Sunday, where Bogotá elected the first woman mayor in the capital’s history. Claudia López Hernández was the candidate of the Alianza Verde, or Green Alliance. The daughter of workers and a lesbian, she represents an entirely new version of Bogotá’s highest – and the country’s second most important – post.

With a long history of activism, López is known for incorruptibly. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern. She won by more than 1 million votes, according to El País, and has a city of more than 10 million to govern.

At her victory celebration she said: “I’m conscious that I receive the fruit of the struggles of many generations, of many women who have defended not only their children but society as a whole. … Today Bogotá elected for the first time a daughter of a family like yours, from a humble family that with love and tenacity was able to, day after day, overcome the difficulties: those families that survive by working hard, trying always to do things well and confident that their labor, their illusions, their taxes will not be lost to corruption, violence and abuse.”

The recent mass movements of protest throughout South America show that its tens of millions of residents are demanding a more equitable bargain: a chance to get ahead, to afford a house or an apartment, or for the poor, a motorbike — to see some reward for the past decade of austerity, compromise and surrender.

Many are surprised, some shocked by the recent events. In Chile last Friday one of the largest demonstrations in the history of Latin America brought an advanced industrial nation to a halt. Two weeks ago millions of indigenous peasants and workers in Ecuador brought a developing country to a halt. Haiti has been at a standstill for months due to mass protests.

(Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.)

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