The Political Scientist and Lawyer Mapping Activism in Latin America
In late March, Beatriz Pedreira, a 31-year-old Brazilian political scientist, posted a video to her online travelogue: “I’m in front of the Paraguayan Parliament,” she reports, and “the Senate just abolished presidential term limits behind closed doors.” In the background, protesters chant, confronted by police deploying tear gas and stun grenades.
Pedreira and Brazilian lawyer Rafael Poço, 30, were accompanying citizen journalists Latitud 25, one of many Latin American grassroots groups that have formed to monitor legislatures via social media livestream. In a yearlong journey that began in Guatemala last October and brought them to 11 countries before wrapping up in Bolivia in August, Pedreira and Poço have been tracking how political activism is changing and spreading across the region. This month, a program devoted to their project will air on Brazilian TV, and they plan to publish the full results of their research early next year.
“If a new way of doing politics is a baby on the way as traditional models die, we’re doing the ultrasound,” says Poço.
The message echoing from Latin American street protests under both left- and right-wing governments of recent years is “you don’t represent us.” In response — and to identify what voters are demanding from their elected officials — Pedreira and Poço conducted more than 250 interviews across the region. From libraries turned mobilizing hubs in Chile to Colombia’s narco war–ravaged countryside, Pedreira tells OZY an “ecosystem of political innovation” is emerging. And she and Poço are doing more than chronicling what’s taking place — they are also nurturing the movement.
The language and behavior that get people motivated about politics today is new, but the battles — inequality, violence and corruption — are not.
The pair started by examining more than 700 initiatives in civic tech, government and grassroots organizing. “It’s ambitious,” says Ronaldo Lemos, director of the Institute for Technology and Society, a think tank in Rio de Janeiro, “but being able to do this kind of research is exactly the benefit of living in the networked age.” In keeping with the movements they’re following — activists departing from but not abandoning the past — the pair is documenting the shape of things to come both in hand-scrawled journals and through a Facebook Live vlog and a series of Twitter selfies with innovators.
Pedreira and Poço, both from São Paulo, were introduced in 2014 by a friend who knew they each wanted to research the shift in Brazilian politics since 2013 — when a hike in mass transit fees sparked the largest street protests in decades. University of São Paulo political scientist Pablo Ortellado says Brazilians continue to protest in unusually high numbers, but “what their energy can accomplish” remains unknown.
When they met, Pedreira was at a research firm surveying political attitudesin Brazil, andPoço was helping Sen. Marina Silva as she prepared a vice presidential run. They teamed up with economist Caio Tendolini and communications specialist Tulio Malaspina to review existing research on political practices in the region and to design an in-depth survey that would shed light on activities both in Brazil and other Latin American countries. Their project, named Instituto Update, has received funding from foundations including Open Society Foundations and AVINA.
The team identified five patterns in political behavior in Latin American cities: peer-to-peer-inspired direct action (for example, high school takeovers to protest poor-quality education); a new activist aesthetic incorporating slang and humor; leaders of protest movements running for office; elected officials soliciting heightened levels of citizen input at town hall–style events; and watchdog groups translating dense public data for lay readers.
Some initiatives, like Mexico’s Wikipolítica movement, combine several of these elements. Conceived in 2012 as a way, in their words, to “hack politics” following nationwide protests against alleged corrupt government officials, Wikipolítica fielded Pedro Kumamoto to win a state congressional seat in 2014. Co-founder Alejandra Parra tells OZY, “In our monthly open meetings, we encourage proposals that Kumamoto’s office can then carry out.” One such proposal turned into a four-day activism conference held in an abandoned factory, with speakers ranging from comedians to Instituto Update’s Caio Tendolini.
Common experiences across the region? Not surprisingly, activists running for office have had trouble navigating the bureaucracy attached to campaigns, and money to keep civil society organizations afloat is scarce. In response, Instituto Update’s next steps include developing tool kits with advice on the electoral process and fundraising from diverse sources.
Pedreira and Poço frequently get asked: What counts as innovation, and what will mapping it accomplish? Sandra Quintela, director of the Alternative Policies for the Southern Cone think tank, points out that pan–Latin American alliances in civil society have existed for decades. What’s more, she says, “we need to be careful about praising the hacking of politics without discussing context. Donald Trump just hacked politics for corporate interests.” The same could be said of growing right-wing youth groups throughout Latin America who are pushing United States–style libertarianism.Federal University of Rio de Janeiro economist Eduardo Pinto tells OZY: “If these new movements want to make real changes in people’s lives, they will need to be able to affect macroeconomic policies. That means advancing to the level of mass politics.”
Pedreira agrees, noting that citizen outrage is not enough to make meaningful inroads toward government reform.“The language and behavior that get people motivated about politics today is new,” she says, “but the battles — inequality, violence and corruption — are not.”
With the long journey behind them, Pedreira and Poço take a moment to reflect on what they’ve seen and learned. Pedreira says the current groundswell in Latin America is happening because leaders — even the most idealized — have fallen short. “Many have revealed racist, sexist and authoritarian behavior,” says Pedreira. The hope, she adds, is that people will fall in love not with a leader, “but with political participation itself.”