Dignity set free in Latin America

Protesters hold a "dignity" banner during a protest demanding better conditions and infrastructure for studying, in Santiago, Chile Sept. 9.

One after another, Latin American societies have been turning leftward in recent years, fueled by broad movements demanding social change and more inclusive economies. Now, that political “pink tide” seems to have stalled. In Chile, voters demanded a new constitution and then rejected a draft for reaching too far left. In Brazil’s presidential election, a hard-right populist survived a first-round ballot last Sunday to force a runoff against a widely revered socialist. What’s going on?

The new popularity of an old Chilean protest song may offer a clue. Its line, “Until dignity becomes a habit,” rang out in 2019 during the country’s largest demonstrations since the return of democracy 30 years ago. The idea of inner dignity was echoed as well during this year’s elections in Colombia, as a campaign slogan for Francia Márquez on her way to becoming the country’s first female and Black vice president.

For decades Latin Americans felt like victims of authoritarian regimes, economic disparity, corrupt elites, and great-power competition. But a new mentality has taken hold, say regional experts, shaped by demands for honest government, equality of individual rights, and freedom from violence and corruption. “Citizens are now, understandingly, seeking solutions,” wrote Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Washington-based Council of the Americas, in Barron’s. “Equality of opportunity has never really existed across most of Latin America. It is now central to voters’ demands.”

That change in expectations has gained momentum since the pandemic, but it was already underway. Despite the current swing in political leadership from right to left, voters across the region are showing more appetite for competence in government than for broad reinventions of governance. They are impatient for results, yet wary of ambitious reform.

In Chile, for example, voters elected a young progressive named Gabriel Boric on a broad platform of inclusivity in government, recognition of Indigenous rights, and economic reforms to close the wealth gap. Yet six months after his inauguration, they rejected a new constitution that attempted to address those concerns through 388 different provisions. Voters found it unwieldy, and Mr. Boric has since asked the Congress to create a new, smaller drafting assembly.

Elsewhere, the desire for social and political change is gradually chipping away at the region’s long tendency to rely on strong, authoritarian-leaning leaders, or caudillos. In El Salvador, for instance, President Nayib Bukele, who calls himself “The Savior,” enjoys broad support both in spite of and because of his iron crackdown against violent gangs. But voters are now torn by his attempts to override a constitutional prohibition against seeking another term. Though weary of violence, they seem unwilling to sacrifice the integrity of their democratic institutions.

As the annual regional survey, AmericasBarometer, noted last year: The Latin American public “strongly asserts its desire to have a voice in politics.”

Democratic awakenings are often accompanied by setbacks and cultural contradictions. Yet, as the Mexican writer Octavio Paz observed, “There is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth. It is a moment of reflective repose before we devote ourselves to action again.” In Latin America, a recognition of dignity as innate is helping redefine democratic participation.

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