Protests with similar roots continue in Brazil and Chile, two nations that might seem from the outside to be primed to enjoy their respective economic and democratic expansions.
At first glance, the fact that the last few weeks have registered violent protests in Brazil and Chile seems paradoxical.
Both countries have stable, democratic regimes that recognize freedom of speech and respect for human rights. Both of them have enjoyed more than ten years of steady economic growth.
Some 40 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty since the social democratic Workers’ Party came to power over a decade ago. Access to credit has become widespread in Brazil while social inequality has been reduced.
In Chile, for the past 20 years, successive governments of different political hues have continued with the liberal economic model established in the 1980s. As a consequence, Chileans had never been so prosperous: the country is about to reach a median annual income of $20,000, a threshold traditionally associated with a fully developed country.
It is especially paradoxical that the demonstrations in Chile have mostly been made up of students protesting about access to public education. Today, nearly half of Chilean youth reach university and more than half of those are the first generation in their families to do so.
Police brutality during protests in Chile in April (Video: Opal Prensa)
It is then a bit difficult to understand Brazilian and Chilean protests within the context of their neighbouring countries. There is more poverty in most of the rest of Latin America, more political instability in many of them, more violence in several, and even guerrilla rebel conflicts still lingering. Several can claim neither true freedom of speech nor real democracy.
Would it not be more reasonable for there to be protests in those troubled countries instead of Chile and Brazil?
When looking at the global picture, we see something similar elsewhere. Massive protests have taken place in Turkey and Egypt this year. These are two relatively prosperous nations of the Middle East where the governments had been elected by popular vote.
It's not just the money
Understanding these movements is difficult and even more necessary as a result. The protests in Chile and Brazil are the signs of discomfort within groups whose quality of life and education levels have improved. The voices of discontent in Brazil and Chile --and probably those in Turkey and Egypt-- come from people who feel that things have improved for them, but not enough.
Furthermore, they perceive that the society in which they live has not changed in substance, that they may have a little more money in their pocket, but that the unequal distribution of wealth is still pervasive. With more education comes a better understanding that the ethical pillars of capitalism -- meritocracy and equality of opportunity -- have not been met and have no hope of being met. Economic growth has increased people’s expectations and now governments have to deal with that reality.
Another important point is that of the spontaneity of the protests. They have come from the people rather than labor unions or political parties. Some organized groups might be participating in the protests, but their origin has been spontaneous. It is impossible to plan them in advance since they are coordinated and developed in a decentralized manner through social networks such as Facebook or Twitter.
In Brazil, the protesters have put corruption and the shady allocation of public funds at the center of their debate. Chilean students have put the quality of education at the center of theirs. Good for them.
These issues are key for each country in order to improve their citizens’ quality of life and answer their demands. Yes, Brazilians and Chileans have more today than they've ever had before. Now, they do not only demand more, but better. And with each passing day, the governments are being forced to listen.