Davos Agenda

Inequality triggered protests across Latin America. Here's how the youth can help

Demontrators bang pots along the streets during protests after Ecuador's President Lenin Moreno's government ended four-decade-old fuel subsidies, in Quito, Ecuador, October 5, 2019. REUTERS / Daniel Tapia - RC1BC1D3EA00

Protests swept across Latin America in the fourth quarter of 2019. Image: REUTERS

Enrique Crespo Peñaherrera
Responsible for Innovation Projects, ConQuito
David Morales Olalla
Research Specialist for Innovation Projects, ConQuito
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Latin America has been plunged into a state of socio-political uncertainty.
  • Inequality has increased over the past two decades of growth.
  • Young people must lead the reinvention of Latin America.

The pervasive protests, financial instability, and economic stagnation taking place from the Gulf of Mexico down to the Argentinean Patagonia in the last quarter of 2019, have brought back fearful memories of the 1980s.

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In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region, political protests took place in eight countries, with roughly 400 dead, 15,000 injured and incarcerated, and billions of dollars in losses. The social tsunami – accompanied by the thunderous banging of pots and pans used in protests across the continent – was propelled by a population hungry for social justice.

After its Golden Decade in the 2000s, the region has returned to a state of socio-political uncertainty. It all started in September 2019, when in both Nicaragua and Haiti, thousands of citizens took the streets to challenge their governments on their political and economic reforms.

By the end of the year, seven other countries in the region had experienced violent uprisings and State-backed repression: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. The protests aimed to reduce one of the main sources of conflict in the Global South: poverty derived from indiscreet inequality.

Even when the social uprisings are a multi-dimensional phenomenon, these mainly originated from a growing discomfort with the implementation of rightist neoliberal policies. The waning of the Pink Tide was marked by the paradigm shift resulting from the failures of progressive leftist regimes to strengthen their social bases.

There is an academic consensus about the deficient role of governments, elites, and political groups to promote redistribution in the region, thus fostering social discomfort in a continent that has been historically the most unequal.

At this desperate juncture in the region’s history, the uprisings in Latin America are therefore being led by the youth, who will also control its future.

The ever-evolutionary resolve of the youth

In LAC, according to the Inequality Calculator prepared by the Oxfam, 10% of the richest population concentrates 71% of the wealth.

Moreover, inequality has taken a greater toll on the youth. In 2015, 120 million young people, especially women, were in precarious employment, from both a contractual and social point of view. They have relatively low incomes and generate roughly 10% of the region’s GDP.

This is why the growing affinity between neoliberalism and a rightist neopopulism over the last three decades has sparked the social flames that demand more progressive and redistributive government policies.

Image: The Politic

Inequality should not be treated merely as an economic concern but as a social one. There is an urge to reflect upon the unrest that citizens feel regarding their lives and their future. The social changes of the last two decades in Latin America show that all its social strata have lived a period of upward mobility, without improving its internal socio-economic composition.

Elites have been able to maintain and even increase their wealth. At the beginning of the decade, the number of Latin American millionaires increased by approximately 5% and part of the middle classes was extended.

Conversely, complementary measures financed the lower classes to a much lesser extent. This apathy towards the working classes recently ended up in attempts to re-introduce liberal reforms that directly translated as structural violence to the most vulnerable groups.

It is therefore no surprise that public policies, like abruptly ending the subsidies on fossil fuels and raising the price of public transport, detonated the citizens’ rage in the streets of Quito and Santiago, respectively.

From the students in the streets of Chile to the indigenous-led movements in Ecuador, the youth seems eager to build a more inclusive future, based on empathy, equality, and the expansion of rights.

At the Youth Summit, organized by the World Bank in the first week of December 2019, the conclusion was that the youth “needed to be heard because basic living conditions are not being met, salaries do not allow access to health, education and transportation services. States must listen and take the youth into account when generating public policies".

Some experts rely on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its sharing economy schemes for the market to self-generate redistributive policies. However, these upcoming social forces pose a great challenge and an inherent threat to a continent with a political, social, and economic composition like Latin America.

For instance, in 2012, 50% of LAC’s economically active population were in precarious or informal work. Smart technologies and automation have the potential to worsen these statistics and enlarge the gap between the rich and poor in the region. Short-sightedness and a lack of political resolve signal that there are no plans in motion to let Latin America and its population off this future.

For these reasons, achieving economic stability and sustainable growth can only happen in Latin America if socio-economic inequality is intensely addressed. Progressive politics led by the youth can mark the way forward, for example, by generating high-quality public goods that contribute to collective wellbeing, and so help tackle inequality.

Progressive politics led by the youth can mark the way forward, for example, through high-quality public goods that transcend the self into the collective by adding cultural value.

Global trends support these arguments, economists of widespread impact, such as Thomas Piketty, and institutions outside any leftwing ideology, such as the IMF, have noted that extreme social inequalities undermine the Western standard of living. The issue of inequality has so far been seen as irrelevant, and rather an ethical problem, but as shown during the uprisings in the region, it is a ticking time-bomb for the Welfare State.

A corollary for social justice

The rage that has taken young citizens to the streets of Latin America cannot be addressed by partial measures or by violently repressing those who protest. The inherent social and economic nature of the region can be reversed by implementing structural reforms to reduce its socio-economic schism.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution offers new opportunities to change the world for good, but it is during these moments of crisis and uncertainty, that there is a need for the youth to lead the deconstruction, reinvention, and redefinition of Latin America.

By embracing change and empathy, we can shape our region into a fairer and better place to live in. Nevertheless, it is crucial, on a worldwide scale, to address the disease of inequality and reduce its symptoms of exclusion and oppression in order to achieve a brighter future.

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