Growing up, like millions of Latin Americans, I was taught to look up to the United States. I was taught this was the home of the brave, the land of the free, the “first world.” The place where people from our “third world” would go to chase their dreams. This belief system became especially entrenched when my family migrated to the U.S. seeking safety after a series of threats against my father in my hometown of Medellin, Colombia.
Later on, working as a human rights attorney, I often came across American colleagues with deeply rooted white savior mentalities who also believed that, for all intents and purposes, the United States was the West’s beacon and, worse, that Americans had nothing to learn from Latin America. Undoubtedly, organizers in the U.S. have done admirable work: the U.S. civil rights and feminist movements have inspired millions around the world. Yet as riots multiply and calls for freedom heighten beyond the U.S., the long-held belief that U.S. social movements have nothing to learn from their southern counterparts rings falser than ever.
Currently, the image of the U.S. as the ultimate democracy is crumbling to pieces. What started with the election of an aspiring autocrat in 2016—who has a very real possibility of returning to power in 2024—has now translated into a regressive U.S. Supreme Court that protects and expands the rights of gun owners despite widespread support for gun control; overturns legal precedents to rob the American people of their reproductive rights; and sides with the fossil fuel industry even when our lives are literally threatened by its incessant pollution. All of this is happening as the right-wing pullulates anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation across the country and bans books to understand the history and importance of racial justice in public schools.
How much are social movements willing to learn about what is happening in Latin America to demand similar change in the United States?
As I have watched U.S. institutions deal blow after blow against our human rights, I have also celebrated crucial wins in my native Colombia. These victories are merely a marker of what is happening across Latin America. Following decades of political corruption and control by government elites, social movements are rising up and demanding change from their elected officials. And right now, these Latin American movements offer the U.S. invaluable lessons on how to respond to crises.
In February, Colombia’s Constitutional Court voted to decriminalize abortion up to 24 weeks of gestation after a successful lawsuit brought forth by the feminist Colombian movement Causa Justa. And just weeks ago, Colombia elected Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez as the first leftist government of our country. Márquez, a powerful activist who won the Goldman Prize in 2018 for standing up against illegal gold mining, also achieved the unthinkable as the first Black woman in Colombia to become vice president.
Many human rights are currently better protected in some countries across Latin America than they are in the United States. These starkly opposed realities reveal a profoundly broken system in the U.S. and inevitably beg the question: how much are social movements willing to learn about what is happening in Latin America to demand similar change in the United States?
Protest as Power
Colombia’s ongoing changes can be traced back to the national riots that rattled the country in April 2021 when people took to the streets to protest dire economic consequences caused by the pandemic and an extensive tax reform proposal, said María Ximena Dávila, a Colombian Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin who studies social movements in Latin America.
“The role of social movements in all of this was essential,” Dávila said. “First, because they championed a wide range of causes and discontents. But also because they named the many ailments people were experiencing. They named poverty, dissatisfaction, and violence. And this was essential to generate a collective notion of what was happening and, ultimately, mobilize thousands of people.”
The power of social uprising in Latin America can also be clearly seen beyond Colombia. In 2020, Argentinian feminists flooded the country with a green wave of protests that culminated with the legalization of abortion. In December 2021, Chilean citizens voted to elect 36-year-old student protest leader Gabriel Boric as the youngest president in their history. Boric played a fundamental role during the vast protests targeting inequality and corruption that took hold of Chile in October 2019 and subsided with an agreement to draft a new constitution, which is currently in the works.
In Brazil, thousands have also taken to the streets to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing anti-environmentalist government since he was elected in 2018. And come October, there is a high likelihood that former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will push out Bolsonaro and return to power.
Favorable presidential elections don’t always translate into ideal policy, but the victory of leaders who have vowed to uphold human rights is a step in the right direction. Moreover, though social movements undeniably have limitations—especially in the face of repressive governments that punish free speech and promote violence—Latin America’s current panorama indicates that social movements that effectively name the issues people are living through (like poverty and unemployment) and take to the streets to spread powerful messages can be increasingly successful.
Planet-First Policies Can Win
This progressive wave in Latin America is expected to have a profound impact on the region’s climate change agenda. In Colombia, Petro and Márquez built their campaign on the promise to protect and care for life, which (largely due to Marquez’s environmental background) will translate into a ban on fracking and a push toward clean energy. Chile’s Boric also ran on the promise of making climate change one of his top priorities. This included commitments to invest in research and adaptation measures, reduce fossil fuel dependence, and reform the nation’s water management system.
Most recently, Boric upheld his climate pledge by signing on to the United Nations Escazú Agreement, a regional treaty the previous Chilean government had refused to support that secures public access to information, participation, and justice in environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean. Also, in stark opposition to Bolsonaro’s extractive policies, Lula’s return to power could have major implications to advance a long-overdue regional dialogue on protecting the Amazon. For instance, some of his campaign promises include tackling illegal mining in the Amazon and leading a battle against illegal deforestation.
“Here, environmental defenders don’t just advocate for the environment. Theirs is a broad defense of life and land.”
Replicating the recent success of Latin American social movements in the United States is complicated, to say the least. To begin with, as Dávila said, “Latin American constitutionalism, which is renowned for the protection of social rights and the environment, has been built with the direct participation of social movements.” Meanwhile, U.S. constitutionalism dates back to the 18th century when the right to bear arms and privacy were considered key priorities.
Still, U.S. social movements have led to changes in the country’s constitution. The civil rights and suffrage movements, in particular, managed to expand social rights. The 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments are testaments to that.
Moreover, in a similar vein to Latin America, there is growing public support for politicians who center environmental issues and seek to defend climate policies. The election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, both of whom ran with the most ambitious climate agenda in U.S. history, is a clear example of that. However, the U.S. two-party system means progressive candidates cannot win without the support of establishment democrats—who have largely impeded efforts to bring on more progressive party leadership.
Unity Is Key
Although Biden and Harris have given more attention to the issue of environmental justice, actual policy that applies an intersectional lens to the climate crisis is still largely missing. In the U.S., attempts to build inclusive campaigns for environmental matters that also address issues such as housing and wage inequality—like the Green New Deal—have not received the serious treatment they deserve from political leaders.
Dávila believes Latin American social movements have set a strong example of unity.
“How these movements have united by framing social issues from a collective standpoint is deeply powerful,” she said. “In Colombia, for example, feminists came together to claim the right to abortion, not just because of their individual rights to privacy and self-determination but because of their collective rights to dignity. That allowed more people to feel identified and willing to fight for a common goal.”
Colombia’s environmental movement could be described in a similar manner, argued Natalia Daza, a Bogotá-based political scientist who researches climate change and gender in Colombia: “Here, environmental defenders don’t just advocate for the environment. Theirs is a broad defense of life and land, and I think these wide-ranging protests mobilize more people and are something everyone can learn from.”
Celebrating a progressive wave in Latin America doesn’t mean the region is without its own deeply entrenched issues. We have yet to see the lasting legacy of these new leftist governments. How will they confront right-wing resistance and follow through on what they have promised? We have also seen a history in Latin America where so-called revolutionary governments mutate into dictatorships—Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela are some recent examples.
Yet I can’t help but admire these wins when so many Latin American activists have been—and continue to be—routinely threatened and subjected to unspeakable violence. Latin America is still one of the deadliest regions on Earth for human rights defenders, and Colombia is often considered the deadliest country of all.
In the face of such global heartbreak, these victories should be seen as examples of resilience and beacons of hope. They are a much-needed reminder that, even in the darkest of times, everyday people have a voice on the ballots and in the streets. Change can arise—and it must—when enough people choose to harness their power and stand up for democracy.