As the Occupy movement moves into its fifth month, continuing to generate a critical mass in the United States, reactions to the movement throughout the Americas have been comparatively restrained.
Last fall, Occupy protests in Mexico and Argentina drew crowds of no more than a few hundred, and local press coverage of the happenings to the north has run the gamut from curious to skeptical. The great exception is Chile, where for almost a year a robust student movement challenged entrenched neoliberal educational policies and the de-fanging of public education. The student uprisings constituted a virtual referendum on the government of Sebastián Piñera, and forged important links to Occupy student movements in the United States.
Chile aside, one reason for the relatively muted interest is that, throughout Latin America, the concerns sustaining the momentum of Occupy in the United States have been at the center of Latin American repertoires of protest and social change for decades now.
Take Argentina. The country was the poster child for structural readjustment throughout the 1990s. Ex-president Carlos Menem infamously remarked that the privatization of state industries and the sale of national infrastructure to the highest bidder were necessary measures akin to “major surgery without anesthesia.” The painful results of that operation are by now familiar. In late December 2001, Argentina defaulted on its debt and plunged half of the population into poverty. Widespread popular rebellion against globalization and the local political class met with state repression that resulted in an estimated forty deaths. As tear gas smoldered in the Plaza de Mayo, the symbolic center of the nation, then president Fernando de la Rúa fled office in a helicopter. He was followed in quick succession by a series of four presidents in one month.
Ten years later, any visitor to Buenos Aires would be hard pressed to reconcile those scenes of uprising and institutional collapse with the Plaza de Mayo today. The plaza has recently been the site of jubilant celebrations to mark the reelection of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the successor to the government of her late husband, Néstor Kirchner.
Since taking office in 2003, the Kirchners oversaw, in no particular order, a groundbreaking child welfare allowance; a progressive immigration law, including a fast track to citizenship; the legalization of same-sex marriage; and the prosecution, after bitter reversals of justice, of the military officers responsible for the state terror of the “Dirty War.”
All of this, coupled with unanticipated economic recovery and growth rates of 7 percenta year. In 2001 – 2002, the resounding call of the uprisings was “Qué se vayan todos!” (They all must go!). A decade on, the popular protests, far from fulfilling the promise of extended rebellion, paved the way for the most socially accountable government in Argentina since the return to democracy in the 1980s. Factory takeovers, neighborhood assemblies, highway blockades, and the ongoing struggles of historic human rights groups occupied Argentina, and they continue to do so. Though not without their internal tensions and contradictions, the movements that forged the changes at the beginning of this century overhauled politics and redefined expectations for the common good.
This democratic opening has not been limited to Argentina. Throughout Latin America, the social movements and governments that came to power during the 2000s are realizing the promise of justice and rights that animated transitions to democracies in the 1980s. During Latin America’s so called “lost decade,” newly restored democracies throughout the region attempted to address the legacies of military repression and violence, while adopting IMF and US-imposed neoliberal policies.
The widespread embrace of neoliberalism in the 1990s and the subsequent implosion of that model paved the way for the movements currently underway. It has not been a seamless process. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, the nation’s first indigenous president, recently came under fire from the left over a proposed highway project. And Dilma Rousseff, a former revolutionary and Brazil’s first female president, faces the task of consolidating Brazil’s role as a global economic leader while maintaining the support of her progressive political base. Despite these challenges, social movements have continued to set the terms of mainstream political debates, defining the parameters of citizenship and social action – and to a large measure succeeding – during the first decade of this century.
The world’s richest man is from Mexico. That fact is a biting symbol for the types of inequality that still exist in Latin America. Yet over the past decade, poverty and income inequality have been on the decline throughout the region, a direct result of the left-leaning governments that came to power during the 2000s. Some observers have called this the “Decade of Latin America.” On the surface, it is easy to see why.
Last December, thirty-three Latin American leaders met in Caracas for the inaugural meeting of CELAC (The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States). The group, which touts itself as an alternative to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), represents one more step toward the historic, Bolivarian call for Latin American integration. The United States and Canada were not invited. Viewed from the North, Latin America has long been the testing ground for the designs of U.S. empire. But any reading of the past three decades of Latin American political and social life must also account for the persistence of robust social movements and the daily practice of democracy that we see echoed from Lower Manhattan to Washington State today.
The Occupy protests may not be generating much attention in Latin America, but that silence is deceptive. This is indeed a moment of democratic transition throughout the Americas, from the student protests in Chile, to the Occupy movement, to the creation of CELAC. Let’s hope that a decade from now, we will be able to look back on these early months of Occupy protests and note how much Americans have fulfilled the promise of democracy along the lines of Latin America during the 2000s. Certainly, some have already begun to.
Jennifer Adair is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American and Caribbean history at New York University. She lives in Buenos Aires.