This year, several countries in Latin America have witnessed major upheavals, including mass protests, political conflicts, and law enforcement issues. From protests against alleged election fraud in Bolivia and demonstrations against economic inequality in Chile and Ecuador, to political unrest in Venezuela and the cartel war in Mexico, trouble has been brewing across the region.
Bolivia: Protests over an election result
This week, protests have roiled Bolivia, where many have questioned the fairness of the country’s general elections held last week. The polls have brought incumbent President Evo Morales back to power for a fourth term.
After elections were held on October 20, initial results showed a tight race between Morales and his rival Carlos Mesa, a former President. Soon after, the publication of results by the election body was abruptly stopped for 24 hours. After it resumed, Morales was shown as leading by a greater margin, a lead of more than 10 per cent. In Bolivian polls, if the margin between the top two candidates is less than 10 per cent, a runoff or second election is held between them. The results were seen with suspicion, and protesters rallied on the streets. An affirmation of the results on October 25 by the election authorities further irked protesters.
Critics allege that the vote was rigged during the 24 hours when the publication was cut off, and the US, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia have urged Bolivia to conduct a second round of voting.
Chile: Metro fare hike triggers riots
Chile has been rocked by protests since the beginning of October, which began when the country’s transport authority announced a 4 per cent rise in subway fares. Chile has been described as one of Latin America’s most prosperous yet unequal economies.
After the fares were hiked, school students launched a fare-dodging campaign on the Santiago Metro. Following this, the campaign kept growing, and violent incidents forced transport authorities to close stations on three of the Metro’s seven lines on October 15.
On October 18, the entire grid had to be closed, and President Sebastián Piñera declared a 15-day curfew. Violent demonstrations continued through the curfew, and the riots spread to other cities such as Concepción, San Antonio and Valparaíso. Piñera cancelled the fee hike on October 19, and launched a package of reform measures three days later. Protesters remained unimpressed, and over one million marched in Santiago on October 26.
Up to 18 have reportedly died in the protests. Metro stations have been destroyed, supermarkets set afire, stores have been looted, and public infrastructure has sustained considerable damage. The protests have been described as the most tumultuous of the last 30 years, since the country returned to democracy at the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s blood-soaked dictatorship.
Ecuador: Clashes over fuel subsidy
Ecuador saw large scale protests earlier this month after President Lenín Moreno on October 1 announced a rollback of fuel subsidies that were in place in the Andean nation since the 1970s.
In 2017, Ecuador voted out leftist leader Rafael Correa and elected Lenín Moreno, who ran on the platform of making the country’s economy more market-oriented.
In March 2019, the oil-dependent Ecuador secured a $10.2 billion bailout package from international institutions, which included a loan from the IMF of $4.2 billion. The subsidy rollback was announced in order to meet the IMF targets.
After the government cancelled the fuel subsidies, petrol and diesel prices shot up, and a massive backlash followed on the streets. The protests, led by the country’s indigenous groups, clashed with security forces, and agitators even entered some of Ecuador’s oil fields.
President Moreno was forced to shift his government from capital Quito to the coastal city of Guayaquil, where there were fewer disturbances. On October 14, Moreno was forced to withdraw the IMF package and reintroduce fuel subsidies.
Venezuela: A downward slide
The heavily oil-dependent country’s troubles first began with the fall in crude prices starting in 2014.
President Nicolás Maduro, who came to power in 2013 after the death of his popular predecessor Hugo Chávez, found it increasingly difficult to ensure the safety and security of citizens. In 2014, as many as 3000 homicides were reported in the first two months, and 43 were killed in protests. The food shortage became acute– a 2016 survey found that 75 per cent of the population had lost up to 8.7 kg of weight due to lack of the required nutritious food. In 2017, Maduro had the Opposition-controlled legislature dissolved, and ordered the creation of a new legislative body called the Constituent Assembly.
In May 2018, Maduro won a highly controversial re-election in the midst of economic and humanitarian crises that continued to plague the country. With the executive and the judiciary under his control, Maduro sought to curtail the powers of the National Assembly. The legislature resisted, and its leader Juan Guaidó questioned the government’s legitimacy.
In January 2019, Guaidó declared himself interim President of Venezuela. Since then, 50 countries, including the US, have recognised Guaidó as the country’s rightful president. In August 2019, talks between Maduro and Guaidó collapsed after the US slapped further sanctions against Maduro’s government.
Mexico: A war on drugs
Since 2006, Mexico has been in the middle of a ‘War on Drugs’ fought between the government and drug trafficking syndicates. So far, more than 200,000 people have been killed in gang-fueled violence and over 40,000 are missing.
After December 2018, when left-leaning López Obrador came to power, Mexico has adopted a less belligerent approach, addressing the root causes of violence, in particular reducing poverty, stamping out entrenched corruption, and giving young adults job opportunities. According to Reuters, this policy is yet to show results, as homicides in 2019 were on track to surpass last year’s record.
After it was first launched, the crackdown led to the splintering of Mexico’s cartels and some notable wins for the government, including the arrest of ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. The former was extradited to the US, and in February 2019 was found guilty of smuggling drugs and sentenced to life in prison.