When the Arab Spring rocked the Middle East of 2011, it demonstrated the possibility of a new era of social media empowered protest movements. Now, protests are spreading across Brazil over rising prices and economic growth that are increasingly benefiting the few, so it’s worth wondering if the world could see a Latin Summer?
Brazil Vinegar Revolution Started Over Bus Fare Hike
The so-called Vinegar Revolution has already attracted thousands upon thousands of protesters in major cities across Brazil. The movement has gained the label “Vinegar Revolution” due to police arresting people with vinegar, which is used to combat the effects of laughing gas. It started as small protests over a hike in bus fares but has now evolved into a massive and seemingly coordinated movement of people dissatisfied with the massive spending on extravagant projects, like the up-coming Olympics, and an increasing rise in inequality.
The most interesting single aspect of the protests may be the fact that Brazil itself is viewed as a fast growing emerging market. Brazil is no stagnant Egypt or tyrant-ruled Libya. It’s a functioning democracy enjoying one of the strongest periods of economic growth in its history. Seeing an outpouring of anger in poor or declining nations is nothing new, but seeing such fervent and orchestrated protests in fast-growing economies is not as common. Even in the United States, once known for its labor strikes and political movements, many of the most forceful protests came during periods of economic decline, such as the Great Depression.
There is no single issue that protesters are rallying around. While the protests may have started over rising fare prices for buses and public transport, the list of grievances has quickly grown. Protesters are not seeking to tear down a single dictator, or necessarily to change a single policy. Instead, protesters are upset that while the economy is growing, rises in prices for consumer goods and property are quickly outstripping rising wages. Certainly, the rich are getting richer, but for many poor and middle class Brazilians, the benefits of economic growth have in many cases been minimal.
Brazil: International Games Funds Would Be Better Spent Elsewhere
Another key issue is the amount of money being spent on international games. While Brazilians originally welcomed the Olympics and other international games, the extravagant funds being spent on the games at a time when many middle and lower class Brazilians feel they are being left behind, are now becoming a point of contention. The upcoming World Cup and Olympics are now becoming a point of contention for protesters who feel that funds and efforts would be better spent alleviating inequality and poverty.
Despite the fall out of the Arab Spring, many leaders continue to respond with harsh crack downs on protesters. Images of the police beating protesters enraged citizens across Brazil, allowing small protests to quickly snowball into a massive movement that is now rocking cities across the country. Now, the protests are turning increasingly violent. In some cities, local legislature buildings were raided. In at least one occasion, a fire broke out and burned part of a state legislature building.
Brazil: Could Protests Spread?
Could these protests spread across the rest of Latin America? Argentina has already dealt with massive civic society movements in its past, and conditions remain stagnant in South America’s second most powerful economy. Dissatisfied people there could quickly respond. Chile has enjoyed strong economic growth, but inequality remains high, and protests from miners and students caused problems in 2012. Across the rest of Latin America, mediocre economic growth and an increasing rise in the gap between the rich and the poor mean that conditions could be ripe for anti-government movements to take seed.
Compared with many nations in the Middle East, civic society organizations and the notion of democracy and liberal societies are much stronger. This could lead to even more powerful and well-organized protests than those seen in the Arab Spring. And in many countries, overthrowing dictatorships isn’t even necessary, a strong political movement could seize political office through democratic elections. That may moderate protests, but it is no guarantee given the perceived dysfunction of democratic institutions across the world.
While Latin America may not see a Latin Spring, if governments don’t move quickly to address issues, the possibility of a Latin Autumn or Latin Winter could become very real.