Latin America’s New Colors of Change
By Josefina Salomon
Street protests are a part of Latin America’s DNA, whether it’s over corruption, authoritarianism or basic human rights being trampled by the region’s elite. But something smells different this time. Independent sparks in different nations are coalescing to form a raging fire of change that’s spreading across one of the world’s most unequal regions.
From a young trans woman demanding social justice in Chile and Indigenous communities winning a criminal lawsuit in Ecuador to a friend of the pope who’s seeking radical land reform in Argentina, a new tide of peoples’ movements is surging across Latin America. That’s bad news for the right, but it’s not great news for the old, discredited left either. Today’s Daily Dose gives you a front-row view of dramatic changes that could redefine the region’s political landscape.
COLOR IT PINK
Protest movements are taking Latin America by storm. The faces are new, and so are their ideas.
Chile’s transformation from a neoliberal experiment led by Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” to a powder keg of leftist activism is one not many saw coming. Then, in 2019, mass protests sparked by a rise in the price of public transportation became a moment of reckoning for the country’s economic model, which has resulted in growth but has also spawned deep inequality over the years. Fast forward through a brutal protest repression, and Chile is now on its way to embracing a new Constitution that’s being drafted by one of the world’s most diverse parliaments. Among those rewriting Chile’s statute book is 59-year-old Alejandra Flores Carlos, an Indigenous woman who was once jailed by the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet and is now tearing down his legacy.
Third Time Lucky?
Public frustration could also help catapult the left into the highest office in Colombia, another nation where conservative politics has traditionally dominated the mainstream. Sen. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter who grew up reading Karl Marx, is a favorite to win 2022’s presidential election, after twice failing to win the race previously. In April, mass protests triggered by opposition to a tax reform paralyzed Colombia for months, underscoring the fast-eroding popularity of the center-right government of President Iván Duque. Petro’s plans include creating a public banking system to give loans to small businesses and expanding free education. But to get across the finish line, the 61-year-old will need to convince Colombia’s youth he has fresh ideas that’ll work for them.
Former President Barack Obama once called Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva the world’s most popular politician. Now 12 years later, “Lula” — a two-time president — is poised to make a stunning political comeback. Exonerated of corruption charges, the former trade union leader is leading in polls for Brazil’s 2022 presidential race, even though he hasn’t formally announced his candidacy. Incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro’s disastrous management of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising unemployment rates in the country have caused the flame-throwing right-wing politician’s disapproval rating to rise to its highest point ever. Lula — if he returns to power — would likely follow a path similar to that of President Joe Biden, emphasizing a center-left agenda to lift South America’s largest economy out of its financial crisis.
Smoke and Mirrors
But in Central America, the current political landscape is a lot more complex: Think left-leaning economic programs mixed with abusive policies. In Nicaragua, Marxist Daniel Ortega first took power in 1979 with a promise to help the most marginalized. But his revolutionary luster has long since faded. What remains is a 75-year-old so scared of democratic elections that his government has jailed dozens of opposition candidates to prevent them from competing against him in the November presidential election. “Daniel Ortega is a dictator who wants to be a king. Any good intentions he had are long gone,” Gonzalo Carrión, a Nicaraguan lawyer and activist who was forced into exile, tells OZY. “He is holding the country hostage with repression and violence.”
BRAINS BEHIND BOLD IDEAS
Latin America is in deep trouble. These rising stars have some bold ideas on how it can be fixed.
If he were French, his name would rhyme with bourgeois. But the Argentine lawyer is focused squarely on tackling a deep economic divide. The social activist — a friend of Pope Francis and Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — wants to tackle poverty and inequality by distributing unused land located far from big cities to those willing to use it to grow food for their local communities. His proposal, which he says was inspired by the Marshall Plan, can help redistribute wealth in the South American nation. How would it be financed? Easy, he says: Raise taxes on the wealthiest and limit politicians’ salaries.
This transgender, feminist leader is one of the most influential young voices in Chile. She was at the forefront of the protest movement that led to the country’s Constitution being rewritten. Schneider says education — with a focus on gender and LGBTQ rights — is the key to long-lasting development, a sometimes unpopular idea in a deeply conservative country. But that doesn’t scare this 24-year-old. Defiance runs deep in her bloodline. She is the great-granddaughter of René Schneider, the military commander-in-chief who was killed in 1970 after refusing to go along with a CIA-backed coup plan aimed at preventing socialist Salvador Allende from coming to power in Chile. “We have to keep seeking new policies to generate fresh changes,” she told Reuters. “Protests alone will not get us there.”
In 2018, Ecuador’s government decided to open up 7 million acres of the Amazon rainforest for oil exploration, without consulting communities living in the area. Nenquimo, an Indigenous leader, led a legal challenge on behalf of her community, the Waorani — and they won, setting a historic precedent protecting 500,000 acres. Thanks to the ruling, the Waorani must now be consulted before any future project can be carried out on the land. Nenquimo is following in the footsteps of her community: Among the Waorani, women are the natural leaders who make the decisions. “It wasn’t until we had contact with the evangelical missionaries that we were told that God created Adam and that Eve came second and was created from Adam’s rib. That’s when the confusion [about women’s role] started,” she told the BBC.
THE GREEN WAVE
Women and LGBTQ people are leading a new type of revolution.
The pink tide might wane, but the green wave is fundamentally changing the face of Latin America. Born on the streets of Argentina, it refers to the green scarves people across the country wore during a campaign to legalize abortion, a goal that was achieved in late 2020, a first in the region. Feminist movements are gaining momentum in several Latin American countries. “They have been the most innovative and effective political movements of the decade in Latin America,” Fernanda Doz Costa, deputy Americas director at Amnesty International, tells OZY. “And their fight has been the toughest one because it requires deep cultural changes.” But the journey ahead won’t be easy. In El Salvador, for example, abortion continues to be illegal, even if a woman’s life is in danger.
Breaking the (Double) Glass Ceiling
Being trans in Latin America can often lead to an early death — the life expectancy of trans people in the region is estimated to be just 35 years. But things have been changing, with trans women conquering many public spaces, including TV, sports and politics, and even taking up leadership roles in some religions. Argentina now allows people to change their gender simply by filling out a form, without needing to undergo surgery as a prerequisite. By contrast, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela require a physical and psychological assessment before a person can change their gender. “Today, a trans woman doesn’t have to be a sex worker or a stylist. Today, we can be anything,” Carla López Masilla, an aspiring social worker from Argentina, tells OZY. “We just need a chance.”
Music and protest have a long shared history across Latin America. From Chilean Víctor Jara’s revolutionary lyrics to the hidden protest messages in María Elena Walsh’s songs for children during Argentina’s military dictatorship, the region’s major political events have often been accompanied by spectacular soundtracks. Today, a bold new generation is taking over. Check out Calle 13’s “Latinoamérica” for a taste, or watch the fearless women of Mexico sing about the shocking wave of femicides rocking the region. And if the future is what you’re into, go straight to the region’s freestyle artists who take some of the most traditional aspects of social protest songs and add a pinch of rap in videos that amass hundreds of millions of views.
- Josefina Salomon, OZY Author Contact Josefina Salomon