(Bloomberg Opinion) — When wildfire ripped through Bolivia’s Chiquitania region last year, razing a swath of forest the size of Belgium, the official response was tepid. Then-President Evo Morales had encouraged the blazes with a decree making it easier for farmers — a key constituency for any leader seeking reelection — to clear their land with fire. Nor was there much fuss from abroad, where all the handwringing was over the burning Brazilian Amazon. So Jhanisse Vaca Daza and her band of fellow human rights activists got creative.
Waiting for nightfall, they beamed images of the blaze on the side of the environment ministry building in La Paz, converting the conflagration into a national spectacle. The guerilla theater provoked public outrage and ultimately shamed Bolivia’s new government into rescinding the incendiary executive decree — a rare win for civil society inured to slash-and-burn partisan politics and government by fiat.
Latin Americans should take note. In a hemisphere prey to populists and institutional capture, democracy and the rule of law too often seem like damaged goods. While the region boasts the highest level of voter participation in the world, corruption is rife and income inequality is second to none. In a recent survey, Latinobarometro found that support for democracy had sunk to a dismal 48%, while those professing indifference to authoritarianism had more than doubled to 28% since 2009. “Never in the last four decades has the future of democracy been as threatened as it is today,” the Brookings Institution’s Daniel Zovatto concluded.
The funk filled the streets with demonstrators and mutineers last year. Coronavirus dampened the protests, but only compounded the frustrations. As growth plunged, the burden fell disproportionately on the poor, especially those who work hand to mouth in what Manuel Orozco, an economist at Creative Associates International, called the world’s largest informal economy. And since felony loves misery, Latin America’s violent crime epidemic — with 8% of the world’s population but 37% of its homicides — is unlikely to abate.
So aspiring young adults could be forgiven for seeing organized politics as Latin America’s preexisting condition. It’s far more energizing to hit the streets in a Guy Fawkes mask than to stump for votes in parties run by fossils in suits. “If you are a young idealist in Latin America, you don’t join a political party but a movement. Parties are seen as the homes of opportunists and crooks. That’s bad, because this way parties remain what they are today,” says Moises Naim, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.
Bolivian politics is dominated by caciques — party bosses —who leverage divisions of class, race and culture for electoral advantage. That toxic combination helped to poison last year’s election, which ended in cries of vote rigging, insurrection and an ostensible coup d’etat. Morales, a leftwing populist turned authoritarian, was replaced by populist rightwinger Jeanine Anez, who turned her seat as caretaker into a throne. While neither will be on the ballot (Morales is in exile and Anez was pressured to drop her candidacy), next month’s thrice-delayed election threatens to deliver more of the same. “There’s still a big risk the elections could be unsuccessful, with no smooth path to transition,” said Rodrigo Riaza, of the Economist Intelligence Unit. Hence, Riaza added, the next government could face not only an economy ravaged by Covid-19 and worsening fiscal and current account deficits, but a crisis of governability.
Daza, aged 27, knows the drill. As a rising voice of dissent, she was a catch for struggling party elders searching for viable candidates. Daza demurred, turned off by Bolivia’s corrosive politics. Nor was she convinced by the Andean nation’s tired trope of dissent, with marches, roadblocks, takeovers of public buildings and strikes accounting for some 90% of all public protests.
“We realized these protests were repetitive and easy for authorities to ignore,” Daza told me. She founded Standing Rivers, a civic group, to reboot activism, through non-violence and civil disobedience. Daza’s inspiration came from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Greta Thunberg, North Korea’s Park Yeonmi and native daughter and feminist Domitila Chungara. “Political parties have a very vertical structure and a militant mindset,” she said. “Movements are more agile, can grow quickly and have shared leadership, making us less predictable.”
Whether movements are better at effecting change is an open question.
What the region needs is not only rage but renovation. Renan Ferreirinha made the leap. As a kid in Sao Goncalo, a mostly poor, crime-ridden city across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, he knew a lot about life at the losing end of Brazil’s lopsided democracy. He landed a scholarship to Harvard, studied politics under democracy scholar Steven Levitsky, and came back intent on rebelling from within, winning a seat in the Rio state legislature in 2018. Why slog into politics when his peers were marching? “The only way to change Brazil is through education, and the only way to strengthen education is through political decisions.”
Rio was a critical case, where bottom-feeding politicians had done their worst. Four of the preceding five state governors have been jailed or implicated in crimes. A sixth, Wilson Witzel, is on the edge of impeachment for his alleged ties to a scheme to pillage the public health system amid the coronavirus pandemic. A 26-year-old freshman lawmaker, Ferreirinha helped make the case. His report flagged seven projected field hospitals approved on Witzel’s watch in varying states of disrepair, with only around 200 of the 1,300 beds promised for treating Covid-19 patients in operation. On September 23, the state assembly voted 69 to 0 to send Witzel to an impeachment tribunal. Ferreirinha called it a victory for politics.
“When I first saw the Brazilian congress, my friends called it a zoo. I thought it was fascinating. It’s the place where decisions are made about spending billions that change lives,” he told me. “Young people have energy and idealism, but we need to channel it. We can’t fix democracy if we don’t strengthen institutions and become part of the process.”
It’s no mystery what ails the Latin America. “Why does the region lag in global competitiveness? Why do we lead the world in violent crime, inequality and the informal economy?” said Naim. “We know the list. The way forward is through reform, and that is a political process.”
For the young and frustrated, that may seem like the low road to a better world. Yet Latin Americans need to be both woke and effective, and that means finding the way from the barricades to the ballot box.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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