Carole Concha Bell reports on the social unrest exploding across Latin America as governments fail to address the Coronavirus pandemic and its consequences

The Congress building in Guatemala’s capital, Ciudad de Guatemala, was engulfed in flames on 23 November, demonstrating the feelings of thousands of protestors who have been left furious by a new, austere budget passed by the right-wing President, Alejandro Giammattei, and his cabinet.

Even Giammattei’s most die-hard supporters have turned against him, with many calling for his entire administration to resign. The public believe that money should have been made available to the victims of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which both struck last month, as well as for ongoing efforts to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic. Instead, funds have been diverted to the purses of politicians and a corrupt judiciary in a country beset by high levels of poverty and inequality, despite its economy remaining reasonably stable and growing year on year.

The inequality has largely been driven by decades of neoliberal policies, aggressively implemented during the 1990s and 2000s. Today, the country has the sixth-highest rate of malnutrition in the world and a poverty blights around 60% of its people. For indigenous communities, the outlook is much worse, with 79% living below the poverty line.

“Citing the pandemic as a pretext, this Government was able to generate large sums of credit, the largest in history, yet was unable to execute the help initially offered to the people through the pandemic, as well as eschewing its election promises,” Leo Sanchez Abad, a lawyer and activist based in Guayaquil, told Byline Times.

“The budget they intend to approve for next year is damaging to the progress made in terms of curbing corruption because of the devastating cuts to social services and justice proposed. We are in the midst of a social convulsion where all actors are in some way demanding that the President and Vice President, Ministers and MPs that voted for this unjust budget, resign.”


‘The Wrong Generation’

Guatemala is not the only country in Latin America where protest against ideology and inequality is erupting in the streets.

In Peru, the rallying cry in recent pro-democracy demonstrations has been “they messed with the wrong generation”, centred on the impeachment of President Martin Vizcarra.

A vote last month in Peru’s Congress to impeach Vizcarra and replace him with Manuel Merino sparked fury among Peruvians who had strongly approved of Vizcarra’s fight against corruption and his political independence. The popular leader was elected twice – once in 2018 and again in 2020.

Similar to the uprising in Chile in 2019, the protest movement arose spontaneously from non-partisan grassroots organisations and was the result of corruption fatigue among young people pushing for true democracy.

Peru has been hit hard by the Coronavirus pandemic and has the highest per capita death rate in the world, exacerbated by climbing poverty rates. With 70% of the population working in the casual economy, measures to curb the spread of infection have plunged many into further poverty. Despite the socio-economic challenges and fierce repression, the country’s youth remains determined to continue their fight for equality.  

Meanwhile, Chile – where the country’s poverty rates are not as high as its neighbours – is the most unequal of all the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Social unrest began last October with a student protest over metro fare hikes and ended with a referendum a year later in which the public voted to replace the current constitution, enacted under the military dictatorship of the former President, Augusto Pinochet.

Chile’s security forces – under the command of Mario Rozas – retaliated with brutality, unleashing a torrent of state violence not seen since the days of Pinochet. Thousands of people were detained, tortured, sexually assaulted, and even killed. The onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic did not cool things down. Instead of negotiating furlough schemes for workers, the Government of President Sebastián Piñera capitalised on the crisis and introduced draconian laws, including a state of emergency which will remain in force until early 2021.

During the pandemic, the country’s carabineros – militarised police – have also been embroiled in several scandals, including an incident in which a policeman was caught throwing a 16-year-old from a bridge. Two officers also opened fire on a children’s home, hospitalising two minors and sparking renewed outrage and protests.

What’s more, in the absence of state bail-outs, taxpayers were invited to cash in on 10% of their pension pots.

“The number of deaths across Latin America has been huge, with the region suffering one of the weakest state interventions during the pandemic,” said Hector Rios Jara, a sociologist at University College London, currently based in Chile. “In Europe, there have been significant emergency and recovery packages with enormous public investment, while Latin American governments have been modest in confronting the crisis… The lack of support and clear approach to the pandemic have exacerbated ongoing political and social crises.”

Latin America is emerging from the wreckage of the pandemic with worsening levels of poverty, inequality and a further erosion of civil liberties – encouraged by governments set on austerity and repression. Continued anger and rebellion looks likely to follow in the region in 2021.


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