The ambivalence of the Latin American Left in the face of protests

Gerardo Lissardy

BBC Mundo, Brazil

Last update: Monday, February 24 2014


The street protests that have erupted in Venezuela, Brazil and other Latin American countries represent a special challenge for the Left, which grew thanks to popular mobilization in the region

Set in different backdrops and characterized by different demands, the recent revolts by Venezuelan students, Brazilian citizens, Nicaraguan pensioners or Bolivian indigenous people share a common denominator: They have emerged without any clear political allegiances, creating a complex situation for Left-wing governments.

There have been violent confrontations between police and demonstrators, who have accused the authorities of using excessive force.

According to experts, the way in which the governing Left has reacted to these protests, at times with repudiation and at others with bafflement, reflects a certain difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that popular mobilization can be used against them.

“Up to now they have been under the impression that the streets belong to them, that the demands that are made on the streets are demands directed to those in power, and generally speaking that power has been “reactionary”, “right-wing” or “”fascist”, said Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan historian who specializes in popular protests.

“And now they face an enormous challenge, because even though they are the ones in power there are still protests on the streets”, added Mrs. López during a conversation with BBC Mundo.


The region has witnessed several protests recently that have been affected by vandalism and violence, which governments have been quick to condemn. Also, opposing politicians have tried to channel this discontent in their favor.

However, presidents have responded in inconsistent fashion when facing popular demands.

During the large wave of popular demonstrations last year in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff asked for “people in the streets to be heard” and for their complaints to be answered.

However, her silence was quite noticeable at the beginning of the revolts that were fuelled by increases in public transport, woeful quality of public services and huge spending associated to the World Cup, all of which led to her popularity plummeting for several months.

A former guerrilla and member of the Workers Party (PT), Rousseff declared on Wednesday that her government is drafting a bill in order to “curtail any form of violence in public demonstrations”, and that she could resort to the armed forces during this year’s World Cup if new acts of vandalism emerge.

The Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, has claimed that there is a hidden coup attempt brooding behind the recent protests initiated by students, which have now received wider social and political support.

Maduro also defended his decision to arrest opposition leader Leopoldo López accusing him of “calling to sedition” –an accusation rejected by his opponent– and declared he was willing to use “all necessary military force” in the state of Táchira, the region where recent protests in Venezuela first broke out.

In conversations with BBC Mundo, Heinz Dieterich, a German sociologist who coined the concept “21st Century Socialism”, said that Maduro was right to use the State’s force to repress violence, but that he was “totally wrong for not proposing a structural project to solve problems.”

According to the German intellectual, who was close to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez until they distanced themselves, the political systems in the region suffer from shortcomings such as those also apparent in the Chile of Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing president who had to confront strong student protests.

“Governments are entrenched in their own structures, and their communication channels of with popular needs seem to work in just one direction: top down,” said Dieterich to BBC Mundo.

“They have no sensors to detect what citizens and social movements want” he added. “This means that citizens have to take to the streets or take up stronger forms of dissidence”.

“Fair Wars”

Some believe that social discontent in certain countries of the region governed by the Left can be attributable to the desire of many to obtain greater improvements after many years of social programs which, in the case of Brazil, have allowed millions to leave poverty.

However, economic conditions have worsened in several countries, amid lower levels of growth and limited fiscal resources.

Venezuelan political scientist Carlos Romero indicated that demonstrations must also be viewed from the perspective of expectations generated by the Left for many years, and which have not been met.

He believes that the Left has accumulated a great deal of experience in trade unions and political parties, but that it now “faces an enormous challenge” embodied by the demands of social movements, often without a concrete structure or ideology to back it up.

In Nicaragua, led by the Sandinista Daniel Ortega, there was palpable irritation in 2013 after the forceful ejection of elderly people complaining about their unpaid pensions. In the Bolivia of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of the country, there have been clashes between police and the indigenous people opposed to the construction of roads

In the last couple of years Argentina has had to deal with street protests organised via social networks against the government of Cristina Fernández, member of a Peronist movement that has used the streets to great advantage in the past.

This in no way means that the Left has abandoned its strategy of popular mobilization.

Recently we have also seen large demonstrations in Venezuela in favor of Maduro and in December and January Colombia also witnessed huge demonstrations against the petition to oust the Mayor of Bogotá, the former guerilla Gustavo Petro.

But some see the Left mirred in a contradiction. It preaches in favor of street mobilizations or the guerillas of the past, but when in power it deems protests as violent or destabilizing manouvers.

“They repress demonstrations, speak against them and easily turn to the vocabulary formerly used by the Right”, said Marcelo Coutinho, a Brazilian lecturer in international relations and expert in Latin America.

Others instead believe that circumstances have changed.

The Uruguayan President, José Mujica, a former guerilla who has not suffered large protests during his tenure, referred to the situation and in Venezuela: “before we had what could be called fair wars, especially those linked to freedom movements”.

“However, in the last 20 or 30 years,” he said while interviewed on the Venezuelan TV station TeleSur, “every war or form of violence has ended up damaging those who are naturally weakest.”


Translated by: #InfoVenezuela

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