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An Excerpt from “Politics and the Pink Tide” by Kathleen Bruhn

In Politics and the Pink Tide, Kathleen Bruhn compares the differences in protest that occurred under the new leftist governments to their conservative, neoliberal predecessors, offering a wide-angle view into the complex relationships between neoliberalism, political party structures, and protest.

Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, many governments in Latin America (and elsewhere) adopted a set of pro-market economic policies known as neoliberalism or the Washington Consensus. Analysis of the social effects of these policies attributed to them a rise in poverty and inequality, as well as an increase in protest and mobilization. Many popular accounts of this time trace explosive protests such as the Water War in Bolivia (1999-2000), the piquetero movement in Argentina (2001-2003) or the Caracazo in Venezuela (1989) to the (misguided) economic policies adopted by neoliberal governments.

Between 1998 and 2008, however, a series of leftist governments were elected across Latin America. By 2014, wrote one journalist, “conservative governments have virtually disappeared from the region.” (Miroff 2014, A6). This wave of leftism became known as the Pink Tide. It grew out of rejection of neoliberal governments and was supposed to fix their problems. Much careful research has analyzed the economic and social policy implications of these leftist governments for the poor, the indigenous, and the marginalized (including Balán and Montambeault 2020, Huber and Stephens 2012, Pribble 2013, and Garay 2016, among others).

Yet did efforts to address these grievances change political behavior? Specifically, did national moves to the left reduce protest? Presumably, if neoliberal policies drive increases in protest, then protest should die down as policies change. At the same time, the election of leftist presidents brought to power political parties with sometimes deep roots in civil society and often more partisan adherents than their conservative rivals. If parties are designed to channel grievances through institutional means, then protest should become less frequent as an outlet. Moreover, setting aside the idea that people should prefer to channel their grievances through institutional channels (such as partisan connections in the legislature), parties with connections to civil society should be able to take advantage of those connections to peacefully resolve conflicts. Protests should be shorter, less violent, and less likely to be subjected to police repression as well as less numerous.

In fact, the story is much more complex. In this work, which examines a broad range of cases in some depth, we do not see a strictly linear relationship between either the market orthodoxy of economic policy and protest, or the embeddedness of political parties, types of protest, and levels of policing. The book takes on the challenge of analyzing the puzzling relationships between neoliberalism and protest on the one hand, and political party structures and protest on the other, through a multilevel, multicase examination of five Latin American countries after the election of leftist presidents.

Ultimately, I propose an interactive model of protest. In order to understand protest, we must take into account three factors: 1) the grievance load (and here, specifically, the relationship between economic/social policy and grievances); 2) the social embeddedness of political parties; and 3) the norms surrounding protest tactics and repression within civil society and the broader cultural environment. When one of these factors changes, the pattern of protest changes relative to its previous levels, but other factors may compensate and affect the absolute levels of protest.

I begin, however, with the empirical questions. How did protest vary across the nations of the Pink Tide, and between leftist governments and their conservative, neoliberal predecessors? Do economic policy differences shift protest rates or content? Do stronger political parties face less protest, or handle protest differently than their less socially embedded peers? These questions require a close analysis of the record of leftist governments in Latin America on protest, one which takes into account the differences among them as well as between leftist governments and neoliberal ones. Most chapters analyze the effects of variation in the contrasting cases of Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela, with additional evidence from a comparison of protest in Ecuador before and after the election of Rafael Correa in 2006. I explain these case selections below.

The story that unfolds confirms the argument that neoliberal protests generate specifically economic grievances, in particular labor disputes. These protests decline when a leftist government takes over (relative to the previous level of labor protests) and constitute a larger share of protest in countries where the leftist government followed more market-orthodox policies. But protest overall did not necessarily decline. Instead, the sources and content of protest changed toward political concerns with democracy, regional autonomy, and projected constitutional reforms. Thus, arguments that attempt to link levels of neoliberalism with levels of protest may be overlooking significant non-economic causes of protest, tending to undermine the clear linkages that I find exist.

(excerpted from introduction)

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