InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion entitled "States of Unrest: Understanding Latin American Society," which featured the Peruvian-Brazilian scholar Yasmin Calmet. Calmet is a professor of political science and sociology at the Catholic University of Santa María in Peru, and former professor at the Federal University of Fronteira Sul and the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil. She was also a researcher at the Institute of Andean Political Studies (IEPA) in Peru and the International Security and Defense Studies Group (GESED) in Brazil.
The Case of Latin America
The panel discussion examined several features of Latin American societies, which can be summarized as follows:
1. Blended Ethnic Composition: Latin American societies are diverse societies in which indigenous residents coexist alongside immigrants from all over the world. There are ethnicities and nationalities from Europe, Asia, and Africa. As a result of this blend of cultures, Latin America has become a unique site for interaction and exchange between different groups of people.
2. Adapting to Linguistic Diversity: Despite the prevalence of Spanish and Portuguese, there are more than 500 languages in Latin America, with more than one local language in each country. This affects societal cohesion and the government’s capacity to impose its authority over different regions.
3. A Long Legacy of Colonialism: Latin American societies suffer from the ongoing legacy of colonialism, including concentration of land ownership, uneven distribution of resources, delays in modernization and industrialization, and low levels of education, which has produced fragile societies with tense relationships between the state and society.
4. Concentration of Populations in Major Cities: Latin America societies are characterized by an uneven population distribution: most of the population is concentrated in major cities (such as Lima, Sao Paolo, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, and others). This increases the pressure on these cities and contributes to the rise of informal settlements, organized crime, and lack of access to basic services. About 85 percent of the population of Latin America live in urban areas, and about 35 percent in large urban areas with populations over a million. Over 10 million people live in each of the five largest cities: Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.
5. Rise of Extreme Poverty Throughout the Region: The overwhelming trend in Latin America is towards increasing poverty. The rates of extreme poverty in Latin America are around 33.7 percent, while 10 percent of population receive 37 percent of the region’s GNI (Gross National Income), while the poorest 40 percent of the population receive only 13 percent of its GNI.
6. Growing Concerns About School Dropout Rates: Latin American countries are facing a huge wave of students dropping out of school at all levels. Statistics indicate that only 24 percent of youth obtain university degrees, while the rest do not attend university, and students at all levels of education drop out of school because of poverty. Furthermore, educational institutions are limited to major cities.
Explaining Ongoing Instability
The participants offered various explanations for the ongoing instability in Latin America, including the following:
1. Rise of Populist Movements: Latin America is home to many populist movements, which are seen as part of the anti-colonial legacy of the region. Despite Latin American populism’s ties with the left and leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, the populist right remains active, and is using rhetoric that tries to garner widespread support in order to come to power. Latin America has witnessed the rise of right-wing populist leaders such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and Sebastián Piñera in Chile.
2. Negative Impact of Large International Corporations: Political elites have blamed Latin America’s instability on foreign corporations working in oil, mining, infrastructure, and other sectors, and which view the citizens of these countries as nothing more than cheap labor. These corporations do not abide by any sense of social responsibility and take advantage of the investment climate in order to make huge profits and exploit the countries’ resources.
3. Rise of Kleptocracy: Latin American countries are known to have some of the most corrupt political elites. There are many kleptocracies festering in the region, and corruption exists at every level of government.
4. Gang Control of "Ungoverned Regions": There are organized crime gangs that control forest and other remote areas. These areas have become "ungoverned regions" beyond the control of national governments. The gangs carry out illegal activities such as growing, manufacturing, and selling drugs, human and arms trafficking, and cross-border smuggling. They run huge black market economies, and pay bribes to the police, law enforcement, and politicians in return for being allowed to continue their activities.
5. Social Movements Across the Region: These protest movements are considered a key feature of Latin American societies. These movements organize political life outside the framework of political institutions and try to galvanize opposition protests to denounce inequality and the unjust distribution of resources, limited access to basic services, lack of security, and rampant corruption among political elites.
6. Politicization of Military Institutions: In some Latin American countries, military institutions have played a central role in politics in light of the heated political conflicts in these countries. They have shifted the balance of power and reserved the right to intervene in politics in order to protect the country from collapsing under instability and chaos. These circumstances have led to an increasing incidence of military coups in the region.
7. Targeted by Foreign Interference: Latin America has a long history of foreign intervention. For decades, the US has organized large-scale security operations in the region in order to counter drug smuggling and to dismantle organized crime networks. According to the main speaker on the panel, the US has frequently played a role in destabilizing countries in order to support political regimes that can serve as allies to the US, and to counter leftist and populist movements that oppose its presence or threaten its economic and political interests. This situation has exacerbated the political and security crisis in Latin America.
In conclusion, the participants focused on the future of cooperation between Arab and Latin American countries, especially in the economic sphere. They indicated that there were many potential opportunities in Latin America in spite of the elevated risk for investment, security threats, political instability, ongoing unrest, and regime changes.