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Songs of Protest

Today, country after country in Latin America has been out on the streets against growing poverty, frustration with non-performing models of governance, unrest on campus and environmental depredations. Many protesters are using their bodies as a political act

ASH NARAIN ROY | New Delhi |

Latin America enjoys a unique place in the world. It is a world where politics and prose are one and the same. While politics intersects with literature, society and economy, Latin American writers are keeping alive the tradition of the uncertain border between reality and imagination. Perhaps Percy B Shelley had Latin America in mind when he wrote, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Latin American writers like Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had great influence on world writings. Latin America, as Marquez saw it, was born in a colonial mind thousands of miles across the Atlantic. And yet, it did sustain a vision of its own, a distinct memory, a different history enshrined in oral cultures, stories, legends and collective myth.

Latin American writers rejected Western aesthetics of “art for art’s sake”; art for them is for life’s sake. Literature is not just a mere string of words; it gives the writers a view of the world.

Mario Vargas Llosa campaigned for presidency in Peru, Gabriel Garcia Marquez remained deeply involved in Colombian politics and Carlos Fuentes actively campaigned for democratic change in Mexico. Pablo Neruda was nominated for the Chilean presidency in 1970 but he gave his support to Salvador Allende who won. Some intellectuals and writers indeed became presidents.

Latin America’s romance with football is no less spectacular. Football not just charms, it seduces. When the World Cup is on, in most Latin American homes organized religion and organized football can be seen vying for supremacy. When the going is not in their favour, many invoke the divine power ~ the religious ones their gods and football fanatics their heroes and stars for deliverance. Small wonder therefore that the French paper L’ Equipe should frontpage Diego Maradona’s demise, “God is dead”.

In recent decades, Latin America has become a hotbed of political innovations. Ecuador and Bolivia have given Nature the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structures, functions and its processes in evolution”. Consulta previa (prior consultation) is another significant legal framework that some countries in Latin America have institutionalized to deepen democracy. It is the right of the indigenous and ethnic groups to be consulted on matters affecting their culture and heritage.

Today, country after country has been out on the streets against growing poverty, frustration with non-performing models of governance, unrest on campus and environmental depredations. Many protesters are using their bodies as a political act. At a time when governments are taking away the rights that nations gave to their citizens, the protesters are claiming streets as belonging to people, not just for cars.

For instance, in New York one needs permission from local authorities if more than 20 people gather in a park. In many other cities in the US the street march is free only if it involves fewer than 100 people and if they occupy a single lane. In London political protests now are lumped with looters as threats to public order. The Indian government has a taken a leaf from the US and the UK in restricting protests at India Gate, Jantar Mantar and the historic Ramleela Maidan..

Various organisations, indigenous and peasant groups in Latin America have created big movements which have captured the imagination of the world. The indigenous people in many countries are, today, well-organised at the grassroots, regional and national levels. They advocate for indigenous rights, access to land, autonomy, basic services, environmental protection and political representation.

Street protests played an important role during the democratization process of the 1990s. Now these protests are for democratic consolidation and making politics accountable. These protests are also a way of asserting people power which has now acquired greater intensity. People are increasingly frustrated with the institutionalized road – voting, forming political parties, bargaining in parliament, funding political parties and think tanks. They have now shifted towards what has been called “alternative political technologies” like blocking roads, burning tires, picketing etc.

In recent years Rio’s carnival has become a site for resistance and rebellion. This year, “long live resistance” was the theme of Sao Paulo’s carnival. Earlier, it used to be a carnival of the oppressed. Now it is overly political. Art is now stoking the protest movements in Latin America. Demonstrators from Mexico to Argentina are relying on traditional art forms, dances, and music to hold their leaders accountable. The message is loud and clear. If elected leaders have made a mockery of politics, the masses too know how to mock them in public. Music, dance and other forms of art even at this time of pandemic have kept the heat on political leadership across the region.

In Brazil, supporters of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva have formed Free Lula Samba groups around the country. Anti-Bolsonaro groups too have proliferated. Hundreds of indigenous women recently occupied the Ministry of Health, demanding the restoration of basic health and human services to their communities. Wearing their traditional outfits, women sang and danced inside the building to highlight their struggle.

The indigenous and marginalized groups in Latin America seem to have perfected the art of collective action. The region is witnessing the ‘festivals of protest’ or ‘politics of crowd’ like nowhere else. The indigenous people revel in feasting, costuming and dancing, which is long part of communal celebration of their culture.

Earlier, particularly during the military regimes, protesters met with brutal force of the police and the military. Artists and writers weren’t spared either. When Salvador Allende was killed in a military coup in 1973, the notorious Pinochet regime took aim at ‘nueva cancion’ (new music) by banning this kind of music and exiling many musicians of that genre. Today, democracy has opened up spaces and the internet has provided various platforms which are not easy to crush.

Culture has now become a tool in the hands of protesters. People dance in the streets to the rhythms of cumbia and salsa music and march along to sounds of trumpets, trombones and horns. The indigenous and oppressed communities find healing in such cultural practices. Today these have been weaponised. Victor Jara’s 1971 song “Derecho a la paz” (Right to peace) has become a resistance anthem for students and workingclass protestors across the region.

The youth unrest is a ticking time bomb. Massive cuts in the education budgets, steep fee hike and unprecedented unemployment have led to the fear of the young generation being locked out of the economy. The millennials and Generation Z played a key role in forcing two presidents out in Peru within a week recently. Earlier the Chilean youth played no less important a role in forcing the government to dump the Pinochet-era constitution.

Earlier, it was believed that extremist forces on the left and the right were more politically committed and hence they participated in protests. Now almost every section of the people seems to be willing to take to the streets. In 2000. President Jamil Mahuad of Ecuador was forced to resign after a week of demonstrations by the indigenous people. Argentinian president Fernando de la Rua fled office besieged by riots in 2001. A very powerful protest that opposed the tax system by President Sanchez de Lozada of Bolivia forced his ouster in 2003 after only 14 months in power.

Writers and intellectuals wield immense political influence in Latin America. Their writings are a source of respectability for the governments in power and provide, in equal measure, legitimacy to an array of revolts and movements. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas once wondered why “being basically creators and artists”, Latin American writers have ended up being “politicians, agitators, reformers, social publicists and moralists.” Maybe, because “literature is fire”, as he said way back in 1967 while receiving the Romano Gallegos Prize.

The writer is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi