Latin America's civic awakening

Protesters in Chile and Bolivia have thrown off their reputation for low political participation with mass protests that are bringing basic democratic reform.

A protester in Santiago, Chile, waves the national flag during demonstrations against the government Nov. 12.

Until October, both Chile and Bolivia ranked among the lowest in Latin America for political participation of its citizens, according to an Economist survey. In a survey of the world’s wealthier democracies, Chile ranked last in civic engagement, notably in low voter turnout. In recent weeks, however, this lowly status has all changed.

In Bolivia, hundreds of thousands of protesters have ousted President Evo Morales after a rigged election on Oct. 20. In a “civil strike,” they were able to close down dozens of state institutions, putting up signs on doors that read “closed by democracy.”

In Chile, more than a million protesters took to the streets, triggered by a subway fare hike under President Sebastián Piñera but with a new focus on broadening the voices of citizens. Hundreds of local discussion groups, called cabildos, have been organized to collect ideas about ways to improve participatory democracy.

This civic awakening in both countries may reflect a wider trend in Latin America toward citizen activism. It is driven by the region’s high proportion of young people and by the fast growth in internet users. Young voters are more aware of their countries conditions and better able to connect with each other to form activist groups. In Chile, according to one poll, only 19% of the population identifies with a traditional political party, down from 80% a quarter century ago.

Yet better civic engagement also represents a stronger desire for government that is honest, transparent, and more egalitarian. In Chile, political leaders now promise a national dialogue to address the protesters’ concerns. In Bolivia, lawmakers are scrambling to arrange another vote and prevent another rigged election. In both countries, citizens are more awake to the right of self-governance. Their leaders are being forced to follow them.

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