Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Protest and Democracy in Latin America's Market Era

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Protest and Democracy in Latin America's Market Era

Article excerpt


Existing studies hold that Latin America's market turn has had a demobilizing effect on collective political activity despite the presence of democracy. However, recent work has documented the revival of protest in the region, emphasizing the repoliticization of collective actors in the wake of economic liberalization, especially when democracy is present. This article expands the theoretical scope of the repoliticization perspective, providing the most comprehensive test of the demobilization and repoliticization hypotheses to date. Using time-series data from seventeen Latin American countries, the article confirms the repoliticization view by showing that protest increases with economic liberalization in democratic settings.


democracy, economic liberalization, Latin America, mobilization, repoliticization

In recent years, several Latin American countries have experienced a generalized rise in various forms of collective political activity. In some cases, these mobilizations have been effective in rolling back unpopular economic policies. In other cases, waves of street protests have forced embattled popularly elected presidents to leave office early. Seen as the new poor, indigenous groups in Ecuador and Bolivia, the unemployed in Argentina, and rural villagers in Peru, among other examples, have been the most important social forces in opposition to the continuation of economic liberalization policies. These popular resistance events suggest that collective actors in Latin America are highly responsive to changes in economic policy and that political democracy has provided a favorable environment to oppose these policies. Indeed, the most recent wave of economic liberalization has also paralleled an unprecedented period of democratization and redemocratization (Hagopian and Mainwaring 2005), suggesting that political democracy has played a bigger role in influencing collective responses to economic liberalization than commonly acknowledged.

Yet the revival of protest in the region is at odds with the literature on the societal consequences of economic reform, which emphasizes the demobilizing effects of economic liberalization policies (Kurtz 2004; Wolff 2007; Oxhorn 2009). Simply stated, the demobilization literature expects a "generalized pattern of decline in mobilization" (Kurtz 2004, 289) as market reforms move forward and does not expect democracy to revitalize collective actors. Given the contradictions between widely publicized protest events and existing studies, this article reexamines the effects of economic liberalization on collective political activity. The central question is, do economic reforms in the context of democracy demobilize collective actors, as the demobilization literature holds, or do they have a repoliticizing effect, as recent protest events suggest?

Understanding the interrelationship between economic liberalization and democracy is a core question in comparative politics in Latin America and beyond, as existing research has sought to understand the ways these parallel phenomena contradict or complement each other (Haggard and Kaufman 1995). The demobilization literature tells us that economic liberalization and democracy have been on a "collision course" over the past two decades and that political democracy has taken the brunt of this "train wreck," while the forces of economic liberalization continue forward. The implication here is that democracy remains in form only, making little difference to the popular forces affected by economic liberalization. In contrast, the repoliticization literature portrays political democracy as a "firewall," which can help contest or modify economic liberalization policies, through either the ballot box or extraparliamentary protest activity. The implication in this case is that democracy shapes societal responses to economic liberalization. Therefore, it is theoretically and substantively important to know whether and how political democracy has influenced societal responses to economic liberalization. …

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