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Scholars Discuss Latin American Protest Movements and Police Repression at Latin American Studies Center Event

Experts discussed protest movements and police repression of protesters in Latin America at a webinar hosted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
Experts discussed protest movements and police repression of protesters in Latin America at a webinar hosted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. By Owen A. Berger
By Julia J. Hynek and Paton D. Roberts, Contributing Writers

Experts discussed protest movements and police repression of protesters in Latin America at a webinar hosted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies on Tuesday.

The webinar’s panel — part of the Tuesday Seminar Series hosted by the DRCLAS — included Icesi University assistant professor Juan Albarracín, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile associate professor Loreto Cox, and University of Essex assistant professor Ximena Velasco-Guachalla, who presented their work on Colombia, Chile, and Bolivia, respectively.

Albarracín said that May and June’s protests in Colombia were heavily repressed by the government and — unlike in the past — primarily took place in cities. He also said more young people participated in the protests.

“What is also particularly interesting about this new wave of contention is not only that it's occurring in an urban setting in Colombia, but that we have a new and more diverse set of actors that are participating in these forms of collective action,” he said.

Participants in the Chilean protests in Oct. 2019 were also composed predominantly of young people, Cox said.

“Protesters tend to be young and educated. They do not come disproportionately from the less well-off in any sense,” she said. “They are high-frequency users of social media, they are interested in politics, and they strongly identify with the left.”

Cox also said through her research she has found almost nonexistent support among protesters for use of force by police. She said there is a “very strong perception [among protestors] that the police abused human rights always or almost always.”

Cox said she surveyed protestors and those opposing, supporting, and indifferent to the protests and found that the groups varied significantly in their opinions on police use of force against protestors.

“The differences that we find by groups in the propensity to justify the use of violence by citizens and the police are enormous, much greater than those we found in other dimensions of ideology,” Cox said.

Bolivia’s protests that began in Nov. 2019 exemplified the high level of mobilization within the country, Velasco-Guachalla said. She added that the protests were “pretty much a daily occurrence” even throughout Bolivia’s strict Covid-19 lockdowns.

“What perhaps makes Bolivia a little bit of an interesting case is the intensity and the frequency with which people actually go to protest, despite having, in theory, one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the region,” she said.

Following the presentations, Yanilda Gonzalez, assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, synthesized the speakers’ points and said she has witnessed a shift in language used to describe the protests.

“One thing that I find really striking about the three presentations, and I think more broadly in terms of how we have been talking about protests in the last few years of Latin America, is the contrast in the kind of older literature in Latin American politics that’s looked at protests as destabilizing,” she said. “One thing that I’m seeing in the way that we’ve been talking about this wave of protests, is really the way that it can be a possible space for democratic opening.”

Following the discussion, Steven Levitsky, Government professor and director of the DRCLAS, moderated a 30-minute question-and-answer session, during which the panelists contemplated the future of protests in Latin America.

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