Colombia's protests signal a region primed for a new protest wave - part two
The region is not in a new protest wave. It's a continuation from late 2019. Austerity and corruption may spark new protests in the coming months in a number of countries.
One of the most common questions I’ve received over the past week has been some variation of: Are the protests in Colombia going to spread elsewhere in Latin America? The question is based around the fact that other countries must deal with their fiscal situation at some point and that will likely lead to similar protests. A few other authors have addressed the same question including Mac Margolis at Bloomberg.
Fortunately, I already answered that question. In September 2020 I wrote a post titled: Colombia's protests signal a region primed for a new protest wave. I could repeat much of that analysis word for word today. Go read it.
And it was quite a protest wave that followed after I wrote that post.
Guatemala’s Congress burned. Costa Rica was forced to undo a tax reform due to protests. Peru removed two presidents, with Merino el breve lasting only five days. 2021 has also started out quite harshly. Paraguay had serious protests as well as an impeachment attempt in March 2021. Not quite Latin America, but you may also remember there was an insurrection attempt in the US Capitol.
And now we’re back to Colombia again. I covered the Colombia protests in a newsletter for subscribers yesterday. Having failed to address the grievances behind the protests in November 2019 and September 2020, the protests of April/May 2021 are louder and more disruptive and have faced an even more violent repression from the security forces in response.
So today’s newsletter has the same title as the one I wrote eight months ago because this protest is best seen as continuation or escalation of the wave that started in late 2019 and rebounded in late 2020 than something new.
Can the protests in Colombia occur in other countries? Absolutely. Colombia’s protests won’t directly cause events in other countries and every country will experience protests in a different way. But many countries face the same base level economic conditions and public anger as Colombia, meaning the right spark could ignite a major protest.
Where will Latin America have major sustained protests?
There isn’t a country in Latin America that is doing great at the moment. They all have some weaknesses. However, from the factors I look at, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Paraguay are particularly vulnerable to a new wave of protests in the next few months. All four countries have the mix of economic conditions and public opinion factors that make protests likely. Past protests being a key indicator of future protests, all four had some serious protests in late 2020 or early 2021 and three of them failed to deal with the factors that caused those protests. Chile, the one exception, is planning a constitutional change, but economic conditions and public opinion still make protests likely to escalate if they begin.
Brazil and Mexico are not on my list based on statistical indicators of potential protests, but I worry a lot about them anyway just from a narrative and gut instinct perspective. There is significant public anger in both countries. The presidents of both countries have managed the pandemic poorly and are prone to making spur of the moment statements and decisions that could spark a protest. Both countries have severe fiscal challenges. Both presidents also share a weird and unsteady political-economic vision that swerves wildly back and forth between desires for populist spending and austerity depending on the specific issue and audience, meaning they could individually light that spark at any moment.
What signals should analysts look for that suggest major protests are on the way?
First, governments that announce spending cuts or subsidy cuts in the next few months will see an almost instantaneous blowback. Austerity is never politically popular, but this particular moment makes those policies explosive. Tax increases that hit large segments of the population such as the proposed (but withdrawn) proposal for a sales tax increase in Colombia also fit that category.
Second, a major corruption scandal involving coronavirus-related spending or infrastructure spending would also spark protests that could cause weeks of disruption. Keep an eye on that issue appearing in the media in all four countries I highlighted above as potentially facing protests in the coming months.
Thanks for reading
Please consider subscribing to support this newsletter and receive additional analysis.