Will the LatAm backlash against free-market policies persist?

One morning in December, Belen Larrondo set out, as she had dozens of times over the past two months, to meet fellow students and activists outside a metro station in Santiago, Chile.

She went with peaceful pleas for political transformation to redress staggering income inequality in her country. But she also went prepared for confrontation, armed with goggles to shield her eyes from projectiles and baking soda in case she got hit with tear gas.

An architecture student and the president of the Catholic University of Chile’s student federation, Larrondo knew full well the potential for state security agents to respond violently to her and other protesters – as they had before when trying to tamp down the social unrest that has swept the country since October.

“If something happens to me, my family will die,” Larrondo told Al Jazeera during a telephone interview from her home in Santiago. “But unfortunately, it’s something that we have to do. And fear is not going to stop me. Because I think there are things you have to fight for.”

That sentiment rippled across parts of Latin America in 2019 as movements of varying scale and mechanism captured and channeled deep-seated discontent rooted in questions about inequality, democracy, and what it means to lead a dignified life.

The outrage and frustration that has spilled onto the streets sprouted from seeds planted long ago. In some cases, the signs were ignored. In others, they were overshadowed by other debates. And while there is not wholesale cohesion, experts point to the repudiation of austerity and neoliberal, free-market policies as one common thread that could continue to stoke discontent as a new decade dawns.

Contagion effect
Chile, a country that had previously cultivated an image of stability and economic prosperity in South America, has seen visceral protest movements.

High school students who jumped subway turnstiles to demonstrate against a transit fare hike struck a deep chord with the nation on October 18, inspiring thousands of Chileans to take to the streets almost every day since.

At least 27 people have died, thousands have been arrested or injured, and property damage is widespread.

But the protests carry on – a leaderless movement fuelled by a wellspring of discontent with an economic system that has birthed inequality.

In Chile as in other parts of Latin America, frustration with economic policies that promise to pile more financial pain on low- and middle-income segments of society has boiled over into demonstrations calling to upend the status quo.

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