On January 21, LSESU Colombian and Chilean Societies held an event for analysing the social movements phenomena started in certain countries of Latin America nearly a year ago. The discussion was focused on the experiences observed in Chile, Perú, and Colombia: countries that under traditional development measures are three of the best performing economies of the continent. However, profound claims for more equality and social change in key aspects such as education, health, and other human rights topics have forcefully emerged in recent years.The event was attended by the renowned economists Mr. Mauricio Cárdenas (former Minister of Finance and Public Credit of Colombia), Miss María Antonieta Alva (former Minister of Economy and Finance of Perú), and the Chair of the event, Mr. Andrés Velasco (former Minister of Finance of Chile and currently Dean of the School of Public Policy at LSE).
The main topics addressed by the speakers aimed to respond to the question: Why have social movements emerged in countries with above-average economic performance in the region? This condition is a paradox since one would assume that economic growth and poverty reduction would be positively correlated with lower social turmoil. However, this is not the case. Per standard economic measures, the three countries have had a better performance than the regional average. It was highlighted by one of the panellists that macroeconomic institutions set in the 1980s were robust and brought stability to the country’s finances. Yet, social progress was not set at the same speed. Hence, the assumption that well-performing economies improved life’s quality for all their citizens did not hold. Growth is not translated into prosperity for all, especially when the state’s social security system is not adequately covering the citizenry’s basic needs.
Speakers coincided on the fact that Latin America has had historically deficient governance institutions that constantly neglected the basic social needs. Even when modernization efforts have been initiated in several sectors, the state seems to be arriving late to the solution of the main needs and problems of the society.
However, the contradiction comes when these overperforming economies show deep crises in basic fields such as health access, education quality, and employment-related issues, amongst others. This is explained, in part, by the lack of cooperation between companies and the society, which, added to a deregulation phenomenon, has allowed private enterprises to commit abuses against users and consumers in key industries such as electricity, gas, water, and telecommunications.
Moreover, inefficiencies from the states have not only arisen in their role as providers, but also as regulators. Governments’ soft oversight over the private sector led to ineffective regulations that increased inequalities and boosted social tensions. One of the speakers hinted that economic conglomerates have accumulated an unhealthy amount of power, often used for rent-seeking purposes. The social uprisings are making this unbalanced power evident for a lethargic public sector.
In addition, there was a second element that was common to the uprisings in Chile, Colombia, and Perú: massive manifestations of violent action from and against certain protester’s groups. In Chile, human rights organizations have condemned the abuse of force by some policemen to the point that it provoked the discussion about a reform of the police and armed forces.
Considering all the above, the panel tried to explain how deficiencies in several public and private sector aspects could be improved. The starting point was the recovery of the trust of the population in their authorities as the legitimate guarantor of basic social needs. For this purpose, political decisions should be taken promptly in the executive and legislative branches. Some of these include assuring better access to public services, the enforceability of social rights, and a stronger regulatory framework that prevents abuses against individuals.
It was also noted that market instability due to these uprisings is likely to hinder investment. The panel claimed that governments ought to take the lead in the improvement of social conditions and respond to citizen demands. In other words, no relevant action can be expected to come from the private sector or the civil society. These movements seem to be a wake-up call for governments to assume their role as guarantors of the basic rights of individuals.
It remains to be seen how governments in crisis will get over this phenomenon, particularly, amid the COVID-19 pandemic that deepens the social rifts already existent. Depressed economies will then have to face a different paradox: to respond to the social demands that have been made over the past year or to keep benefiting the elites maintaining the social rights status quo.