Carlos M. Vilas

Argentinean Institute for Economic Development*


In recent years massive popular protests in Ecuador, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia brought about extra-constitutional changes of governments and the demise of presidents.  In the midst of deep economic crises and persistent allegations of corruption, or a combination of both, mass mobilizations, sometimes punctuated by spates of violence, have overthrown or forced the resignation of constitutional governments.  


Under the “old” Latin American tradition the interruption of the mandates of administrations originating on popular elections was the preserve of the armed forces.  In this praetorian practice, the citizens elected the government and the military unseated it, with the general support and encouragement of powerful economic groups, and foreign governments. The ephemeral military coup in Venezuela in November 2002 seemed an obstinate attempt to revive that infamous past.


However, in the four cases mentioned above, those who brought an early end to governments legitimated by elections were broad alliances between the middle classes and especially the poorer sectors of society who have suffered the brunt of the neo-liberal economic policies of the last two decades. The democratic transitions of the 1980s and the alleged institutional consolidations of the 1990s seem to have mutated into both the shaky democracies of the 21st Century and the abovementioned coups de peuple.


There is indeed a great variety of specific nuances within this generic category of phenomena. Charges of corruption and electoral fraud were the detonators of a chain of events leading to the fleeing and subsequent resignation of Alberto Fujimori in Peru. In turn, in Argentina and Ecuador the negative impact of economic policy decisions triggered massive street protests that finally led to presidential changes. In Bolivia, the resignation of Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada was the culmination of a massive nationalist repudiation compounded by the broad popular mobilizations against the government’s economic strategy. In the letter case, as in Ecuador, the strong cultural and ethnic fabric of both societies played a significant role in strengthening the impact of social protests.


Yet, despite these and undoubtedly other specific differences, it is possible to recognize some recurring elements running through these new forms of social protest:  


  1. They are primarily extra-institutional challenges to legally constituted governments that have both formal constitutional and democratic legitimacy.

  2. They are directed against governments implementing neo-liberal macroeconomic and social strategies –what until recently was referred to as the “Washington Consensus”.

  3. Finally, these are mobilizations and political dynamics that, by-and-large produce extremely uneven results as far as their original objectives are concerned.


The mass mobilization taking place in Venezuela since last year and the maneuvering for a referendum that could bring to a premature end the government of President Hugo Chavez has not been included in this analysis. The declared goal of the protesters is to re-set in motion a constitutional mechanism to control the government, not an outright resignation of the President. Moreover, the target of the protests is a government that has sponsored socio-economic reforms quite opposite to neo-liberalism. Important sectors of the middle strata and the bulk of those in need appear aligned with Chavez’s government (López Maya & Lander 2000; Vilas 2001).


1. Extra-institutional Challenges to Legally Constituted Governments

The first noticeable feature of the new protest movements in the region is that they originate, organize and operate outside the institutions of the political system. The conventional actors of such system –parties, parliaments, courts—play at best a marginal role. The central protagonist of these processes is collective and informal, though not necessarily spontaneous. In general, the outbursts of popular anger constitute the culmination of added frustrations, unsatisfied demands, small and often unsuccessful attempts to organize, and failed institutional experiences. The gathering storm ends up finally confronting a government decision that acts as a catalyst: the monetary “corralling” (corralito) in 2001 in Argentina, the blackmailing videos of Fujimori’s intelligence Chief, Vladimiro Montecinos (vladivideos) in 2000 in Peru; the sale of Bolivian gas to the US through a Chilean pipeline in 2003.


The collective protagonism of the crowd and the absence of a formal political structure has been emphasized by the activists themselves and reported by both the media and external observers. Popular protests here are an example of the vitality of civil society vis-à-vis the ineffective complicity of the political system. However, it is necessary to point out that institutional actors ended up playing a role in these events, albeit in a subsidiary and reactive manner. In all the cases we examine here, the overthrow of the president was a direct result of massive physical pressure by people on the street, though it was subsequently processed through institutional channels existing prior to the mass demonstrations. Unlike traditional coups d’état, these golpes de pueblo did not substantively alter the countries’ institutional framework. We will return to this point later.  


Before going any further, I would like to address one aspect related to the discussion above, but which presents some unique theoretical complexities. All the governments confronted to the abovementioned massive protests had originated in electoral processes in which many of the protesters had taken an active part as voters. The toppling of these same administrations by means of people’s coups challenges us to re-examine the relationships between the electoral origin of a government and that government’s real democratic character. In a sort of elementary Schumpeterian analysis, the literature on transitions to democracy and democratic regimes of the 1980s and 1990s made a simplistic identification between democracy and elections. This identity emerged from an elementary truth: it is difficult, if not impossible to have democracy without elections; the latter being an institutional mechanism to express the citizens’ political opinions in choosing their government and determining the orientation of their policies. However, in addition to the simplistic confusion (democracy = periodic elections) this mode of analysis assumes an implicit and spurious causal relation between the two. Though it is hard to conceive of a non-electoral democracy, it is equally questionable to assert that the existence of elections is a sufficient condition for democratic government, let alone for a democratic regime.


Let’s draw an analogy. While it is impossible to conceive capitalism without markets, the existence of markets is not an exclusive attribute of capitalism, as markets exist in a wide variety of economic systems, past and present. Likewise, elections exist in a significant spectrum of political regimes. Oligarchic domination in Latin America has included the existence of periodic elections, and some paradigmatic dictatorships (like Somoza in Nicaragua or Trujillo in the Dominican Republic) periodically used some type of electoral consultation to hush possible international criticism (Baloyra 1983; Cueva 1988; Hermet 1989; Vilas 1995). When assessing the substantive democratic character of a government or a political regime, one should pay special attention to the quality of the electoral processes, including their transparency and competitiveness, obstacles to universal citizen participation, and the fairness of the systems of representation.


The toppling of elected governments by mass popular protests of angry citizens suggests in the first place the existence of a tension --in fact, a contradiction—between the formal and the substantive dimensions of democracy around the issue of representation. The formal notion of democracy relates to the origin of representative legitimacy in the balloting by citizens. The substantive dimension refers to the political agenda pursued by those who represent the citizenry, and more specifically to the content of the decisions made by the elected representatives, and their outcomes.


The alleged ungovernability of democracies posed by transition theorists highlights the gap between an academic-ideological discourse stressing formality, instrumentality and procedure, and the practice of common people who are more concerned with what governments do and the results of their actions. This suggests that there is an important normative dimension in people’s understanding of democracy, highlighting the substance of decisions, not only the manners in which decisions are made. After all, people get involved in politics –by means of voting, attending meetings, financing, supporting a party or candidate, or expressing preferences—to affect decisions one way or another.


This is the case because all societies, even those assumed to be highly complex, are based in an often implicit and informal system of exchanges and reciprocities. Individuals expect that what they give to others will have an equivalent in what they in turn receive from others. This notion of exchange is applicable to politics and legitimization too. It is tacitly expected that what is given to the government in the form of taxes, work, compliance, or support, “returns” to the contributor in the form of security, respect, wellbeing, or any other thing deemed valuable. There is, or it is expected to be, a sort of equilibrium between what is contributed and what is received.  When that balance is broken the legitimacy of the government, and the public trust, suffer. Many people perceive that their toil is in vain, that they pay taxes that do not render better services, or greater security. Rather, they work hard so others could reap the benefits, and vote in merely ceremonial elections that change nothing for the better.   


As we will elaborate later, political participation, including voting in elections, presupposes investments of time, energies, and even monetary costs. It makes sense to play by the rules of the democratic game, if the probability of goal attainment is within reasonable limits. The problem resulting with the simplification of democracy to mere elections is that the substance of the game (the decisions that constitute the outcome of participation) is reduced to the adherence to the rules, irrespective of the probability of obtaining a desirable outcome. While it is true that some games are played for fun, all the bets placed in the “democratic game” have an extremely high value. They have nothing to do with fun-and-games as such but with survival, with the health of one’s children, with the hope of a better future, or with the maintenance of acquired rights and privileges.


We face therefore a contemporary manifestation of one of the older problems in democratic theory: the contradiction between legitimacy defined by its origins, legitimacy defined by its exercise, and legitimacy defined by its ends. To fully develop this contradiction would take us beyond the modest objectives of this presentation. However, it seems important to mention that the primacy given to the formal and instrumental aspects of politics is a relatively recent development in the region. It has probably more to do with the imposition of neo-liberal structural adjustment policies, combined with the need to make these adjustments compatible with a minimalist presence of democratic principles in an otherwise substantively non-democratic process.     


The prevailing conceptualization of limited, minimalist democracy ostensibly clashes with a characterization emphasizing the importance of the goals pursued by the government, and in particular the efficacy of the political institutions to improve the quality of life of the population, especially those in greater need. The belief that democratic politics possesses a transformative capability of reality, opening avenues for social progress, is already part of the political culture of a wide number of social and political organizations in the continent. It is also part of the collective imaginary, and hope, of the popular classes (cf. Alarcón 1992)


The above does not mean that abandoning the rules of the democratic game would automatically translate into an option for violent confrontation. The most common response in the region has been simply either not to participate by abstaining from voting, or using the ballot as a mechanism of protest and repudiation. This is what Hirschman has called the “exit option” (Hirschman 1970). When the competing choices in the electoral process are not real choices, when no alternatives are offered to solve some of the most pressing problems of the electorate, and when the Thatcherite neo-liberal dictum tells them that “there is no alternative”, to take part in elections and more generally in politics, makes little sense.


The challenge facing democracy in Latin America consists precisely in giving meaning to politics by factoring in the demands of the vast majority of its inhabitants. This means giving content to otherwise empty formulas in the context of severe economic and financial strictures, strong external pressures, and the obstacles presented by domestic elites’ interests. This leads us to the second point of our presentation.


2. The impact of Neo-liberal Policies

The people’s coups discussed above were directed against governments geared to enforcing neo-liberal economic policies that generated severe economic crises. The embracing of these policies came from many sources: ideological preferences, a legacy of prior institutional commitments of military regimes, and an inability to cope with external pressures and restrictions.


Generally speaking, these policies attained little in the way of growth, and even less in the realm of enhancing social welfare. It must be understood from the onset that, due to their intrinsic characteristics, neither growth nor equity are the prime objective of neo-liberal prescriptions. Instead, they are essentially aimed at bringing in monetary stability, broad deregulation of economic, commercial and financial activities, the wide opening of international flows of capital, and the preservation --or recovery of-- macroeconomic equilibrium. These are instrumental goals to which productive reactivation, real employment generation, or the access to basic services, are subordinated.


From the perspective of the living conditions for most of the population, the balance of one and a half decades of these policies has been an increase of poverty, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and a significant increase of social inequality. According to studies done by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), in 1980 at the beginning of neo-liberal restructuring, the number of poor in Latin America was 136 million. Ten years later, it had gone up to 200 million and in 2000 it was about 207 million. In 2003, it was estimated that this figure was 225 million (CEPAL 1998, 2003)    


To live in poverty means much more than having less money to cope with necessities. It is to lack access to basic services, to water, sewage, education and healthcare. It is also being unemployed, or having a low quality, low paying job. In sum, it is to live in permanent insecurity.  


The sustained increase of poverty in Latin America has occurred in the context of rapidly expanding social inequality. According to a recent study:


income inequality during the years of neoliberal reforms increased significantly for the region and, with few exceptions for each individual country. By the end of the 1990s, the regional Gini index of inequality had climbed to reach the same value it had in 1970 (52.0). This means that the top 5% of the population received incomes that were that were twice those of the comparable group in the OECD countries (Portes & Hoffman 2003).


Even in Chile, one of the few countries where poverty was significantly reduced after the end of the military dictatorship, social inequality increased. According to the same study mentioned above:


While incomes grew by 57% during the 1990s, distribution was particularly unfair. Employers as a group increased their share from 25 times the per capita poverty line to 34 times, while formal sector workers only rose from 3.3 to 4.3 times. As a result, the income gap between the two groups rose from a ratio of 7-to-1 to 8-to-1.






Argentina                     2001(*)


Bolivia                         1999


Brazil                           1998


Chile                            1998


Colombia                     1996


Costa Rica                   1997


Dominican Republic   1998


Ecuador                       1995


El Salvador                  1998


Guatemala                   1998


Honduras                     1998


Jamaica                        2000


Mexico                        1998


Nicaragua                    1998


Panama                        1997


Paraguay                     1998


Peru                             1996


Uruguay                      1989


Venezuela                   1998


(*) INDEC, EPH, metropolitan area.

Source: World Bank (2003).


Whether these traits are the direct result of neoliberal policies or the outcome of the structural configuration of the economies in the region is in fact the object of a still open debate. What cannot be questioned, however, is the inability of these policies to stop or reverse these tendencies. Above all is the total failure of these policies to attain wellbeing, employment and minimal equity promised by their proponents and propagandists.


This is not necessarily a peculiarity of the Latin American variety of neoliberalism, attributable to inappropriate implementation of the recipes—a sort of “bad practice” on the part of the local experts of structural adjustment. The table below indicates a similar result in New Zealand, a place that for many years was construed as the Pacific’s neoliberal “star”.





1981, 1991, 1998



Poorest 20%

2 nd


3 rd


4 th




Richest 10%
























Source: World Bank (1991, 200/01, 2003)


Poverty and deep inequality degrade the exercise of citizenship and deteriorate the quality of democracy. Citizenship entails access to information, availability of free time, physical mobility, and other conditions related to access to economic resources. By definition the poor have either a limited access to these resources or no access at all.  This condition creates a propensity for frequent clientelism, induced voting and vote-buying, and low electoral participation. Citizenship assumes a sense of political efficacy on the part of each individual: the conviction that it is possible to reach one’s objectives through participation in existing institutions. The realization of deep social inequalities, scarcity and poverty undermine this conviction and limit political participation to the search of immediate remedies to the problems of daily survival (Vilas 1997, 1998). More often than not the vote becomes the poor’s credit card.


The above phenomenon has its mirror image in the world of the rich. Extremely unbalanced resource accessibility favors the development of impunity and arrogance, and the belief that “anything goes” on the part of the economic elites. Bribery of officials, tax evasion, fraud, embezzlements of public trusts, and the purchasing of favors become pervasive. As Brazilian sociologist Octavio Ianni once remarked: “in Latin America the elites don’t behave as dominant classes, but as conquerors”.    


For the poor, political efficacy, derived from the notion of “one person one vote”, is often rendered empty by the multiple forms of clientelism and manipulation. In turn, for the elites, the abovementioned principle is only minimally sustained by the fact that their legitimacy may stem from free elections. The bulk of their authority is derived from media manipulation, economic pressures, and by buying support.


When I say that deep social inequalities undermine the quality of democracy, I am not referring to the age-old debate as to whether democracy is exclusively a political issue or if an economic democracy is possible. This is still an open question. Instead, I am delving into a much deeper and complex issue than that of the economic versus political democracy debate. The problem here is the negative effect on the exercise of citizenship and democratic participation resulting from differential accessibility present in the existing system of inequalities.


Inequalities exist in any society. The ones we are discussing here are those affecting social groups, not those referring to differences among individuals. There is always a tension –often latent-- between existing social inequalities and the minimum degree of homogeneity required to preserve the political unity of the state. As Heller suggested:


There is certain degree of social homogeneity below which it is impossible to have a democratic political formation. Unity ceases to exist where the politically relevant sectors of the population begin to see themselves as not being part of a whole, and cannot identify themselves any longer with the symbols and representatives of the state. This is the moment of breakdown where civil war, dictatorship and foreign domination are possible…. Without social homogeneity the most radical type of equality can become the most radical inequality and any formal democracy the dictatorship of a dominant class. (Heller 1985: 262, 265)


Large distances in opportunities and lifestyles between the very rich and the very poor conspire against the development of feelings of solidarity and the concept of commonwealth related to the res publica. Deep social inequities bring into question the validity of shared codes and other normative points of reference, as well as meanings. Social norms exist to foster attitudes of identity and solidarity beyond those of the primary group to which one belongs, or identifies with. These codes are developed by, and transmitted through, social processes and institutions, both public and private: churches, the mass media, education and the like.  The integrative “civic” discourse of democracy loses credibility when confronted with the daily and concrete evidence of fragmentation and social exclusion. After a while it is difficult for people who had been expelled or marginalized from access to basic social services (like health, schooling, or decent housing) due to unemployment or impoverishment to feel as members of the society, equal to those who enjoy privilege. In turn, class loyalties, and identification with the business elites or the global conspicuous consumers are reinforced at the highest levels of wealth and power. Increasingly the elites lose the material and symbolic linkages with a particular country or specific citizenship (Sklair 2001).  


The ability of governments to manage ever more polarized demands, the latter resulting from cumulative inequalities, is further complicated by the conditionalities imposed by neoliberal restructuring and reform packages. These prescriptions put severe restrictions on economic development and social spending. Structural adjustment policies (Saps) are fundamentally skewed against the poor. This is not so much because it is possible to envision more surplus extraction from this sector, but mainly because the lower social stratum has been rendered disorganized, and hence politically vulnerable, by social inequality, institutional biases, or political authoritarianism. The rhetoric of poverty reduction of many multilateral agencies and that of most governments in developed countries is in fact perfectly compatible with the practice of “upward” and “outward” income flows.


Public trust in the efficacy and fairness of democracy to solve the problems of real people is weakened when official decisions sidestep the majority of the population. The result is a deterioration of the basic legitimacy of the government. If election after election, the governments --beyond declared partisan differences and purely instrumental commitments-- persist in their politics of exclusion, it is hardly surprising that popular distrust and repudiation will apply also to the institutions of the regime upon which the government rests. It does not seem to be a mere co-incidence that dysfunctional symptoms like electoral fraud, vote buying, harassment of the opposition, and intimidation, are more frequent in societies with profound social differences, large masses of impoverished populations, and low levels of education, than in those exhibiting better performance in human development and social equity.


3.  The Uneven Results of Popular Coups in Terms of Socioeconomic and Political Changes

So far, unlike social revolutions, the cases discussed here have not produced, or led to, significant social, economic or even political restructuring. They were all unorthodox forms of change of government, not regime change. This does not mean that they are ephemeral or irrelevant occurrences. Their principal goal seems to have been to bring democracy in line with the demands of the large majority of the population most affected by both the economic crisis and the imposed prescriptions to overcome it. The immediate objective has been to replace governments unwilling to pay attention to, and understand, the plight of these majorities for one perceived as capable of doing so. The massive outbursts of public anger did not aim at changing the overall “system.” At most they were geared at shifting the pattern of distribution of gains and loses within the same system.


The point of rupture in the political crisis was generated by mass protests; yet what followed was usually processed by preexisting institutional channels. The officials who took charge after the overthrow of the repudiated governments (Paniagua in Peru, Alarcón in Ecuador, Rodríguez-Saá and Duhalde in Argentina, Mesa in Bolivia) had institutional and procedural legitimacy to undertake their new roles.  The crisis unleashed by the questioning of institutions on the part of a large segment of the citizenry was “resolved” by actors of the “old order” questioned by the mobilizations: parliaments, courts and political parties. Mass outrage may lead –as it did in the above mentioned cases— to the toppling of an unpopular government. Yet, an angry movement is not capable on its own to install new authorities. Lacking unified organization and leadership, subsequent political initiatives usually fall back into traditional institutional actors.


4. Summary and Preliminary Conclusions

For the sake of brevity, the preceding exploration has been somewhat schematic. More than engaging in an in-depth study, its main objective has been both, to stimulate and open a debate around recent developments in the region, and at the same time to re-examine some prevailing concepts, and miss-conceptions, in political analysis. The above presentation concentrated only upon four South American cases in which popular protests lead to the toppling of elected governments, in the midst of crises generated or accelerated by neoliberal policies.


Despite the tentative and exploratory nature of this presentation, it is however possible to sketch some equally tentative conclusions and generalizations:


  1. To begin with, I believe that those of us who devote our interests to political   analysis should re-examine the prevailing paradigms regarding democracy and political representation that have emerged in the last twenty or thirty years. We should pay more attention to the contributions of Anthropology, History and Cultural Studies to gain an understanding of actual political processes. It is unfortunate that for the sake of a supposed professionalism, we spend so much time re-iterating the same ideas and so little time in looking at what other disciplines have to say about our own problems of study.


  1. Even when we examine seemingly short-term processes, or very specific issues, we should be able to approach them from a longer and broader historical point of view. In politics, even the least predictable events have antecedents, and even there are those who “prophesize” their occurrence. Paraphrasing the late economist Paul M. Sweezy, we should be able to approach “the present as history”; that is, to understand events that are at the same time products of previous processes and the matrix of future developments.


  1. The popular protests discussed here and the changes of government brought about by them dramatically illustrate the deep chasm that exists in many countries in the region between the formalism of political institutions and their real performance. An equally formidable gap obtains between the principle of legality and that of legitimacy. Unless we are capable of bridging, or at least significantly reducing, these distances, the discourse of democracy will continue to be empty phraseology reproduced by complacent intellectuals. The reduction of these gaps depends upon the adoption of policy decisions on the part of governments that effectively affirm democracy. Most importantly, bridging the distance between rhetoric and reality will depend upon the recognition of the elementary idea that the exercise of citizenship and living in a democracy are threatened by inequality and limited or restricted accessibility.


  1. Politics, as is the case with any human activity, is a dimension of a people’s culture --that is, their value systems, representations, attitudes and preferences embodied in actions, objects and institutions that give meaning to their lives. The development and strengthening of democratic regimes rests upon economic resources, administrative capabilities, and local, national and international linkages and networks, no less than upon a wide array of cultural traditions, institutional legacies, and popular aspirations.








Alarcón, Walter

(1992) “La democracia en la mentalidad y prácticas populares”, en W. Alarcón, C. Franco y M. Montoya, ¿De qué democracia hablamos? Lima: DESCO, 9-47.


Baloyra, Enrique

(1983) “Reactionary Despotism in Central America”. Journal of Latin American Studies . 15:295-319.


Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo

(1999) América Latina frente a la desigualdad. Washington D.C.: BID.


Comisión Económica para América Latina CEPAL

(1998) Panorama social de América Latina. Santiago: CEPAL.

(2003) Panorama social de América Latina 2002-2003. Santiago: CEPAL.


Cueva, Agustín

(1988) Las democracias restringidas de América Latina. Quito: Planeta.


Heller, Herman

(1985) Escritos políticos. Madrid: Alianza Universidad.


Hermet, Guy

(1989) En las fronteras de la democracia . Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica.


Hirschman, Albert

(1970) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States , Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Lopez Maya, Margarita & Luis Lander

(2000) “Refounding the Republic: the Political project of chavismo ”. NACLA Report on the Americas , XXIII (6) 22-28.


Portes, Alejandro & Kelly Hoffman

(2003) “Latin American Class Structures: Their Composition and Change during the Neoliberal Era”. Latin American Research Review 38 (1) 41-82.


Sklair, Leslie

(2001) The Transnational Capitalist Class. London: Basil Blackwell.


Vilas, Carlos M.

(1995) Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes. Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America . New York: Monthly Review Press.

(1997) “Inequality and the Dismantling of Citizenship in Latin America”. NACLA Report on the Americas XXXI (1) 57-63.

(1998) “Buscando al Leviatán: Hipótesis sobre ciudadanía, desigualdad y democracia”. E. Sader (ed.), Democracia sin exclusiones ni excluidos. Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 115-134.

(2001) “La sociología política latinoamericana y el ‘caso Chávez’: entre la  sorpresa y el déjá vu”. Revista Venezolana de Economía y Ciencias Sociales 7 (2), 129-145.


World Bank.

(1991) World Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press.

(2000/01) World Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press.

(2003) World Development Report . New York: Oxford University Press.


Translated by Jorge Nef (June 2, 2004)


* Distinguished Visitor Lecture in Inter American Studies, Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies, University of South Florida, Tampa Florida; March 22nd 2004. The opinions expressed in this document are exclusively those of the author and not those of LACS.

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