Where Are The New Heroes Of Latin American Music?

In many countries, musicians were Latin America's leading social critics and political activists of the late 20th century. Not anymore.

Chilean band Los Prisioneros, leaders of Latin American rock in the 1980s
Chilean band Los Prisioneros, leaders of Latin American rock in the 1980s
Francisco González

SANTIAGO — "Drums banging, guitars tuned and skeptical voices singing of politics ..." These were the words that entered my head when I first heard the Chilean band Los Prisioneros on an old tape player coming from our neighbor's house. Listening to the song "We are Sudamerican Rockers" would become like a daily ritual that ushered me into the 1980s world of social consciousness.

It would not be difficult to relate the history of Latin America through the creative process of its musical artists. They could take us through the region's transformative stages merely with national anthems that sing of the harsh histories behind the independence of nations, or the battle hymns that recall deplorable, fratricidal wars.

Latin America has been repeatedly convulsed, but in recent years less for war than for social and economic hardships. The region's historical inequalities led a whole generation of musicians to take up the guitar as a weapon, and confront injustices with lyrics. Violeta Parra and Victor Jara in Chile, Mercedes Sosa, León Gieco and Facundo Cabral in Argentina, Alfredo Zitarrosa and Daniel Viglietti in Uruguay, Nilo Soruco in Bolivia, Chico Buarque in Brazil, Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés in Cuba.

These were just some of the top voices of a generation, most of them silenced by the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s.

Where these left off, another generation took over: the Prisioneros in Chile, the Fabulosos Cadillacs in Argentina, Aterciopelados in Colombia and well into the 1990s, Molotov in Mexico.

With the region marked by relative calm in the first decade of this century, Latin America seems headed for more convulsions, with a political crisis in Venezuela and the resurgence, again, of the unresolved if clichéd problem of inequality. This time however front-line artists appear not to be accompanying the process (with exceptions: Chile's Ana Tijoux, Nano Stern, Manuel García and Chinoy; Orishas and Carlos Varela in Cuba and Puerto Rico's Calle 13)

The reasons I think can be broken down into four categories:

Social networking: Facebook and Twitter ensure we are no longer anonymous. Today we all have a face, and opinions, on the Internet. We used to seek identification and to hear our ideas in a discourse, and musicians were the people needed to articulate it, to raise and publicize the banner of the masses. Today, I can publish my own ideas on the web in seconds, even if only five people read them. The musician is merely another vector, and increasingly of lesser importance.

Musical elitism: To live off music and make it a career, you need money, and a measure of talent. Economic support somehow defines our lives and actions. Using the Chilean example, Violeta Parra and Victor Jara came from difficult backgrounds, which they knew intimately and expressed.

Violetta Parra in the 1960s — Photo: magicasruinas

The same applies to the Prisioneros who emerged from the working-class district of San Miguel in Santiago, and whose experiences transformed them into the best conveyors of anger felt in poorer districts against the Pinochet dictatorship. We may best illustrate this with American or British examples, where music still provides young people a way of escaping marginal conditions, as happened with Eminem and Noel and Liam Gallagher. Today, realities not lived or known have become a marginal part of the repertoire.

Musical introspection: The themes have obviously changed. The social element has given way to the artist's journey within. Self-discovery and feelings are the stuff of the best lyrics today. The forceful entry of electronic music, where sound matters more than words, has been another factor. A lot of DJs then, but very few with a critical word to say — about anything!

Context: The reality of the last century differs greatly from ours. Latin America, in spite of being one of the world's most unequal regions, has moved away from dictatorial regimes and many its citizens are enjoying the fruits of economic progress. Access to credit has changed the lives of Latin Americans, who can now have things that were previously beyond reach. The dictators of those years are gone, as are the armies on the streets or the secret police oppressing citizens. The enemy has changed, and we seem to have trouble identifying its latest manifestation.

The front line of artists, as we can see, now spurns the social role. While some underground groups have in recent years managed to earn a measure of success in this area, it has proved ephemeral. There were for example the cumbia villera and reggaeton, two genres very popular for a time in several countries and both emanating from harsh living conditions and angry reactions to them. Curiously, both lost their "social vocation" with international success.

Latin America's guitar heroes are tired. They have become the venerable idols that go on stage from time to time, to remind us of what seem like distant times. The "Sudamerican Rockers" wait in the wings, for something to change in the air and on the streets, when they can walk out again onto center stage.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!