Do Brazil’s protests hold transformative potential for the rest of Latin America?

Walking home from the Vivanda (Peruvian equivalent of Whole Foods) last night I came across a modest commotion on Avenida Pardo: a couple dozen young people, carrying signs and blowing whistles, one pushing a stroller, and another carrying a Brazilian flag. Their signs read “We Are With You Brazil” and similar, with the referent rather evidently not the Brazilian state apparatus or nationalistic mythos, but rather the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Brazilians who are currently pouring into the streets, ostensibly to protest against a planned rise in bus fares, but in truth to articulate a much broader critique of the Brazilian political context, and to give affirmative voice to a wide range of citizenship rights.

Another set of signs moved beyond expressing solidarity with the Brazilian protesters, explicitly stating that Brazil was a model for the continent, and laying claim to the Brazilian mobilizations as a cause for “Latin American Pride.” This is modestly interesting, in the sense that a set of apparently well-off Peruvians chose to spend their Tuesday evening marching in support of a people’s movement beyond their borders. But this is not exceptional; plenty of popular uprisings in the past several years have elicited mirror demonstrations supporting them around the globe.

More interesting is to speculate if this claim of broader Latin American solidarity with the people of Brazil might be something with legs and teeth. Could this claim in fact signal the coalescence of a broader Latin American citizens’ project around the Brazilian peoples’ example? This would really be something to see, and in a region where democratic practice is characterized by low intensity citizenship, circumscribed and often merely procedural engagement in democratic life, a regional citizen project for an end to graft and a deepening of citizenship rights and civic engagement would be quite significant.

The issues sparking protest in Brazil – corruption, state violence, weak ties of accountability between citizens and the government – are present in virtually every other country in Latin America. Deep-rooted petty authoritarianisms dog this part of the world with a tenacity that has persisted through the wave of re-democratization in the 1980s. The same is true for practices of violence, which are an endemic feature of the political landscape. And the everyday practices of politics are too often conducted in the shadows, with little regard for the general welfare or for democratic processes. Democratic politics is often vibrant but it is often also superficial. Zones of un-democracy persist within procedural democracies. This patchy landscape of democracy and un-democracy, so evocatively described by Guillermo O’Donnell two decades ago, is part and parcel of the entrenched inequality of the region, of the creation and maintenance of marginalized groups, of clientelistic politics and the tyranny of selectively absent state capacity. And it holds within it dramatic accountability gaps, such that citizens across the region see little programmatic relation between votes granted and policies enacted, or taxes (or bus fares!) paid and services received.

If the grievances of Brazil find echoes across Spanish-speaking America, then it follows that Latin American citizens beyond Brazil can follow the lead of the whistle-blowing Peruvians I encountered and head into the streets to demand greater respect for their citizenship rights. If Brazilians are publicly proclaiming their denial of subservient clientelistic modes of politcal mobilization, then so can other Latin Americans. If the men and women who danced atop the High Modern temples of the State in Brasilia demand more direct relationships of accountability, then so can the denizens of Lima and Caracas, Santiago and San Salvador. If Brazilians are proclaiming in the streets that they will not shrink before the arbitrary violence of state and non-state and para-statal forces, then so, too, can other outraged citizens en marcha. In short, objective conditions for copycat mobilizations certainly exist throughout the region.

If we permit ourselves to dream, normatively, what might a new wave of Latin American “revolutions” on the contemporary Brazilian model (imagine for a moment that this could be a revolution!) look like? The new Latin American revolutions would look nothing like the “Arab Spring.” There are no despots here to overthrow, save in Cuba, and within the confines of that peculiar island inexorable economic forces are doing that good work themselves. In the rest of the region, imperfect democracies must be deepened by sustained citizen action for transparency, accountability, and inclusion. The rallying cry of these movements might be not degage – get out! – but engageopen upcommit – to robust democratic procedures that move beyond pro forma electoral democracies to genuine participatory processes, citizen empowerment and engagement in the policy process. These would be revolutions of open budgets, open Congresses, and open interior ministries and defense departments. This would mean implementing and strengthening participatory fiscal processes; it would mean citizen audits of police stations and elementary schools. These are the policy extensions of the rights that citizens are demanding as they march in Brazil, and beyond.

This may not sound like much. But to ordinary citizens of the region, whose mobilizations began with such modest requests – that a 20 cent bus fare increase not be implemented without a concomitant increase in service quality – this would be really something. For the men and women of Latin America to have a direct say, beyond the narrow bounds of the electoral calendar, in the politics of policy that govern their daily lives would be, indeed, a revolution.

It is of course too early to tell if a few sympathetic marches will turn into something more substantial, and if other South American publics will go into the streets to demand that their governments guarantee them meaningful participation in policy processes, greater accountability, freedom from corruption. While similar grievances exist across the region, local specificities will of course determine how any such mobilizations might play out, and these local specificities are more than a little different between Brazil and Peru, or Brazil and Chile, or Brazil and… pick any one you like. As I noted yesterday (unoriginally), protest movements in quite diverse countries have drawn at least rhetorical inspiration from one another, and the “Arab Spring” represented a surge of copycat demonstrations across a geographically contiguous cultural zone. But these factors by no means guarantee even sustained mobilization, let alone durable political changes and deepened democracy. As protests continue to gain momentum in Brazil, only time can tell what the longer-term effects on accountability will be, in that country and beyond.

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