South America: why the silence?

Why does the US media care more about riots across the pond than protests happening on its doorstep?

When some 150,000 young people set fire to cars and bus stops, built barricades and clashed with police in Santiago during protests in demand
of free public education earlier this month, there was barely a ripple in the mainstream British and US press. Only the Guardian gave the story a brief mention on the homepage of its website.

It might be tempting to interpret this as an oversight; after all, the riots in England understandably dominated headlines in this country. But while this may account for the silence of the British press, it doesn't explain the lack of interest from the US and other European media.

The relative silence of the US media is especially baffling. US identity, as well as foreign and domestic policy, has been shaped by interactions with Latin America ever since Independence. From the 1846 Mexican War, to the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala, to the Reagan administration's backing of the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the ever-present Cuban Question, the US has a long record of engagement with its southern neighbours. Immigration, from Latin America in general and Mexico in particular, has been a dominant theme of US domestic politics for decades, as has the Andean drug trade.

So why the absence of coverage? Many Americans consider themselves heirs to a European, and specifically British, cultural and political heritage. Though there is mixed truth in this, it is perception that matters. Although there are growing numbers of Spanish language television and radio stations, the mainstream US media and the manufacturers of culture in general are predominantly white; they look east towards their Atlantic cousins, rather than south to their Hispanic neighbours.

Another explanation could be practical. Of the ten countries with the highest rates of kidnapping in the world, five are in Latin America. The Blackberry - now almost as ubiquitous a tool for the reporter as a notebook once was - is nicknamed "the phone of death" in Venezuela due to the number of people mugged - and killed - for them. 20 journalists have been killed in Latin America so far this year. This problem is especially endemic in Mexico, where journalists reporting on the drug trade are often silenced.

But not all of Latin America is dangerous, opaque, or geographically hostile. And many other areas of the world that are - parts of Africa and the Middle East, for example - do receive substantial press attention. European nations tend to have a greater interest in former colonies, or those involved in the cold war. Spain, which did have an empire in South America, tends to be more vocal about South American affairs; El Pais even had an editorial on the Chilean student protests.

But though Britain may not have had colonies in South America, it had an informal trading empire there, and Britain almost went to war with the
newly independent United States over the latter's territorial expansion in South America on more than one occasion.

Today, Britain still has interests in Latin America. But as Dr Ramos, an expert on Latin American history at Cambridge University, says:

"Although the UK has important investments in South America (for example, the UK is one of the major investors in Peru), this is not reflected in the coverage the region gets in the British press. Since the 19th century, Britain has seen Latin America as an area of US 'natural' influence."

There are also ideological reasons for the lack of commentary on Latin American affairs in North America. US policymakers and opinion formers are perhaps reluctant to draw attention to the examples of successful social democracy that have taken root in their back yard. The democratic
re-election of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who is implementing a series of pragmatic but quasi-socialist nationalisations, reveals that his anti-imperialist approach is far more popular than the neoliberal policies of the North American-educated elites, often seen as US stooges.

Likewise, social reforms and public works programmes in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay have enjoyed relative success. And though Hugo Chavez's regime may not be a functional social democracy, the Venezuelan President is popular amongst the working classes, which benefit from his redistributive policies. Chile, meanwhile, is the most economically successful of all Latin American countries, and its citizens are protesting en masse in the capital in demand of more equal education. It is not surprising that this message is not being loudly relayed in America, which is the most unequal country in the developed world.

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Leader: The angry middle

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern.

Two months after the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, it remains conventional wisdom that the referendum result was largely a revolt by the so-called left behind. Yet this is not the full picture. Many of the 52 per cent who voted Leave were relatively prosperous and well educated, yet still angry and determined to deliver a shock to the political system. We should ask ourselves why the English middle class, for so long presumed to be placid and risk-averse, was prepared to gamble on Brexit.

Populism has long appealed to those excluded from political systems, or from a share in prosperity. In recent years, however, its appeal has broadened to young graduates and those on above-average incomes who also feel that they have not benefited from globalisation. The sense of middle-class victimhood has become a major strand in Western politics.

In the United States, middle-class anger has powered support for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former drew his activist base mostly from young liberals. And while Mr Trump’s success in the Republican primaries was often attributed to a working-class insurrection against “the elites”, exit poll data showed that the median yearly income of a Trump voter was $72,000, compared with a national average of $56,000. (For supporters of Hillary Clinton, the figure was roughly $61,000.) It is not the have-nots who have powered Mr Trump’s rise, but the have-a-bits.

In the UK, similar forces can be seen in the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, research shows that three-quarters of Labour Party members are from the top social grades, known as ABC1. About 57 per cent have a degree.

Mr Sanders, Mr Trump and Mr Corbyn have very different policies, ideologies and strategies, but they are united by an ability to tap into middle-class dissatisfaction with the present order. Some of that anger flows from politicians’ failure to convey the ways in which society has improved in recent years, or to speak truthfully to electorates. In the UK and much of the West, there have been huge gains – life expectancy has risen, absolute poverty has decreased, teenage pregnancy has fallen to a record low, crime rates have fallen, and huge strides have been made in curbing gender, sexual and racial discrimination. Yet we hear too little of these successes.

Perhaps that is why so many who are doing comparatively well seem the most keen to upset the status quo. For instance, pensioners voted strongly to leave the EU and are the demographic from which Ukip attracts most support. Yet the over-65s are enjoying an era of unprecedented growth in their real incomes. Since 2010, the basic state pension has risen by over four times the increase in average earnings. 

Among young people, much of their anger is directed towards tuition fees and the iniquities of the housing market. Yet, by definition, tuition fees are paid only by those who go into higher education – and these people receive a “graduate bonus” for the rest of their lives. Half of school-leavers do not attend university and, in a globalised world, it is their wages that are most likely to be undercut by immigration.

However, we should not be complacent about the concerns of the “angry middle”. The resentment exploited by Donald Trump is the result of 40 years of stagnant median wages in the United States. In Japan and Germany, median wages have not increased in the past two decades. In the UK, meanwhile, the median income for those aged 31-59 is no greater than it was in 2007, and those aged 22-30 are 7 per cent worse off, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

To compound the problem, the wealthy keep getting wealthier. In 1980, American CEOs were paid 42 times the wage of the average worker. They are now paid 400 times as much. In the UK, the share of household income going to the top 1 per cent has more than doubled since 1979. Because of our hyperconnected, globalised media culture, we see more of the super-rich, fuelling feelings of resentment.

As a sense of victimhood extends even to the middle classes, it makes Western democracies much more difficult to govern, with voters oscillating between populists of the left and the right. The political centre is hollowing out. Rather than pander to the populists, we must do more to quell the politics of victimhood by addressing the root of this corrosive sense of grievance: entrenched inequality. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser