By Nick Miroff/Posted at;washingtonpost.com –
QUITO, Ecuador — Nearly every nation in South America has been jolted by large protests or violent clashes in recent weeks, a continental surge of anti-government anger unlike anything in years.
On the streets of Venezuela, opponents of the left-wing government are squaring off against riot police nearly every day. In Paraguay, angry crowds sacked and firebombed the country’s parliament building after lawmakers tried to alter presidential term limits. Powerful unions in Argentina crippled the country’s transportation networks this month with a general strike.
The political dynamics vary across the continent, but analysts see common threads. The global commodity boom that ushered millions of South Americans into the middle class has burned out, crimping government finances. And a more politically engaged and plugged-in citizenry has lost patience with rank corruption and the feints of authoritarian leaders who chip away at democratic checks on their power.
In several countries, populist leaders who cast themselves as national saviors and demonized their opponents have turned electoral contests into supercharged life-or-death showdowns, making democratic transitions and ideological compromise all the more difficult.
“South America is part of a global pattern, marked by a search for fresh and effective political leadership in agitated and often polarized societies,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, noting significant protests recently in South Africa, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
That South America is more unstable than it has been in many years shouldn’t come as a surprise either, Shifter said, given the level of economic malaise across the continent. “The region has a strong tradition of protest that tends to come in waves — and is particularly pronounced when long-standing deficiencies are revealed,” he said.
Those shortcomings were a lot easier to gloss over when global prices for oil, iron ore and the region’s other export commodities were high, leaving treasuries flush. Spending the money freely was a surefire way for populist leaders to stay in power.
Led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a generation of charismatic left-wing leaders dominated elections through the first decade of the millennium, including Brazil’s Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and the Argentine power couple of Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who succeeded him.
With big personalities and an appeal to nationalism, they won support by conspicuously rejecting neoliberal policy nostrums such as reducing the size of government and privatizing state-owned industries. Those leaders also tapped into frustration with state institutions seen as too servile to the wealthy, but in many instances old elites were replaced by new ones with close ties to the government, creating fresh resentment….
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