Prosperity and Protests from Hong Kong to Chile

The revolts of 2019 are not the consequence of poverty but frustrated political, economic, or aspirational expectations

Protests in Chile. (Photo: Flickr)


It was the year of the great revolts; I am referring to 1968. Prague, Paris, Mexico City, Chicago, and the occupations of university campuses in the United States, Columbia, Wisconsin, and Howard, among others. Students led much of the activism, but it wasn’t exclusively students.

The agendas were diverse, not just “imagination to power,” as the French anarchists called it. There were protests against communism, capitalism, authoritarianism, racial segregation, and the Vietnam War, all mixed and in varying proportions. They say that 1968 changed history.

It caused surprise, albeit relative surprise for the observer familiar with European and American history, and experts in social movements. Social protest tends to occur in cycles. They are contagious and require a significant degree of overdetermination. That is to say, diverse factors that can cause the same effect, and any of them is an independently sufficient condition for the occurrence.

The overdetermination explains the spontaneous nature of these protests. They often don’t have an identifiable leadership or defined strategy for the seizure of power. For they are not revolutions, they are only protests. I emphasize the “cycles,” precisely, because just as they begin -explosively- they decay and also conclude suddenly and, at first sight, inexplicably.

Back to 1968, that year, Samuel Huntington published his brilliant book Political Order in Changing Societies. His contribution signified a Copernican twist in our understanding of social protest. It was a frontal direct on the so-called “optimistic equation” that associated economic and social modernization with the creation of stable and democratic political systems.

Huntington problematized this relationship by postulating that modernization is actually a cause of instability. Rapid urbanization, advances in education and employment, and the dissemination of communications and information creates growing expectations. If they are not satisfied, and never can all of them be satisfied, there is frustration in diverse social groups. In short, it is the very prosperity that explains the protest.

This is as a preface to the surprise at the current revolts, the 2019 ones. They are not the consequence of poverty but frustrated political, economic, or aspirational expectations. It should not be surprising that protestors use the same tactics in Hong Kong, Beirut, Barcelona, Quito, or Santiago. If a terrorist group teaches how to make bombs on social media, it is much easier to teach urban protest methods. And if the contagious nature has always been an essential factor in any social upheaval, it is much more powerful when you can see things in real-time on Twitter.

This is because, if these propositions have broad validity, the argument is even more robust in Latin America, particularly in Chile. Let’s see.

In the first decade of this century, the region had the most favorable terms of trade in its history. Supercycle, commodity boom, or whatever it is called, with it the GDP and employment grew, inequality decreased, tertiary education and access to social services became widespread, communications and information technologies expanded, and the country’s middle classes increased. Seventy million people came out of poverty. A comprehensive process of modernization was more extensive in Chile, where these trends can be seen since the late eighties in reality.

The problem in the region is that despite advances in employment and income distribution, the economic growth model has failed in terms of social mobility. Low upward mobility is a historical and structural fact in Latin America, a factor that does not vary even if the economic cycle is favorable. Under growing conditions, low mobility exacerbates social conflict because there are higher expectations. If these remain unsatisfied, social frustration will increase.

In other words, in Latin America, per capita GDP could grow, the Gini coefficient could fall, and higher education could become a mass phenomenon. But it is the color of the skin and the social origin, if not the banality of the attire and the surname – or the stigma of the school, as in Chile – that continues to define one’s place in the social structure.

The constant in the region is the “inconsistency of status,” paraphrasing the sociology of the 1950s, a marked dissonance between the objectivity of demographic data and the subjectivity of prestige and social recognition. Today, that contrast is as relevant as ever; the status is materialized in socio-cultural perceptions. It is not strange, then, that this social conflict leads to violence.

Those who are alarmed today did not pay equal attention to the proliferation of insecurity and crime, long-term phenomena disconnected from political considerations. Latin America represents 13 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 37 percent of violent crimes on the planet. Its homicide rate is 17.2 victims per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest of all regions.

This reality mainly affects young people, victims, and perpetrators alike. As evolutionary biology demonstrates, controlling male youth aggression has been a challenge for any human collectivity at any time and place. Overwhelmingly, violent crime has been a domain of men between the ages of 15 and 30, and being young in this century seems to be extremely complicated.

In Latin America, the young population – which is in the majority – is more educated than its elders, but also has higher unemployment. In other words, they are more informed, they have access to instruments to coordinate collective action – mobile phones – but they are less integrated than previous generations. Unemployment below 30 is invariably higher than the average of their respective societies. Over there, you should also read this virtual fire in Latin America.

In Chile, moreover, voluntary voting encourages young people’s disaffection with democracy. In fact, their voter turnout rates are abysmally low; many of them “vote” in protest.

It all changes today. The price cycle has changed: what the region exports in 2018 is worth half what it was worth in 2012. Economies have slowed, affecting employment and income. Financial savings are also meager. The voices that are heard most in these protests are the new middle classes, precisely those 70 million people who left poverty but are especially vulnerable to sudden changes in the economy and employment. The tax structure is not particularly capable of dealing with this reversal of growth.

And of course, a new actor cannot be left out: transnational organized crime. Narcos, guerrillas, illegal mining, human traffickers, and smugglers, if not a conglomerate of all these businesses, compete with the State for territorial control, that is, for sovereignty, and many times they do so successfully. Porous borders, in turn, facilitate the internationalization of criminal activities.

High youth unemployment is a captive labor market. A cocaine kitchen requires only bleach and a microwave oven, which is the flexibility of post-industrial capitalism. There is no economic activity more global than drug trafficking, and at the same time with a capillarity so profound that it is found in politics, at the state level in Venezuela and the subnational level in almost all other countries.

Of course, by capturing the state, this political actor subverts the democratic order by definition. By accident or by design, it connects with the naive and perverse left. I say naive because whenever there is any social protest, left always concludes with some absurd reasoning that “the objective conditions of the crisis of capitalism are such that we are in a pre-revolutionary situation.” This is their obligatory cliche.

The perverse left has no problem financing itself with illicit drugs. The Grupo de Puebla, supposedly new progressivism but mere recycling of the failed Unasur and CELAC, met in Buenos Aires to support President-elect Alberto Fernandez. The meeting concluded with a speech by Ernesto Samper about financing politics through illicit means. Samper sat next to the Fernandez and called him “the torch of Latin American progressivism.”

Undoubtedly, these are challenging times for Latin America.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time