Mobilization In Latin America: When Local Goes Global

Brazil is just the latest, though largest, recent example of a Latin American country that has seen grassroots movements catch fire from below.

Bigger than a bus
Bigger than a bus
Patricio Diaz

SANTIAGO - Despite Latin America’s current economic boom, social unrest has become a regular part of daily life in many countries.

In Chile, protest movements are calling for justice and social equality, students continue their demonstrations, and news bulletins boost their ratings by showing footage of altercations between uniformed police officers and young demonstrators.

The most recent event to capture the public’s attention and provoke widespread criticism was the eviction of the protesters occupying the University of Chile’s main building by special police forces who took control of the building using rather unorthodox methods to restore order. The students were demonstrating for free and high quality university-level education for all — which they argue is a civic right — and were attacked by the police as they forced their way into the building.

Many neighboring countries are in similar situations. In Bolivia, demonstrations pushing for an increase of the minimum wage also led to serious clashes between the police and representatives of the Bolivian workers union.

In the northern Cajamarca region of Peru, protests continue against the Conga mining project managed by the Yanacocha mining company. Hundreds of people remain camped out on the banks of the El Perol lagoon, which they maintain will be contaminated by the project.

In Venezuela, the measures taken by Nicolas Maduro’s government to calm and control the situation following food shortages have provoked serious debate and disagreement. According to many analysts and the citizens themselves, the government’s heavy-handedness has caused certain aspects of democracy to go up in smoke.

Last, but by no means least, there is Brazil. Everyone has seen the mass demonstrations, organized on social networking sites, protesting against the substandard management of the 2014 Soccer World Cup, political corruption, inflation, the rising cost of public transport and a whole host of further complaints that led to well-loved President Dilma Rousseff being booed June 15 when she opened the Confederations Cup.

What is going on? There's no doubt that the growing importance of local issues has played a key role. Urban communities are often taken as representative of the whole country, but rural communities can be found everywhere. The more peripheral ones, which previously stayed out of the public eye, are finally speaking up and expressing their long-standing discontent about the problems that span across all sectors — from politics to the environment. The voices of these communities are now reverberating around the country and highlighting the inescapable truth: These same problems are affecting everyone, regardless of geography.

The growing importance of the local community means that the town hall has become the starting point, the cradle for political and social activity.

The growing importance of town halls

To understand this point, four features of local communities must be taken into consideration. Firstly, the local region is the most important factor in defining a citizen’s identity. Secondly, the local community is the center of all social circles. Thirdly, contemporary society is characterized by its urban nature and thus the city has become the focal point of modernization. And finally, the welfare state emerges to respond to society’s problems, and its development occurs mainly in the local sphere.

In fact, the importance of the welfare state has resulted in the growing importance of town halls as the providers of local community services, within the framework of political bodies that make up each country. For example, in Brazil where the rise in transport costs sparked violent demonstrations, Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad acknowledged for the first time Tuesday that prices could be reduced. “If the people encourage me to move in that direction, I will bow to the will of the people, because I am the mayor of the city.”

The way local issues have started to have a global influence harks back to an academic theory proposed by scholars Jordi Borja and Manuel Castells, which argues that it is in the local community where spaces can be created allowing citizens to become involved in the political, economic, intellectual and professional sectors.

This is not only because the local community brings together a group of people and a diverse selection of activities, but also because of the symbiotic relationship that emerges when people are integrated culturally. From there, the local community can become a place where solutions to the economic, political, social and cultural challenges of our time can emerge.

For Borja and Castells, it is the local community environment that facilitates interaction between the various stakeholders to reach agreement on group decisions.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th century French political thinker, also argued that participating in local politics is the best way to learn about democracy and create a feeling of citizenship. Tocqueville believed that this participation allows individuals to understand their rights and responsibilities, and the rules of democracy, and to develop respect for the institutions that they have helped to create.

One of the functions of local government must therefore be to locate the relevant stakeholders, encourage their involvement, and provide spaces for them to meet and interact. It must also support the construction of permanent channels of communication to enable negotiation both between the parties involved, and between them and the government, in such a way as to optimize the decision-making process. Only then can the current political unrest lead to real and lasting change.

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