People Power and Politics: Social Change in the Americas


By Laura Schroeder

From the Zapatista movement in Mexico to the Shining Path’s activities in Peru, the Americas have experienced a great deal of political violence. Government structures have constantly changed and dictatorships have been toppled through force and the taking up of arms across the hemisphere. However, one of the most pervasive and dangerous myths is that systemic change requires violence. Nonviolent struggles to address corruption, environmental degradation, economic and social injustice, and political oppression have been– and continue to be– successful across the Americas. Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil have all ousted military regimes through the use of nonviolent resistance.

Moreover, nonviolent resistance is both an ethical and an effective alternative to armed resistance. It holds the potential to continue altering the political, economic, and social landscape of the region. Indeed, recent research has suggested that if 3.5 percent of the total population of a nation comes together, the masses can topple an oppressive regime.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, scholars of nonviolent activism and co-authors of the book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” found that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely as their violent counterparts to achieve partial or full success in meeting their goals across the globe.

What is Nonviolent Resistance?

To many, the term “nonviolent resistance” may seem to be an oxymoron at first glance. What, then, is nonviolent resistance and what does it look like? Nonviolent resistance (also referred to as “nonviolent action,” “nonviolent struggle,” “nonviolent conflict,” and “people power”) is collective action taken to achieve a goal or a set of goals. It involves different tactics: acts of commission, in which people do what they are not supposed to do, not expected to do, or forbidden by law from doing; acts of omission, whereby people do not do what they are supposed to do, are expected to do, or are required by law to do; or a combination of acts of commission and omission. For instance, participants may hold walk-outs, sit-downs, or strikes or abstain from buying certain products or participating in certain activities.  

Effective, strategic nonviolence in the form of mass, broad-based public participation in social movements has proven to be effective in enacting political and societal change. On average, nonviolent campaigns attract far more people than violent ones. Oppressive regimes or institutions have several “pillars of support”: media, business and economic elites, and civilian bureaucrats, that can be dismantled when civil resistance movements impose costs on them through boycotts, strikes, and other means.

Social Media and Movements

Resources and support from NGOs and online platforms are increasingly available to activists and are particularly instrumental in putting forth narratives that counter state media. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report analyzing the evolving nature of social conflict highlights the role of social media and globalized communications in the manifestation of social conflict. This has led to the democratization of access to information and the increasing importance of “conversational politics.” Further, with international media covering nonviolent campaigns more than ever, civil resistance has the potential to be more impactful than before, as seen in countless examples of recent movements.

In April 2015 in Guatemala, for instance, the International Commission Against Impunity (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad/CICIG), a United Nations anti-corruption agency, issued a report implicating high-level politicians, including then-vice president Roxana Baldetti, in organized crime operations and detailing former president Otto Pérez Molina’s involvement in a bribery scheme that allowed importers to avoid fees. This was but one instance of corruption and impunity in the country.

What began as an outraged young woman’s Facebook protest event and Twitter hashtag (#RenunciaYa/#ResignNow) culminated in a protest of over 10,000 people. Indignant citizens called for the resignation of Baldetti and Pérez Molina. Baldetti stepped down soon after, and Molina resigned on September 3rd, 2015. The latter was soon after charged in court for his illegal actions.

In Argentina, a woman is killed every 30 hours simply for being a woman. In 2015, a group of journalists, activists, and artists began a collective campaign, dubbed Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) to counter the often deadly effects of machismo in the nation. They sought to adequately enforce Law 26485, legislation that protects women against gender-based violence, increase access to justice for victims, and guarantee integral sexual education that focuses on gender discrimination in public schools. Tens of thousands of citizens mobilized in protest.

Most recently, a June 3, 2017 march in Plaza Congreso, Buenos Aires honored victims of femicide and demanded dignified treatment for women. The movement has spread throughout the Americas, and marches with thousands of protesters have taken place in Mexico, Uruguay, Paraguay, and other nations.

Future Directions For “People Power”

Today, there are myriad issues that passionate citizens are mobilizing around, from corruption to LGBTQ rights to indigenous land rights. In Brazil, a judge’s recent decision to allow gay conversion therapy has been met by public outrage. Guatemala’s populace remains civically engaged and protesters are currently demanding that President Jimmy Morales put an end to impunity after he and his Congress attempted to pass a bill that would have institutionalized corruption. In the United States, organizing efforts have recently centered around racial justice and countering police brutality against people of color. In Colombia, environmental activists continue to fight corporate interests for land sovereignty, and Canadians have mobilized against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline project, an expansion that they say would threaten spawning salmon and more than 1,000 waterways.

Civil resistance is not easy, nor does a successful movement seamlessly come together overnight. However, strategic movements with persistent change-makers have been and will be successful in changing the political, economic, and cultural landscape of nations. Across the Americas and the world, the collective voice of protesters continues to ring out against corruption, injustice, and indignity, traveling faster than bullets and entering the hearts and minds of the masses.

Image: Flickr