Protests, Campaigns, Participatory Venues: Activist strategies in Latin America

January 11, 2019

Activists across Latin America now have a multitude of venues where they can press their demands on government officials and other powerholders. Protest, campaigning, and participation in participatory policymaking venues are commonly used activities. Public protest is often used as a means to disrupt daily life to draw attention to key demands; protests allow activists to influence public debate and gain the attention of their fellow citizens. Activists are also central to electoral campaigns as they provide the local support and personal contracts that are often vital to secure votes; activists hope being associated with winning campaigns will help them to advance their agenda through executive and legislative branches. Activists also participate in incremental policymaking venues, which are a central feature of democracy-building efforts in the 21st century; activists engage in these venues in the hope that they can directly influence policy and budget making processes. 

Activists are now expected to do it all---mobilize their fellow citizens to attend public protests, campaign for their preferred candidates, and engage in the nitty-gritty details of policymaking. The challenge for activists and citizens is how to navigate multiple worlds—that of incremental policymaking that permits them to exercise voice within a state-sponsored policymaking apparatus, protest politics as a powerful resource against entrenched state power as well as campaigns and elections that are foundational to the distribution of power. It is this dual role of working inside as well as parallel to state and democratic institutions that make the current political moment particularly challenging to understand because civil society activists are working for change at many levels.

Over the past 20-30 years, governments and their civil society allies built a complex set of state, participatory and accountability institutions across Latin America, which means that activists can work within, parallel to and outside of the formal state and democratic institution (Fox 2016; Citizens now work within state decision-making processes to help allocate resources and authority as well as to monitor the action of government officials. New democratic institutions include policy councils, water boards, policy conferences, participatory budgeting, social audits, urban planning councils, provide activists with a variety of outlets that goes far beyond elections. Brazil’s famous export—Participatory Budgeting—is now used in most Latin American countries. The upside to the use of these incremental venues is that civil society actors can now directly influence how scarce resources are allocated and implemented. However, a long-time fear associated with participation in these types of venues is that it takes the slogan, “Think Global, Act Local,” to an extreme because it focuses activists’ attention on the incremental policymaking process rather than thinking more broadly. 

As with other democratic institutions, democratic policymaking bodies in the Latin American context run the risk of becoming technical tools rather than part of the process to deepen the quality of democracy and improve citizens’ lives (Ganuza and Baiocchi 2017). Just as vertical and horizontal accountability remains elusive across Latin America, it is also difficult to maintain the vibrancy of participatory institutions that might promote the expansion of social accountability. The shift to a technical tool has two noteworthy consequences. First, these institutions now play a weaker role in contributing to efforts to deepen the quality of democracy because participants focus on the nitty-gritty of policymaking rather than working to expand deliberation in the public sphere. Second, many of these bodies are now legally institutionalized, which means that governments may use them to legitimize their policies by packing them with their political allies and cronies. Instead of being vibrant spaces for democratic contestation, they can be dominated by government allies and specific interest groups.

Political Network Approach

My 2018 article in LARR, “Developing Political Strategies Across a New Democratic and State Architecture,” uses a Political Network Approach in order to better understand how activists use a different combination of activities in pursuit of their interests. The evidence shows that community leaders and activists organize themselves very differently across specific policy sectors.

Four factors most significantly affect the strategies employed by civil society leaders within each policy sector: state formation, the historical development of civil society, party politics, and specific rules that determine who can participate in participatory venues. For example, weak state development is associated with fewer public policies, more limited union organizing (no state employees to unionize), and few state-society points of engagement; these factors discourage the use of participatory venues and encourage the use of protest because there are few access points into the state and political process. Where there is a more capable state, greater numbers of unions and CSOs, we would expect to see activists more consistently using participatory venues because the democratic architecture is more likely to create opportunities for them to directly engage state officials inside of these venues. 

In the current period of democratic backsliding across Latin America, activists and citizens face a democratic infrastructure that creates many opportunities for participants but there is little clear knowledge about when and where activists should allocate their time in pursuit of their interests.  When should activists and citizens take to the streets? When should they work within incremental policymaking venues?  When should they work on campaigns? This blog and my LARR article draw attention to key underlying factors that influence social movement and civil society leaders’ activities. Based on the evidence, we should expect that activists will simultaneously multiple activities, some of which are visible to the broader public but others that involve incremental steps.

As researchers analyze the current democratic moment, it is crucial that we capture a wide range of CSOs’ activities. We should expect considerable variation across the region as well as within specific countries based on the four factors identified above (state, civil society, party politics, participatory venues). A close examination of these four factors helps to illuminate the extent to which activists are resisting the democratic backsliding as well as how their efforts may continue to contribute to the slow building of democratic processes.

Article in LARR: 

How to Cite: Wampler, B. (2018). Developing Political Strategies across a New Democratic and State Architecture. Latin American Research Review53(4), 708–725. DOI:

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About Author(s)

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Brian Wampler
Dr. Brian Wampler is a Professor of Global Studies and Political Science at Boise State University. He is the author of Activating Democracy in Brazil: Popular Participation, Social Justice and Interlocking Institutions (University of Norte Dame Press, 2015) and Participatory Budgeting in Brazil: Cooperation, Contestation, and Accountability (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007). Wampler has published extensively on democracy, participation, civil society, and institution building in journals such as American Political Science Review, Comparative Politics, Comparative Political Studies, World Development, Polity, and Latin American Politics and Society.