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Latin America sees a resurgence in political violence

The region’s increasingly polarized societies, fueled by poor governance and economic injustice, are experiencing spikes in social unrest and political violence.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — Recent bursts of election-linked violence in Brazil and the assassination attempt of Argentina Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have ignited fears over deepening polarization and growing political violence across Latin America.

While most countries in the region are experiencing their longest stretch of democracy ever, unrest and instability are testing the limits of governance.

Between 2018 and 2021, social conflict and political violence have increased in Latin America by 10%, according to ACLED, a data and analysis project that tracks political violence and protests worldwide.

The number of recorded events linked to political violence and protests across Latin America. ACLED

More than 180,000 events were recorded, including protests, riots, battles and violence against civilians. Within the four-year period, protests across the region increased by 28% and riots by 21%, with sustained levels of violence against civilians, documenting around 12,000 cases each year.

Contained within the regional data are national differences in social unrest and state violence, such as in Colombia since 2018 against people protesting austerity and increasing inequality; in Ecuador with protesters against austerity in 2019; in Chile since 2019 against mass demonstrations that snowballed from the hike in subway fares to the rising cost of living, which led to a national referendum on a new draft constitution that was eventually rejected.

The number of events linked to political violence each year in Latin America. Data from ACLED

The data also covers the broad demonstrations across Cuba in 2020 and 2021 against the killing of an Afro-Cuban man by police as well as the shortage of food and medicine on the island. And it includes the sustained protests and strikes in Argentina in the face of rising poverty and spiraling inflation that is set to reach 100% by the end of 2022.

Roughly half of all documented events come from Brazil.

In two recent cases, supporters of the leading candidates in Brazil’s presidential elections, Jair Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva, were involved in separate violent confrontations, leading to the deaths of two supporters of Lula. According to data from social organizations in Brazil, between 2016 to 2020 there were 327 cases of political violence, including 125 assassinations and attacks and 85 threats.

In Argentina, Vice President Fernández de Kirchner was the target of an attempted assassination after a gunman rushed through a crowd and pointed a pistol at her from point-blank range. The gunman pulled the trigger, but the gun failed to fire.

In Colombia, data from the Mission of Electoral Observation documented 751 cases of violence against social, political, and community leaders as well as former FARC guerrilla members in a one-year period, leading up to the presidential elections in June 2022 — an increase of 3.8% compared to the 2018 elections and is the highest since 2011.

In Mexico, data from the organization Data Cívica found that between 2018 and 2022, there were 843 assassinations, attacks and threats recorded against people in politics and government. This year is already the most violent, registering 300 events so far. The project, named Voting Between Bullets, reported that “electoral violence has become a tool of organized crime to influence public life.”

The number of assassinations, attacks, and threats recorded each month in Mexico between 2018 and 2022. Data Cívica

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has demonstrated authoritarian tendencies since taking office in 2019. In 2020 he entered the legislative assembly with 40 army troops to pressure lawmakers to approve a $100 million loan and he’s repeatedly ignored Supreme Court orders to respect human rights while enforcing quarantine rules during the pandemic. 

Most notably, in an effort to crackdown down on gang-related homicide — among the highest in the world — Bukele declared a state of emergency, leading to the mass arrests of 36,000 people over two months. Nearly 2% of the entire country was imprisoned. While Amnesty International accused the government of “massive human rights violations,” with arbitrary arrests and violations of due process, the so-called War on Gangs is hugely popular with citizens and Bukele wields approval ratings above 80%.

The pandemic hit Latin America the hardest in terms of deaths as a percentage of the population as well as economic damage, according to the World Bank, pushing millions below the poverty line in a region that is already the most unequal on Earth. Today, the number of people living on less than $5.50 a day has risen to 26% and is projected to remain above these pre-pandemic levels.

The compounding of food and fuel inflation is eating away at the shallow pockets of poor and working-class people, and increasingly, the income of the middle classes.

Household budget share (linked to the consumer price index) of food and transport across Latin America. Word Bank

On average, 40% of household budgets go to food and fuel, with the highest levels in Peru (54%), Mexico (44%) and Brazil (43%). For poorer and more vulnerable families, the proportions are much higher.

Economic hardship has contributed to people losing faith in democratic institutions, broadened the polarization of societies, and hardened the state’s response to unrest — paving the way for rising political violence.

“I think that these events are signs of the times in which democratic values are being questioned and prevented from being nurtured by societies, institutions, and authorities,” said Ana Cláudia Santano, professor of human rights and constitutional and electoral law based in Brazil. “There is no single cause, but it is the consequence of a process that has made democracies fragile.” Between 2010 and 2020, overall support for democracy slipped from 63% to 49%, and indifference to an authoritarian regime reached 27%.

“Poverty ends up putting people in a situation of vulnerability that opens the door to abandon the belief in democracy, leading them to support other forms of government,” said Santano. In Latin America, “democratic ideals may have promised progress that has not yet materialized, either because of the way of doing politics as a way of just staying in power or due to the time that structural changes demand.”

Santano is the general coordinator of Electoral Transparency Brazil, an organization that promotes the development of democratic practices in institutions and civil society. Speaking of the longer view of political violence, she said, “Democratic values have not been properly fostered over the years. Democracy is learning, it is a continuous process of incentives for participation, tolerance, and a sense of collectivity and community. The last few decades have not been characterized by these movements, but rather the opposite, characterized by the questioning of democracy itself as a political system.”

For Santano, the political class and civil society have critical roles in building the pathway toward restoring faith in representative democracy. “People feel let down precisely because the political class doesn’t fulfill its promises, doesn’t proceed in an institutional manner, and often ends up abusing its power for private ends.”

The political class must realize its responsibility for the crisis that democracies are suffering, according to Santano, “and fulfill the pending task of finally working for the public. As for civil society, it is vibrant and very much alive in Latin America. It has achieved very important changes and has an important role of control and collaboration with the state as well as guaranteeing that everyone’s voice can be heard by state institutions.”

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