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Graduate students discuss the state of Latin American politics at the “Latin America Today: Upheavals and Repression, Part II” series.

Photo Credit: Rooya Rahin / The Daily Princetonian 

When Jonathan Aguirre GS and other students in the Program in Latin American Studies (PLAS) realized how little campus conversation was dedicated to Latin American political issues, they set out to change that. 

“One thing I realized as I shared those messages with friends in other regions is that they had no idea those issues were occurring,” said Aguirre. “We realized we needed to bring forth information, bring a discussion.” 

To fulfill that goal, on Monday Feb. 24, PLAS held a roundtable discussion in Aaron Burr Hall titled “Latin America Today: Upheavals and Repression, Part II” — the second part in a two-part seminar series on Latin American politics. The first seminar was held on Dec. 4, 2019. 

The discussion was moderated by sociology and international affairs professor Miguel Centeno. Three graduate students spoke as panelists: Amy Williams Navarro GS, a second-year MPA at the Woodrow Wilson School, Maria José Urzúa GS, a Ph.D. candidate in politics, and Sebastián Rojas Cabal GS, a doctoral student in sociology.

About 35 members of the University community were in attendance, including undergraduates, graduate students, and professors.

During the panel, the speakers discussed current political issues in Latin America, with a focus on addressing current protest movements in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Colombia.

Williams Navarro presented on the topic of Puerto Rican politics and the mass protests of the summer of 2019, which led to the resignation of former Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló. She addressed the economic issues in Puerto Rico and the humanitarian crises of the hurricanes, which “made salient the mismanagement and incompetent leadership of [Puerto Rico] for so long.” 

She stated that the protests, which brought 600,000 people into the streets, were “no easy feat for an island of 3 million [residents].”

She also spoke about the crises of trust on the island after Hurricane Maria and the government’s original estimation of 64 hurricane-related deaths. 

“Anyone who was working on the ground, who lived on the island … knew that this number was wrong,” Williams Navarro said. “The government finally commissioned an independent study that found that the estimated hurricane-related deaths were actually closer to 2975.” 

Towards the end of her presentation, Williams Navarro shared her thoughts on what to expect in Puerto Rico in the coming years. 

“My takeaways for this moving forward is that I think we’re at the beginning of a new political paradigm for Puerto Rico,” she said.

She discussed how historically dominant parties in Puerto Rico are seeing their numbers drop as independent candidates and grassroots movements are beginning to take the stage in Puerto Rico’s politics. 

Urzúa then presented on protests and politics in Mexico, her home country, looking at the “promises and reality” of the election of Mexican President Andrés Obrador.

She described the expectations surrounding Obrador’s candidacy, his leftist ideals, and his policy stance on three sets of issues: economic and social policy, peace and security issues, and Republican austerity measures in the Mexican government. She also discussed corruption in the Mexican government. 

“I would argue that social movements are the only effective opposition against the AMLO government today,” Urzúa said. AMLO is an acronym of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s initials.  

Rojas Cabal's role during the roundtable investigated in-depth what led Colombian citizens to protest in November 2019. 

“The emergence of the ‘cacerolazos’ changed the tenor of the protests from something top-down to something more bottom-up and organic,” he said.

A cacerolazo is a form of protest present in Latin America that became in popular Colombia after the installation of curfews in certain regions, where people would bang on pots and pans out of their windows and also in public spaces in protest. 

Rojas Cabal also dived into the reasons for the protests, including tax reforms which “increased the tax burden on the poor,” and a rise in unemployment rates. He stated that the protests signal an era of “post-peace protests,” following the signing of a peace deal between Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army, also known as FARC in 2016. FARC has been involved in armed conflict in Colombia since the 1960s. 

“Against the backdrop of war, it was a lot easier to stigmatize social protests,” Rojas Cabal said. “The peace process … motivated people to go to the streets a lot more vigorously.”

After the presentations concluded, Centeno provided commentary giving an overview of Latin American politics in regions not discussed by the graduate students. 

“What’s amazing to me in Puerto Rico is that there isn’t a revolution going on … if that was going on in Massachusetts, you can be sure there would be national attention — the President wouldn’t be throwing paper towels,” Centeno said, referring to October 2017 when President Donald Trump threw paper towels at a crowd of Puerto Ricans during his visit after Hurricane Maria. 

He also described the general feelings towards the government in Latin America, which the professor called a “loss of faith.” 

“It’s that sense of hopelessness that characterizes Latin America now. It’s a period of deep disenchantment,” Centeno said. “The real problem in Latin America and for the leadership is getting people to believe something again.” 

Attendees asked questions to the panelists regarding Puerto Rican statehood, protests under the Mexican Nieto government, and the United States’ involvement in Latin America. The questions sparked conversations regarding all aspects of Latin American politics, including the place of Latin American youth in the political sphere. 

“I also think that hope is in the youth and I think we should go beyond thinking of states in Latin America as failures or successes,” said Alonso Burgos GS, a graduate student in Comparative Literature who attended the talk. 

Editor's Note: This story previously reported that Amy Williams Navarro presented on Puerto Rican independence, which was not a focus of Williams Navarro's presentation. The story has been updated to reflect the true focus of her presentation on Puerto Rican politics. This story also previously reported inaccuracies regarding the cacerolazos in Colombia and the 2016 Colombian peace deal, both of which have been updated. The ‘Prince’ regrets these errors.