In this scenario, social mobilization strengthens its ability to raise questions about democracy and gradually begins to promote changes of all kinds and different scopes. The following factors impose limits on the abuse of public and private power and generate preliminary but concrete impact on public policy to ensure greater social inclusion:
- The ongoing advancement of scientific innovation
- The expansion of the knowledge age
- Wider access to new technologies
- Democratic continuity in the region
- The ability to articulate the diversity and understanding of the negative effects of global and regional agendas
- Learning achievements generated through strategies that combine technology, use of public space, institutional influence, creativity, and innovative media
In this way, social mobilization exposes the limitations of democracy, institutions, and the scope of the nation state. The traditional democratic model undergoes a renewal, based on the finding that individual and collective social actions, beyond state action, can generate specific social changes that then become systemic changes or transformations of scale to solve specific public problems by combining the logic of political representation through institutions with the logic of social legitimacy through participation. In particular, the organization of horizontal cooperation schemes that include multiple stakeholders leads to more widespread and transparent citizen empowerment. Over 15 years, concrete benefits are generated through new forms of participation that go beyond the orbit of institutions and events organized by the traditional programs. At the same time, the risks of cooptation by the de facto powers and of the limits of technology become even more clear. It is the scenario of mobilization, popular pressure, and creativity in the face of traditional power.
Since 2015, there’s an increase in the number of voices in the region reporting on the limits of the traditional notion of democratic institutions. They warn that any reform initiative in areas such as education, health, environment, public administration, or urban innovation runs the risk of being undermined in the public debate, manipulated by special interests and the de facto powers, or diluted over time by the abundance of deliberations and controls that diminish the effectiveness of public policies. Higher expectations from a growing middle class in the region with greater purchasing power and civic culture translate into a growing impatience with the slow pace of change proposals and effective response to citizens’ needs. Many also point to people’s inability to identify with politicians and traditional parties, even where the newly elected governments have still high prestige.
These factors lead to a permanent and increasingly open questioning from Latin American civil society of the legitimacy and relevance of the current institutional framework, especially in light of the increasing heterogeneity of a population that does not feel represented by its own institutions. At the same time, thousands of citizens refuse to stand idly by without an active role in the issues that most affect them. An increasing number of people hold the opinion that traditional democracy is unable to solve the structural problems of the 21st century, such as climate change and rising inequality. Many believe that, because democracy does not work well and needed reform efforts have not been undertaken, the citizens themselves should become aware of their own capacity for social transformation.
The seeds of dissatisfaction and public engagement thus begin to sprout more vigorously. After 2016, the process termed “Latin American Spring” gains momentum. Its immediate antecedents are mass demonstrations in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico, in some cases to safeguard civil and political rights, in others to demand progress in economic, social, and cultural rights, and in still others to demand minimum conditions of security, justice, and the end to impunity. However, the explosion that takes place after 2016 is of major proportions. Millions of people, especially young people, take to the streets of most Latin American cities, convened in social networks, with the intention of shaking the foundations of the economic and political model of each country. Widespread dissatisfaction with the lack of legitimacy of political and judicial institutions and the shortcomings and machinations in public governance flourishes. Some events give priority to civic protest, and others lead to violent behavior by radical protest groups. However, the impact of the demonstrations leads in Latin America to the extension of the traditional concept of “global warming” to that of “social warming.” In many cases, the streets are filled with proclamations against demagogic speeches and stories, the culture of confrontation, and the vicious circle of patronage, corruption, and impunity. Young people are the main ones who are empowered through the unrest created by the lack of answers to their own prospects for development.
Political tension at the domestic and regional levels is undeniable, but even so, the results are unsatisfactory because the reforms inspired by the marches are insufficient, and there is no real shift in the existing institutional power. However, the Latin American Spring is the engine that starts a decade marked by greater citizen empowerment. The predominant symbol is the need to establish mechanisms to “organize the unorganized” and more vigorously counteract the negative influence of the states that have been coopted by minority interests and penetrated by corruption and organized crime. In the absence of a new implicit social contract to restore the relationship between citizens and institutions, a growing number of civil society organizations and individuals undertake public activities outside the margins of official policy.
Based on the learned conviction that street protests cause a lot of media din but have short-lived effects, many civil society groups integrate and organize around recent or recurring agrarian, political, business, cultural, or religious experiments. In some cases, these experiments seek to challenge and question state action; in others, they seek to replace or supplement it through solutions, mainly at local level, that often transcend the institutional possibilities. Many sectors in the region become indifferent to the political debate, electoral contests, and people who come to power. Indeed, they have more direct, immediate, and effective channels of participation and forms of influence than the vote, and they produce actions regardless of ideology, political color, or the administrative performance of the various governments on duty.
Backed by new technologies for communication and for exchange of knowledge that are not limited to the Internet, as well as social nodes with a more pragmatic and less ideological attitude than before, new change agents organize themselves in cohesive civic coalitions around the accomplishment of common dreams and specific goals. These coalitions add to the powerful grassroots movements that already exist in 2015. These are innovations that come from society, not from the state. By 2022, around a new electoral cycle, approximately one in three Latin Americans is part of, or collaborates actively or passively with the work of, one of these coalitions, following a global trend of activism that grows across the planet and poses serious challenges to traditional power. Surveys show that Latin Americans are dissatisfied not with the democratic system itself but rather with the parties that represent it and with the exercise of politics that twists and turns, often deceiving the most disadvantaged citizens and leading to hidden agreements between the government on duty and de facto powers.
For many, institutions may never live up to the most sophisticated expectations of civil society. In Latin American countries, only in some cases does popular pressure lead to an institutional shake-up. There are, however, many instances of specific reforms generated by popular mobilization that contribute to an increase in citizen satisfaction. Nevertheless, people’s weariness with inefficiency and corruption persists. In several countries in the region, in light of the impossibility of systemic change, citizens thrown their support behind specific causes without necessarily relying on politicians elected in the polls or experts who influence the public agenda.
Citizen mobilization through various networks proves to be a powerful means to transform indignation into action, bring together more people, and support greater dynamism and innovation in solving social problems. In the 2020s, several countries in the region provide replicable models of democratic experimentation, especially at the local and regional levels and occasionally at the national level, on issues like food security; local economic development, with new forms of commercialization based on sustainable and fair economic models; advances on indigenous peoples’ rights; and the democratization of the media. Also, new models of education and forms of the production and dissemination of knowledge emerge, causing a transformation in universities and in many of the centers that traditionally monopolize knowledge. The regional democratic ideal is now more flexible and with a more local flavor. Many more people contribute their knowledge and experience to specific social causes. In a growing number of cases, civil society organizes to promote productive projects, provide better education and health services to vulnerable populations, and renew the urban environment. In these and other examples, the state stands out through its absence, fragility, or obsolescence.
In other cases, the organization of civil society allows a more intelligent and forceful exercise of the right to protest and unleashes battles for social inclusion and opposition to traditional power. There are demands for the relationship of these groups with public institutions to move from being unidirectional to bidirectional, because people now have more immediate means of participation than voting. Locally, for example, a participatory budgeting model becomes stronger. New forms of oversight are imposed, in which people exert pressure for governments to assume full political responsibility for the provision and quality of public goods that the community needs and demands. Thus, activists use all possible means within and outside of the Internet, and all conventional and alternative means available, to generate greater public and media pressure on the de facto powers in the public sector and business, ensuring the predominance of collective interests over individual ones.
The region becomes an interesting global laboratory of public mobilization. Numerous examples demonstrate that public management can in some cases be shaped by citizens’ expectations. Both the state and businesses are increasingly called into question. Several battles are waged against restrictions on freedom of expression, channeling independent information and broadcasting opposition voices worldwide. Others fight against corruption, creating better mechanisms for oversight and public scrutiny. In countries with strong authoritarian tendencies, popular pressure uses all the mechanisms at its disposal to expose and neutralize the abuse of power. Even in regimes with the greatest democratic qualities, popular pressure strengthens its ability to prevent government actions with which it does not agree, and to limit or prohibit the influence of organizations, such as the business lobby, when they act for the exclusive benefit of a few. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are now more common, and corporations have no choice but to include social priorities in their agendas, particularly environmental matters. In the second decade of the century, many in Latin America live and breathe democracy, with a collective adoption of common interests beyond the traditional representative scheme and the citizen monitoring and control of governments and businesses.
Since then, the main lesson that politicians and businesspeople take away is very clear: Citizens’ voices matter more and more. Citizens gradually organize to demand not only economic development, but in particular greater human development. It’s this new barometer of well-being that gradually determines success or failure in governance in Latin American countries. In some cases, leaders take note of the phenomenon. Thus, the gradual decentralization of power, collective responsibility in public affairs, inclusion, and pluralism are increasingly sources of real inspiration, and it is impossible to thoroughly understand Latin American society in the 21st century without taking them into account.
However, in several countries in the region, it does not take long for public mobilization to begin to show its limitations. Many recognize that the processes of social activism suffer from frequent ups and downs. In some countries with a propensity to repression of civil society, social leaders often fall under the sights of paramilitary or military forces. In some cases, much like what happened in the past in some European countries, influential leaders who embody the demands of social groups emerge. Some of them form political parties and participate in elections, in several cases appealing to those with a populist slant. Once in power, though, they adopt the same habits and behaviors as traditional politicians or face the same obstacles as their predecessors, generating new frustrations and questions from some quarters for having succumbed to the temptation of “institutionalization.”
Above all, in many countries of the region, some people connected by networks begin to recognize the limitations of working with a strategy that puts them in direct confrontation with the state. They realize that, through their efforts, they have won significant battles, but there are many issues to remedy. A statistical review in the mid-2020s also shows that social activism has been more effective in besieging, delaying, and diluting state actions than in making a long-term commitment to solving the most serious problems the region. In several cases, it is concluded that the ability to stymie political action is detrimental to citizens’ interests. Many learn that it is easier to be a means of opposition than a platform with defined programs, especially when some of the more proactive citizens mobilize only around well-defined issues that affect them directly rather than around a general vision of society and the future.
Starting at the beginning of 2020, Latin Americans witness how some activist organizations inspire certain groups that don’t necessarily have democratic expectations and values. These groups at times fuel extremist parties and populist, xenophobic, or fundamentalist religious ideas, among other paradigms whose peak popularity is lamented by other activists with good intentions. Public debate increases the aggression and polarization, because many activist networks become primarily a form of catharsis for feelings of anger and frustration. They tend to simplify public issues, whose analysis actually requires a high degree of complexity and nuance. Harmful ideas, messages of false experts, and delusions of populist leaders who promise unrealistic solutions and fan hatred at every opportunity occur with unusual frequency. For many, the result is the trivialization of politics, which means that, in the end, there is no tangible impact on democratic renewal or better institutional conditions in many countries in the region.
In fact, many analysts of these new phenomena, which become stronger in the 2020s, warn that social forces, when they act in open opposition to the state, often contribute to a fragmentation of power. This fragmentation blocks the ability to reach the minimum consensuses that are, for the most part, the only possible way to reform institutions and guarantee increased rates of welfare and progress. The result is a vicious circle of mutual distrust, interference in management, and even paralysis, which often affects the poorest people in the region. In some countries, a misconception of activism, along with administrative dysfunction and stagnation, interferes with the process of solving the most serious problems.
Despite the above, citizen empowerment in Latin America marches on, and its role in preserving democratic functioning remains crucial. Upon reaching the 2026 election cycle, various leaders and spokespeople in the region argue that, despite the importance of the work done so far, participatory innovations alone cannot provide permanent solutions to structural problems, and thus they can never replace the state. At the same time, they point out that what they can achieve is a redistribution of power and an alternative source of pressure. They have the ability to reinforce the action of public institutions, deploy structural reforms of the political parties, and strengthen the democratic exercise of countries in the region, even with the inherent risks of cooptation by the state. These leaders conclude, therefore, that social pressure is increasingly influential for those who insist on closing the doors of political power to the great mass of citizens in the region. In the last throes of the decade, some reforms are at last undertaken throughout the continent, with varying degrees of success, to formally expand citizen participation, weaken the links between political power and economic power, and strengthen local governments from a perspective that puts citizens’ vision and interests first.
It is precisely at a local level where more examples are found of shared work to close the distance between citizens and the state, which some call “state-network.” Examples include artists who redesign deteriorating facades and neighborhoods with the support of local government; activists who eradicate animal cruelty through partnerships and protests that resonate in public opinion; young people who organize cultural events against violence and machismo with state support; journalists who found new forms of community media with partial state funding but with strict conditions of independence; local populations that work in public-private partnerships for the full inclusion of disadvantaged groups; and strategic alliances between state and society to ensure a stable legal framework with a focus on productive, ethical, environmental, and social sustainability and with specific requirements for food, energy, and environmental security. All of these models of Latin American civic innovation and dynamism are studied and emulated in other regions. Failed experiences and splits between state and society also operate as benchmarks of the complexity that stems from trying to turn good intentions into sustainable results.
Therefore, after 2030, popular pressure holds significant potential, especially in the creation of alliances and virtuous circles for the development of a stable culture of citizen participation. This culture bridges the gap between a dynamic and sophisticated civil society, a “version 3.0,” and a state mired in the torpor of a “version 1.0.” Many analysts of this phenomenon conclude that mutual cooperation and the permanent exchange of ideas is the only way to achieve a truly inclusive democracy and not merely a society that talks without action. At the edge of a new decade, Latin Americans understand that, to assume and exercise the power necessary to overcome the region’s endemic problems, they need mutual trust, among themselves and with representatives of the state. This is especially the case in times when threats of inequality, economic crises, and environmental degradation are more alive than ever.