This article is part of the book Challenges and Threats to Security in Latin America.
Social protest in Latin America is part of a regional regulatory framework that recognizes it as a peaceful and democratic citizen action. Although most of the states in the region recognize themselves as democratic, the social mobilizations that took place in 2019 hinted at the fissures suffered by democracies in the hemisphere. Social protest, which by definition must maintain a peaceful character for the assertion of rights, has been marred by acts of violence that have affected the institutional order of countries. The response of the security forces to such a threat has been tested in its ability to accommodate the rights at stake. This article analyzes the participation of social movements in the social protest that took place in Latin America during the mobilizations of 2019 and how these actors may exacerbate the political-social conflict in the States of the region.
Keywords: Social Protest, Demonstration, Violence, Rights, Democracy.
The growing social unrest in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is part of an international context marked by political, social, economic, and environmental pressures that have led to massive mobilizations in different parts of the world. Since the end of 2018, the Yellow Vest movement in France has called on thousands of people to mobilize against the rise in fuel prices, tax injustice, and the loss of purchasing power. These protests were echoed in other countries in Europe and Canada.
2019 was a year marked particularly by social demonstrations at a global level. In the European case, in addition to the Yellow Vests in France, there were also mobilizations in Catalonia (Spain), the Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom. Moving on to the Middle East, protests in Lebanon against progressive taxes on digital social networking services forced the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Likewise, the demonstrations in Egypt and Algeria are indicative of an atmosphere of widespread social unrest in the region. In the case of Asia, the most notable situation was the massive mobilization in Hong Kong against the repressive measures adopted by the Beijing government. Amid this panorama, Latin America was permeated by an environment of social unrest that has manifested itself in different ways on other continents. To this are added a series of endogenous causes that, over the years, have been accumulating a growing dissatisfaction with the persistent inequality in the region.
In this sense, the set of endogenous and exogenous factors that have increased social unrest in LAC led several countries in the region to witness social demonstrations from 2019 to 2022. It is worth noting that in certain cases it has become evident that demonstrations go beyond the peaceful sphere and become vandalism and violent mobilizations, drawing attention for their coordination and articulation. This situation affects collective security and the governability of States, constituting a factor of instability. For this reason, an essential question arises: Can certain social movements in Latin America distort the right to social protest and exacerbate the political-social conflict, affecting the institutional and democratic stability of States?
In addition, a reflection is made on the nature of the demonstrations that have been experienced in LAC during 2019, their implications for the public and democratic order of the countries, as well as the response that has been given by the public force to this situation.
Contentious Social and Political Protest in LAC
Social movements have been an active feature of society. However, their conceptualization and historical study are relatively recent. Eric Hoffer, a pioneer in the study of social movements, addresses a psychosocial perspective on the motivations that lead individuals to form these groups. For him, all mass movements gain followers by appealing to a set of emotions, frustrations, and personal motivations.
Subsequently, authors such as Charles Tilly and Craig Calhoun defined the term “social movement” as the only form of political contestation. According to the authors, democratization fosters the formation of social movements, which combine three types of demands: programmatic, identity and opposition. In addition, the political context, imitative processes, communication, and collaboration facilitate the creation of social movements.
Since the twentieth century, social movements have been placed in a context focused on industrial and technological development, where technological and information penetration is incorporated into human customs and traditions. As Dylan Taylor describes it, this situation has transformed society and its structures in terms of economic and political control, as it expands towards the pursuit of control of information, networks, and technology. Pursuant to the historical conceptualization that has been made about social movements, in the inter-American framework, social mobilization and/or social protest is understood as a form of individual or collective action aimed at expressing ideas, visions or values of dissent, opposition, denunciation, or vindication.
Social protest is also linked to the defense and promotion of democracy. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has recognized that, in situations of rupture of the democratic order, a social protest must be understood “not only within the framework of the exercise of a right but also in the fulfillment of the duty to defend democracy.” In this sense, democratic societies contemplate social protest as a legitimate citizen exercise through which rights are claimed and duties are claimed.
Under this logic, social protest is called to make visible processes of vindication and expression of social movements that use this democratic mechanism as a strategy to promote ideas, interests, and rights. Among the groups that make these calls are: organized civil society, Non-Governmental Organizations, religious entities, educational centers, research institutes, unions, professional associations, and political parties. However, as pointed out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), social protest can also be spontaneous, since through it a single person, small groups of people, or multitudinous groups can be expressed in which thousands of individuals can articulate without a specific associative membership with more structured organizations.
Concerning the modalities of social protest, it should be noted that, although they are established through national and international legislation, some of the modalities generate conflict in terms of the weighing of rights. Without going into a legal analysis of some of these forms of protest, it is clear that there are situations in which complexities arise to harmonize the rights at stake.
In this regard, the IACHR has indicated that “whatever the modality of the protest, the inter-American instruments establish that the right to assembly must be exercised peacefully and without weapons.” Additionally, it is indicated that the State may restrict participation in public demonstrations and protests to persons who commit acts of violence or who carry weapons. Likewise, the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that “States have the duty to adopt the necessary measures to prevent acts of violence, guarantee the safety of people -including demonstrators- and maintain public order.”
A social protest whose beginning and end are developed for the sake of the vindication of rights through peaceful means has the legitimacy and protection granted by a democratic State. However, those demonstrations aimed at vandalizing and destroying public space must be considered violent social mobilizations, which the State must control according to the provisions of the law and the international normative framework.
The academy has made a study of that modality used by certain social groups that incite violent mobilization. Also, over the past two decades, political science scholars have sought to unify the analysis of various forms of confrontational politics (from peaceful protests and populist movements to violent terrorist campaigns and insurgencies) in an academic field called Contentious Politics. As described by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, contentious politics focuses on collective grievances and calls to action ranging from the most peaceful expressions of collective support to the most devastating and violent attacks.
In this context, violence becomes a mechanism of political action that includes strategies that promote robberies, looting, kidnappings, and rapes. Under this modality, victims are killed randomly and indiscriminately. Thus, it is appropriate to compare what the academy has called social protest, a violent and contentious political demonstration with what took place in LAC in 2019.
Democratic Stability of States in LAC
If there is one region in the world that has come to an agreement on the importance of democracy as a form of government of states, that is the Americas. With the signing and adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter (IAC), the States of the Americas committed themselves to the active defense of democracy. Therefore, the Commission is an instrument of the Inter-American Human Rights System that recognizes the right of the peoples of the Americas to democracy, as well as the obligation of their governments to promote and defend it.
Under these provisions, the States of the region have committed themselves to a number of elements that they must comply with to be recognized as democratic States. In this sense, it is emphasized that all citizen action and participation must be done within the framework of the constitutional order admitted, which leads us to think that the scope of application of these provisions implies a deep reflection on the true state of democracy in LAC countries.
According to the postulates of Barbara Walter, to analyze the situation that the world experienced in 2019, one of the best indicators of whether a country will experience a civil war is whether it approaches or moves away from democracy. Under this logic, those countries that call themselves democratic, but that are far from the principles that make a state truly democratic, are called “Anocracies.” This term coined by Professor Ted Robert Gurr refers to those countries that are neither complete autocracies nor democracies, but something in between. For Walter, countries that have characteristics of anocracies are the most likely to enter a civil war. This is due to the constant instability of these governments in political, institutional, and military terms. In fact, the leaders of an anocracy often do not have enough power to handle dissent and ensure the loyalty of their allies.
When reviewing these theoretical considerations versus the reality of democracies in LAC, it could be glimpsed that more than one of the States in the region meets the description of the Anocracies. In the context of the 2019 demonstrations in LAC, there was an erosion of trust in institutions by citizens. In the region, exclusion and inequality continue to be factors that generate new identity groups and coalitions that mobilize political agendas. All this occurs under a weak institutional framework in which States do not guarantee the social welfare of their citizens, nor do they have the sufficient public force to deal with threats to public order, which results in a climate of disorder and anxiety that is exploited by certain social movements to create chaos. Faced with this scenario, as Walter mentions, there are the variables that in an anocracy lead to civil war.
While this may apply to cases in countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, and Bolivia, one cannot speak of the same reality in the case of countries such as Chile or Costa Rica. According to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) 2019 report on the Global State of Democracy, three LAC countries (Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay) are among the top five countries in the world with the highest levels of representative government.
This situation denotes that in the region it is not possible to talk in the same way about the state of democracy in each of the countries. While some of the region’s states are among the most stable democracies in the world, other LAC countries are far from democratic. Despite this, the social mobilization of 2019 occurred both in democratic and non-democratic countries. Therefore, it is necessary to review those elements that exacerbate the political-social conflict in the countries of the region and how these have been reflected in violent social protest or mobilization, which has demanded an institutional response within the democratic framework of their governments.
Inequality and the Technology Gap as a Cause of Social Discontent
LAC remains one of the most unequal regions in the world in terms of income. The richest 10 % of the population captures 22 times more national income than the poorest 10 %  Towards the end of 2019, the citizens of the region showed signs of discomfort, demanding more and better services, as well as greater opportunities for social mobility. Such was the case in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador, where citizens mobilized demanding a broad agenda of legitimate rights of a democratic society. From the perspective of public opinion, the media identified the inequality factor as the main cause of social unrest in these countries.
Although inequality is a crucial element when studying social movements in LAC, in the case of the mobilizations of 2019, it is not the only element to consider. In fact, by studying separately the most significant cases of social mobilization in the region, it can be seen that those countries with similar levels of inequality had very different citizen reactions. For example, according to the most recent data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Chile has the lowest level of inequality on the continent; however, it was the country in the region where social protest gained the most strength. Therefore, the factor of inequality is not exclusive compared to other elements that encourage citizen mobilization.
In that sense, it could be said that –currently- citizens perceive reality differently and mobilize for other causes. As Taylor already mentioned, twenty-first-century citizenship is expressed through networks and technology. This new discussion scenario has acquired a fundamental relevance when reading the feelings and thinking of the population. For this reason, the social unrest of today’s citizens is expressed in social networks, which gives it a dynamic that transcends beyond the limits of the borders of countries. In the case of the social protests of 2019, which occurred in a context of international social unrest, they had a large-scale replicating effect throughout the LAC region.
According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), active citizenship in social networks in LAC reached -until June 2019- 454 million users, a very significant number in the region. This situation reflects that the debate, the convening, the mobilization, and the perception of the situations go through a new virtual scenario. In this context, the debate in networks has also been permeated by fake news, cyberattacks, and other modalities difficult to control, having a multiplier effect and influence on people’s perception. As described by David Denning, this type of action developed in the virtual world of cyberspace can be considered as computer crimes and even cyberterrorism, given their means of intimidation and coercion to promote a political or social objective. They have also demonstrated their ability to produce greater and faster effects than physical movement.
In light of the political objectives of social movements, the use of the media, communication, and technology, raises scenarios that may threaten public order and peaceful protest since it leads to radicalization, the spread of violence, and deep divisions in society, which lead to greater levels of instability, chaos and anarchy.
Exacerbation of Political-Social Conflict and Violence
The processes of redefining citizenship is confronted by new forms of exclusion (such as technology), resulting in different forms of collective action that require innovative responses from the State. In 2019, ALC had a strong political and criminal turmoil, experiencing clashes between security forces and protesters. The Latin American capitals where massive social mobilizations took place did not escape the effects of corruption, violence, and organized crime.
Although Latin America -since the nineties- had been the region with the most homicides in the world, by 2019 this trend increased, with a homicide rate for men aged 18 to 19 estimated at 46 per 100,000, much higher than the risk faced by their peers in other regions. This figure is accompanied by the fact that the largest number of homicides were perpetrated with firearms, which is due to a problem of the presence of an illegal arms market that has a strong connection with drug trafficking, as well as with human trafficking. Consequently, in Latin America, armed violence is directly related to the growing presence of illegal markets in urban environments. These markets consolidate territorial control and protection mechanisms not associated with State agencies and local governments.
Latin American violence is heterogeneous. It encompasses phenomena such as armed conflicts, wars between illicit drug cartels, as well as other manifestations of organized crime and violence that are spreading throughout the region. All these violent groups outside the law have taken advantage of the social disorder caused by the social demonstrations of 2019 to advance their contentious political agenda in the region.
During these mobilizations, concrete acts of violence were characterized that broke into the peaceful character of the protest. In fact, the security forces of several countries in the region had to face: (1) attacks against them, (2) kidnapping of soldiers and policemen, (3) theft of war material, quartermaster and communications, (4) obstruction of military, police and judicial operations and procedures, and (5) prohibition or declaration of closed zones to prevent the presence of troops in reservations and indigenous territories.
At this point, it is worth differentiating between social protest that occurs in a rural environment and that which occurs in an urban environment since, according to the environment in which it takes place, different modalities of protest and violence are visualized. In the Latin American context, in rural areas where illicit crop eradication operations are carried out, it has been evident that during the days of protest the communities attack the public force and the civil eradicators, to prevent the decontamination of the cultivated areas from being carried out. In this way, they delegitimize the actions of the State (represented in its public force), favoring criminal organizations and their illicit sources of financing. This leads to a situation in which criminal organizations take advantage of social protests to advance their violent agenda against public order and legality.
On the other hand, in urban contexts it has also been possible to evidence the infiltration of criminal groups that manage drug trafficking and sale in certain areas of cities, where the situation of chaos and disorder is exploited. In this sense, the carrying of weapons, the destruction, and looting of public and private establishments, the vandalization of public space, as well as the frontal attack against the public force are elements that characterize violence in urban contexts in the framework of social protests.
As Mary Kaldor points out, in the twenty-first century, confrontation has migrated from large rural spaces to urban spaces where there is constant tension between different social groups. According to Kaldor, cities simultaneously nurture inclusive, cosmopolitan, and multicultural communities, alongside racism, class politics based on growing income inequality and religious fundamentalisms to segregate, exclude, and, worse, generate sieges and violent attacks. Within this scenario, destabilizing actors, including criminal and terrorist organizations, emerge that spread fear and promote chaos. This mode of action is what some theorists have called the politics of contentious or politics of confrontation. This form of confrontation also usually occurs under the modality of leaderless resistance, or phantom cell structure. The latter is a strategy of social resistance in which small, independent groups (covert cells) or individuals (a cell called a “lone wolf”) challenge an established institution, law, economic system, social order, or government.
As a result of these excesses and acts of criminality and vandalism carried out in the context of the protests, the public forces of several LAC countries have been forced to take extraordinary measures to maintain public order. These measures include orders for operations in military assistance to the police, applying the doctrine for military control in urban areas. In the Colombian case, priority was given to the use of military units with differential capabilities and less lethal weapons, such as the Urban Special Forces and Military Police Groups. All this led to the public force having units trained and equipped to control localities and combat violent social protests in urban scenarios.
From the point of view of the security forces, at the moment when a social protest turns into a violent mobilization, the responsibility of confronting this type of threat must be assumed to guarantee the normal social development of the population and public order, especially when that internal threat is represented by criminal organizations and illicit economies, protected by violent social protest. If one analyzes this situation by applying Carl von Clausewitz’s theory of the inseparable “wonderful trinity”, one should follow the idea that (1) the Government establishes national interests and objectives, as well as makes the political decision, (2) the Public Force is responsible for the strategy to achieve them and (3) the Society supports the decisions of the government, respecting the institutionality.
The problem consists, then, in how to maintain the balance between these three trends, as if they were three poles of attraction. The actions of the security forces in the context of social protest are governed by the domestic legal system and the inter-American legal framework. Much has been said about the excessive use of force and proportionality when it comes to containing acts of vandalism in mobilizations. Each of the entities has initiated the respective investigation processes, as well as visits have been made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to clarify the facts. However, an image of distrust has been generated about the institutionality and legitimacy of the action of the security forces.
This situation shows the imbalance that exists in what Clausewitz determined as the “wonderful trinity” because, according to the theory, it is understood that the government is the one who plans the policy on behalf of the people, while the public force is the entity in charge within the institutional order with the capacity and effectiveness to enforce said policy. In situations of violent social mobilization, the public force responds to the policy directed by the State, on behalf of citizens, to guarantee peace and order. The moment that balance is broken, the social-political conflict is exacerbated. Therefore, the strength of democratic institutions plays a fundamental role in maintaining order and stability.
Social movements in LAC are an active part of social protest. This affirmation translates an explicit reality that is glimpsed in the public square, in the streets, and in the networks, where social movements are seen that demand rights in situations of profound inequality. Likewise, social protest does not arise exclusively as a result of inequality in LAC. As previously analyzed, when reviewing the indicators of social well-being, security, poverty, education, and governance, there is a very uneven reality among the countries of the region. Although certain countries could fall into what Walter calls the Anocracy, a social manifestation of the magnitude that was experienced in Chile does not respond to the same reality or circumstances, since it is a country with a more consolidated economic, social and democratic performance.
The same applies to the analysis of the state of democracy in the region since it reaffirms the idea that not only in less democratic countries is social protest more recurrent. In fact, social protest is framed in the legislation of genuinely democratic countries. So, how is the political-social conflict exacerbated in Latin American societies in the twenty-first century?
Although giving a single answer that covers the reality of the entire region is very difficult, it has been possible to identify certain elements that characterize situations common to most of them. The citizens of the XXI century are mobilized in scenarios where social unrest escalates rapidly until it reaches even beyond the limits of the borders of the countries, at a great speed, enhanced by new technologies. In that sense, citizens are permeated by the public debate that today also reaches social networks and encourages the massive mobilization of people.
This new scenario of convocation and discussion, such as social networks, is also infiltrated by actors outside the law that promote disinformation and violence. In particular, Latin America – where criminal and terrorist groups advance a political agenda that destabilizes institutions – has been a victim of the actions of these groups in social mobilizations, taking them out of their peaceful sphere. The modality of operation of these social movements that destabilize and generate chaos has been characterized by academics as “contentious politics.” The challenge for the security forces has been to respond to those threats to institutional security and stability without violating the democratic right to protest. All this is for the sake of maintaining the balance of the “wonderful trinity” mentioned by Clausewitz. To this end, the armies of the region have developed innovative methodologies that allow them to identify criminal actors in the multiple scenarios where they operate today.
The social mobilization of 2019 in LAC (1) occurred in both democratic and non-democratic countries, (2) occurred in deeply unequal countries and those with better welfare indicators, (3) occurred in countries with important technological advances and those lagging behind, as well as (4) it was a transversal phenomenon in which citizens demanded a wide range of demands that ended up tarnished in most of the cases of violence. This has exacerbated the political-social conflict, affecting the institutional stability of the States and jeopardizing the state of democracy in the region.
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- Dylan Taylor, “Social movements and democracy in the 21st century”. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (2017), 66, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-39684-2 ↑
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- RELE, “Protesta y Derechos Humanos” ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- United Nations Human Rights Council, “Informe del Relator Especial sobre los derechos a la libertad de reunión pacífica y de asociación”, United Nations (New York: 2012), https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session20/A-HRC-20-27_sp.pdf ↑
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- OAS, “Carta Democrática Interamericana” Treaty, Organization of American States (Lima: September 11, 2001), https://www.oas.org/charter/docs_es/resolucion1_es.htm ↑
- Barbara F. Walter, “How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them” (New York: Penguin Random House, 2022) ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- IDEA, “The Global State of Democracy 2019 Addressing the Ills, Reviving the Promise”, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Stockholm: 2019), https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/the-global-state-of-democracy-2019-summary.pdf ↑
- Matías Busso and Julián Messina, “La crisis de la desigualdad, América Latina y el Caribe en la encrucijada”, Inter-American Development Bank (2020), 24, file:///C:/Users/51988/Downloads/La-crisis-de-la-desigualdad-America-Latina-y-el-Caribe-en-la-encrucijada.pdf ↑
- Dorothy E. Denning, “Activism, hacktivism, and cyberterrorism: The Internet as a tool for influencing foreign policy” Networks and netwars: The future of terror, crime, and militancy, Journal STORage (2001), 239-288, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mr1382osd.13?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents ↑
- María Alejandra Navarrete and Anastasia Austin, “Balance de homicidios en las capitales de América Latina en 2019”, Insight Crime ( March 5 2020), https://es.insightcrime.org/noticias/analisis/balance-homicidios-capitales-2019/ ↑
- UNODC, “Estudio Mundial sobre el Homicidio”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Vienna: July 2019), https://www.unodc.org/documents/ropan/2021/HOMICIOS_EN_ESPANOL.pdf ↑
- Lucia Dammert, “Estrategias globales de reducción de violencia urbana en América Latina,” One Institute for Disarmament Research UNIDIR (2020), https://unidir.org/commentary/estrategias-globales-de-reduccion-de-violencia-urbana-en-america-latina-1 ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Roberto D. Ortiz, “Guerrilla y narcotráfico en Colombia” Center for Security Studies and Analysis University of Granada (2000), https://www.ugr.es/~ceas/America%20Latina/Guerrilla%20y%20narcotrafico%20en%20Colombia.pdf ↑
- Mary Kaldor and Saskia Sassen, “Cities at War: Global Insecurity and Urban Resistance” (Columbia University Press, March 2020). ↑
- Eugene Decream and Benati Stefano. “The mechanics of contentious politics” ↑
- Louis Beam, “Leaderless Resistance”, louisbeam.com (February 1992), http://www.louisbeam.com/leaderless.htm ↑
- CEDOC, “Protocolo de actuación frente a eventos de violencia o vías de hecho por parte de personal civil contra integrantes del Ejército Nacional,” (Bogotá, Education and Doctrine Command of the National Army of Colombia, 2019). ↑
- Carlos Enrique Álvarez, Carlos Giovanni Corredor and Omar Ferney Vanegas, “Pensamiento y cultura estratégica en Seguridad y Defensa: bases para la construcción de una gran estrategia del Estado”, Military School of Cadets General José María Córdova (Bogotá: 2019), https://librosesmic.com/index.php/editorial/catalog/download/20/16/219?inline=1 ↑