By Rebecca Walker
Recent explosions of protest in Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan have unsettled even the most self-assured governments around the world. Many countries with minimal economic and diplomatic ties to these nations—whose civic core is now erupting—are apprehensive. Their discomfort is not necessarily traceable back to any fiscal or trade interruptions caused by the Middle Eastern protests, but rather from uprisings that obviously cannot be contained by state boundaries.
This raises the question of whether these infectiously inspiring revolutions will endure. Will they be muzzled within the region, or will the seeds of these protests be widely dispersed? How will they affect Latin America, where there are plenty of have-nots among a population that is growing at a rapid tempo? Should the world expect the 52-year reign of the Castro brothers to be overthrown in the streets, or that Hugo Chávez’s legacy be shortened due to civilian unrest? Doubtful—at least in Latin America. That is not to say that millions of Latin Americans are not at times enraged with their political leaders, but the potential for protests of a similar scale to Tunisia and Egypt is unlikely for the foreseeable future. The civil societies of the Middle East and the Maghreb differ significantly from those of Latin America, thus it is unlikely that they will produce comparable results.
Though the Egyptians’ distaste for Mubarak is an element in the ongoing protests, it was not the only coalescing factor. Egypt has a young, mono-ethnic, largely religiously-united nation: its median age is twenty-four, 96 percent of citizens are ethnically Egyptian, and nine of every ten Egyptians are Muslim. This degree of homogeneity is rare in Latin America. Nations such as Brazil that have a jumble of racial identities are divided by the color of their skin—call someone a preto (a racial degradation) and watch the response. Cuba is another example: it has a median age of 38 and though that is not elderly, it is not quite as dynamic and youthful. That is not to say that there are no comparable unified Latin American countries. A handful are dominated by overwhelming percentages of single ethnicities or religions. But no nation in Latin America possesses the youth, zeal, and unity that settled civil societies of Egypt and Tunisia have displayed.
Though the Arab world is famous for its pride over its past, much of it realizes that it is due time for change. Latin Americans, however, are a bit more distrustful and suspicious of the baggage that innovation brings. As former Costa Rican President Oscar Arìas stated in his 2011 opinion piece Culture Matters, “Latin Americans glorify their past so ceaselessly that they make it almost impossible to advocate change.” He further observed that “Latin Americans hold on tight even to pain and suffering, preferring a certain present to an uncertain future.” What he talks about here unfolds into a distrust that Latin Americans have not just for their governments, but of each other. It is difficult to spark a revolution when the motivation to partake in the collective whole eludes society.
As the communities in Egypt and Tunisia have become increasingly integrated, it makes sense that they would be able to start, and maintain, a revolution with limited technological access at their disposal. Some believed, not too long ago, that social media would be crucial in future civilian uprisings. The Egyptians have proved—at least for now—that this theory is deficient. The protests emerged from small business owners and well-educated civilians. Though social media sites were utilized, the message was primarily spread through word of mouth.
This is not to argue that the highly contextual communities of the Latin world do not communicate on a personal level. According to renowned cultural scholar Edward Hall, Latin Americans can achieve high levels of personal interaction. However, their conversations do not always transcend social and economic circles. The social-caste system that the Iberian colonists imposed centuries ago still has not been fully broken. Their civil societies are more divided than those in the Arab World; igniting and maintaining civil uprisings in Latin America requires more tools than mere conversation.
Though the previously mentioned reasons provide some legitimacy as to why Latin America will not experience the same uprisings that Arabs endure, there is still one obvious reason: all of Latin America does not suffer from the same genre of authoritarian rule. The nations that would most likely be anticipated to fall like dominoes would be Venezuela, Honduras, or Cuba. Yet Hugo Chávez was democratically elected, and has remained in power despite being heavily invested by Caesarism. Socialistic passion and quelling individual freedoms should not be confused. The argument could be made that the Castros have gripped power in an unacceptable way—but the magnitude of authority generally is not as pervasive as it is in those nations whose streets are currently lined with protesters.
Not only is it difficult, it is also dangerous to assume that the reactions of one culture will create similar patterns in another. Though it is all but impossible to prove that something will not happen, the argument is that the likelihood of the protests being triggered in Latin America is low: the conditions simply are not the same. The worlds of Latin America and the Arab region are different—culturally, historically, and demographically. Even if Latin America were to be inspired by the success stories of the recent protests, the revolts are not a transferable commodity that can be conveniently cookie-cuttered into any other culture upon demand. When Latin America is ready for change, it will come from within.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Rebecca Walker