Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Resources and Opportunity for Change: Democracy, Labor and the Welfare Effort in Latin America

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Resources and Opportunity for Change: Democracy, Labor and the Welfare Effort in Latin America

Article excerpt

Introduction

In April of 2012, thousands of Chilean citizens took to the streets demanding greater access to education. President Sebastián Piñera, responded by creating a new government agency in charge of student loans and scholarships; under the new agency, interest rates would be fixed at 2 percent a year. Though this initially eased the concerns of the demonstrators, many citizens soon became dissatisfied and, again in August of 2014, protestors took to the streets demanding education reform. President Michelle Bachelet promised to address the inequality in access to ed* ucation and reforms are currently under way, including the elimination of for-profit state-subsidized schools and increases in teachers' wages (Reuters, January 27, 2015; Reuters, October 24, 2014; The Economist, April 14, 2012). Similarly, a well-known set of demonstrations in Brazil - the "June Journeys" of 2013 - signified widespread discontent for transportation costs, teacher's wages, access to healthcare and education, and government corruption. President Dilma Rouseff quickly called for reforms abolishing all transportation taxes, redirecting oil royalties to education and healthcare, and enforcing stiffer penalties for corruption (CNN Online May 16, 2014; The New York Times, June 12, 2014).

The protests in Chile and Brazil are not unique for Latin America; income inequality in the region is the highest in the world and this inequality has led to discontent and resulted in numerous protests. The income inequality and the corresponding problems of accessibility to education, healthcare and transportation are legacies of the inequality in the distribution of land, capital, labor and human capital that began under colonialism and has been perpetuated for over a century (Frankema 2009; Huber and Stephens 2012). The likelihood of protests is higher when the discontented have the resources (in numbers and ability), are organized, and have opportunity structures that allow for contentious collective action (see Tarrow 1998). As awareness of the inequality and protests in Latin America has spread, so did a renewed scholarly interest in which countries are making the greatest effort to alleviate the inequality through welfare reform.

Recently, a consensus is emerging regarding both the influence of democracy on welfare development - proposing that democracies are more likely to extend the coverage of welfare programs to a larger portion of the population and are more likely to have extensive welfare benefits - and the influence of labor on welfare state development - suggesting that when labor is organized and has more power in party politics, welfare coverage and benefits are greater. Implicitly, however, these two literatures have competing assumptions, bringing in to question the ability for both of these theories to be valid. Most theories on the effects of democracy assume that the majority of the population wants greater government intervention in welfare reform. In contrast, the power resource and labor unionization literature assumes that there are competing preferences within the population. The embedded assumption in this theory is that elites and business owners usually prefer less government intervention in welfare; therefore, pro-welfare groups must organize and accumulate resources to combat the power of these other groups. This is an inherent theoretical tension between democracy and PRT theories: one theory is predicated on the belief that that the majority of the population prefers welfare expansion while the other theory argues that there are competing preferences within any given population.

The major contribution of this article is to reconcile these two literatures. Democratic governance opens up the "political opportunity structures" in politics and in the society through the enfranchisement of the population and through the extension of rights and liberties. This opening up of civil society becomes a way for people to organize and voice their grievances as a collective body and, when the pro-welfare populations have the resources to do so, they spur political activity. …

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