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The Arab Spring and the Latin Winter

The Arab Spring and the Latin Winter

La Primavera Árabe y el invierno latino

Miguel Ángel Centeno

Why do people rebel? This is one of the central questions of social science. Scholars on the side of power have often supported studies meant to make sure that change happened as little as possible, while those with revolutionary preferences sought to define the ideal conditions for social unrest. We have paid attention to underlying structural conditions (poverty, unemployment) and perceptions thereof (inequality, legitimacy), as well as the organization of rebellion and counterrevolutions. It turns out that predicting when popular discontent will translate into demonstrations on the streets is quite difficult. It is even harder to estimate when the unrest will threaten the survival of a regime. Actually foretelling when, and which regime will fall is well nigh impossible.

Examples of surprises abound: 1950s Cuba would certainly not have been on most people’s list to become the first successful communist revolution in the Americas. The Shah seemed like a good bet well into the 1970s. The list of Kremlinologists still reeling from 1989 is long. Alternatively, some regimes persist despite defying all sociological logic: North Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and, once again, post-1989 Cuba. In the most recent version of “stump the experts”, much of the Arab world exploded in 2011 and practically every political system in the region has been shaken if not brought down.

While watching the Arab Spring unfold, I could not but consider the dog that did not bark. For perhaps the first time in many years, Latin America is arguably the politically quietest region in the world. Despite exaggerated accounts of a “resurgent left” in the region, the local media portray a surprising political silence. There are some isolated noises and fireworks, but on the whole, things appear pretty tame on the “Latin Street”. Is it that all is going so well? Is it finally Latin America’s century? Certainly the news from Brazil has been good and even that usually acerbic observer, The Economist, had Christ arising again from the Corcovado. Yet, in reality, fundamental problems of poverty, inequality, and insecurity have not gone away. The Argentinean century-long decline continues, Peru’s riches rarely drip down on the miserably poor, and the Mexican state has without a doubt lost its monopoly on the use of violence. ¿Qué nos pasa?

I was asked by Literal. Latin American Voices to suggest some answers. Being a craven empiricist, I looked for the kinds of data that have usually been used to explain political change. Given the size of the two regions, I have focused on five Latin countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico) and seven in the Arab world (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia). While not a perfect sample by any means, I would argue that it is a reasonable one. The results once again confirm how idiosyncratic collective action can be.

The first and most obvious observation is that the Latin countries are generally wealthier. The poorest in one group (Colombia) is richer than the all but the wealthiest in the other (Bahrain). The proportion of poor (as defined by the various IGOs) does not seem that different, with the outlier being Morocco. In general, food security seems much more precarious in the Arab world and more subject to political interventions. People also seem to have better access to basic services in Latin America. Literacy is much higher as are enrollment ratios. Health delivery is also better among the Latins, although it has produced a minuscule difference in average life expectancy. One could posit that the Latins are quieter because they are better off.

They are also relatively freer: the Latin countries are vastly and uniformly more democratic than their Arab counterparts. Elections mean something in Latin America, the press is much freer, and the shadow world of secret police and informers much less omnipresent. Another crucial difference is that the Arab world is, on average, five years younger. More important is what those youth are doing. Measures of under- and unemployment and general “inactivity” are much higher in the Arab world. Thus, if protests, like nuclear reactions, require a minimum number of potential particles, the Arab world certainly has a much larger proportion of the key ingredient: frustrated young men. To this we should add the greater availability of an escape via the Rio Grande than via the Mediterranean; it is easier for discontents to exit Latin America.

We then should not be surprised by the Latin acquiescence. They are wealthier and older and have more escape routes via migration and the informal economy. Politically, they have many more rights and they generally lack the horrific dictators against whom to rally.

Yet, such economic data only capture aggregates while politics is often about relational conditions. One of the standard explanations for unrest is the notion of relative deprivation: you only feel as miserable as the gap between you and the better off. Here, one would expect much more political anxiety in Latin America, as it remains the world’s most unequal region while among Arab countries, only Tunisia even approaches American levels of inequality. (Even when looking at gender inequality, the Arab countries do not come off that badly, comparatively speaking). Rebellions also often begin in urban centers, and the Latins are much more likely to live in cities with a larger percentage living in what have been categorized as slums. The higher levels of educational attainment and the more extensive wiring of Latin American society via phone and PC should also be producing more discontent. Moreover, the organization of repression is much less institutionalized in Latin America. For example, the figures for crime indicate that the Latin states are much less capable or efficient in their daily functions of social control. All the data indicate that Latin America is a crime-ridden society while delinquency is fairly rare in the Arab world. Tourists in Cairo and Marrakesh may be as nervous as those in Rio and Ayacucho, but the local population is certainly much safer.

From this perspective, Latin America should be exploding as a result of the concentrated misery, the garishness of its injustice, and the relative ease with which political action could be organized.

Such macro and structural analyses miss the often equally important social basis for rebellion. Outbursts of mass anger may be the products of misery and deprivation, but to be effective they need something else: a sense of purpose. This is what may best explain the differences between the regions.

For a crowd to form and withstand the threats and danger of oppression it must have two essential elements: a belief in itself as a collective and a belief in the possibility of change. Both are impossible to predict but easy to recognize. The “Arab streets” of Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, and the suburbs of Damascus seem to achieve a collective sense of unity and identity rarely found in Latin countries. Latin America is a fractionalized region divided by political and social divisions that make collective action very difficult. Perhaps it is a reflection of the relative homogeneity of the Arab states or a product of a less intense penetration by the culture of globalization, but social dynamics look very different. Rebellion requires some form of social capital and it may well be that Latin America has already expended its portion.

Even more importantly, the Arab crowds continue to believe that the control of the state still matters. In Latin America, the transitions to markets and democracies have arguably diminished political authority. For good or for ill, the state is no longer the center of social and economic existence. If anything, it has become increasingly irrelevant as the combination of mafias, migration, and privatization have eroded its influence. It may have made sense to blame ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad, or the al Khalifas for their populations’ misery. It would be much harder to say that ousting the Kirchners or Alan García or Calderón was just as important.

It turns out that revolutions are not just about the present, but more importantly, they are about the future. We have seen that the former appears to be much better in Latin America than in the Arab world, however, we cannot ignore the power of hope and aspiration. Despite the disappointments to come, these still live in the Arab world. It has been a long time since we have seen the same kind of hopes in most of Latin America.