Workshop EU-LAC Foundation - GIGA: Social Protests & Democratic Responses: Assessing realities in the EU and Latin America

Latin-American and European experts gathered on the 10th of October at the initiative of the EU-LAC Foundation and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg to analyse the nature of social protests registered in recent years in a number of cities of the European Union and Latin America, and to reflect upon these movements that have found their significance through social media.

The workshop “Social Protests and Democratic Responses: Assessing realities in the EU and Latin America” counted with the participation of the Foundation’s president Benita Ferrero-Waldner and GIGA’s acting director, Bert Hoffmann.

The executive director of the EU-LAC Foundation, Jorge Valdez, stirred the discussion supporting the idea that protests in public areas and their management by local authorities underline the vitality of democracy, but they also underline “the public discontent with the solution democracy offers to their problems and aspirations”. 

“The lack of mechanisms that permit political negotiation is affecting the population’s opinion about democracy. Democracy faces a problem of credibility on both sides of the Atlantic”, Mr. Valdez asserted and reminded that acceptance of democracy rates have decreased by 36% in Europe, whereas in Latin America only amounts to 38%, according to data obtained from the Eurobarometer and the Latinobarometro respectively.

Valdez made the distinction between protests that can be functional within democratic governance and those that function as an instrument to replace power, which as consequence do not give any guarantee in this regard.

“The EU-LAC Foundation is interested in the first ones”, its executive director said. He also recalled the protests of Chilean students in 2012, and those occurred in Brazil against transport costs, as well as those occurred in Europe as a reaction to the austerity measures imposed during the management of the financial crisis.   

“Analysing this type of protest from a perspective that encompasses both regions will help us identify the ways to improve democratic governance”, affirmed Mr Valdez, who reckons that this analysis is highly interesting, since these activities make use of new modalities, techniques and cultural expressions.

Donatella della Porta, from the European University Institute, stressed these differences and made an analogy between the occupation of public areas – “acampadas” – and organizational structures that function not only as instruments.

She argued that those “acampadas” that embody principles of participative and deliberative democracy correspond to the movement of ordinary citizens, rather than activists, that is to say, they give priority to people rather than to associations.

“Equality and inclusion have become more radical than the movements of global justice, and that manifests itself in the choice of occupied public areas, parks and squares, where there are neither walls, nor fences which can hamper visibility or the public aspect of the process”, Dr della Porta said.

She argued, in essence, that we are dealing with conceptual movements of horizontal participation and deliberation which, against a representative democracy affected by a deep crisis of legitimacy, have provoked a revival in the concept of direct democracy for those organized citizens who can think critically.

Yamina Welp, from Zentrum für Demokratie Aarau, member of the University of Zurich, highlighted the importance of digital media, especially the social media, in order to organize and spread the protests by encouraging the ripple effect beyond its own boundaries.

Despite their differences and varied demands, experts did not fail to notice the protests taking place in Sido Boudiz (Tunisia), in the streets of Chile, Greece, Spain (Indignados), Mexico (yosoy132), Germany (Stuttgart 21), Belgium, United Kingdom (Occupy), Check Republic, Turkey, Brazil and opposite to the Wall Street gates in the US from 2010 to 2013.

In spite of what initially seems a success, experts were sceptical about the role of social media in this subject, for they affirmed that in most of the cases, these movements are temporal and lack social commitment.

“The use of internet as a tool for spreading the protests can have a distorting effect, generating a displacement between the expectations and the ability to mobilise in a pro-status-quo structure”, Dr Welp argued.

Moises Arce, professor of the Department of Political Science in the University of Missouri, provided a study on the relation between protest campaigns of 25 regions in Peru from 1996 to 2010 concerning political fragmentation, including the disengagement between national and local parties, and natural resource extractions in the country.  

“My empirical findings reveal that the relationship between the protests and the political conditions is closer than the relationship protests-natural resources profit ”, in spite of the fact that resource extractions or “New Mining” create incentives for those mobilisations that demand rights and services, many of which affect the native communities, he affirmed.

Felipe Burbano de Lara, member of the Department of Political Studies in FLACSO- Ecuador, made a presentation on “Social Protests, the power of the State and Democracy in popular revolution” that initiated the transition to the post-neoliberal agenda of President Rafael Correa.

According to Dr Burbano, the popular revolution in Ecuador cannot be understood without attention to the cycle of social protests and mobilisations occurring from 1997 to 2006, which meant the reconfiguration of public order initiated with the position of primacy obtained by Alianza País (AP), and which originated conflicts between the Administration and –new and old- organizations that had great power to mobilise and spread their ideas within a new ideological framework.

The expert did not dismiss the existing disagreements between AP and certain social mobilisations. However, mobilisations and protests of the past years supported by the revolution and social mobilisations, have not affected the voting strength or the prestige of President Correa.

Other participants of the workshop were: Camilo Cristancho, from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona; Thorsten Faas, from the German University of Manguncia; and Antônio Sampaio, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies in the United Kingdom, who made a dynamic analysis of the mobilisations registered in Brazil, his native country, before the Football World Cup, pointing out in line with the opinion of some experts in the workshop, that social media applied to these mobilisations is able to turn into a quick failure what had initially seemed a success.