Social Justice, Democratization and Social Movements

Photo by: Gayatri Malhotra (Unsplash)


Is COVID-19 Shaking Up Politics in Southeast Asia?


Many Southeast Asian leaders’ pandemic responses have sparked public outrage and damaged their legitimacy. This could prompt the biggest political changes across the region since the 1990s.

Over the past fifteen years, politics have stagnated and democracy has faltered [PDF] in Southeast Asia. And after fending off the pandemic in 2020, the region is now facing a massive COVID-19 outbreak. The new wave is decimating populations and causing massive economic damage while also sparking ferment against the political order.


What are the current political trends in Southeast Asia?

Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, Southeast Asia was at the center of a global wave of democratization. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand all became democracies. Timor-Leste also became a democracy after separating from Indonesia, which had controlled it. And Cambodia, Malaysia, and Myanmar launched political reforms.

But since the late 2000s, the region has regressed politically, part of a global wave of democratic backsliding that seems to be gathering pace.

Authoritarian populists have undermined freedoms in Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Military juntas have further crushed democracy in Thailand and, most notably, Myanmar. Seemingly promising reformers, such as Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, have faltered in battles against corruption and once again empowered antidemocratic actors. The most repressive states in the region, such as Vietnam, have become more authoritarian. The main regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has done little amid coups and other reversals of democracy. Today, Timor-Leste remains the only fully free democracy in Southeast Asia.

The pandemic further sped up this backsliding, as leaders used it to grab more executive power. In its 2021 report on freedom in the world, Freedom House* scored Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines lower than in its 2020 report.


How have Southeast Asian countries handled COVID-19?

Initially, they performed well. In the first year of the pandemic, Southeast Asia survived COVID-19 mostly unscathed. Indonesia and the Philippines faced sizable outbreaks, but caseloads remained small in Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and even impoverished Myanmar. Leaders in Thailand and Vietnam instituted effective policies on mask wearing, contact tracing, closing borders, and quarantining.

In 2021, however, the inflexibility and repression of Southeast Asian governments have hampered their battle against the virus. Although the region’s autocrats were able to manage COVID-19 at first with border closures and other techniques that depended on central control—while also forestalling public anger by banning large gatherings—in 2021, they have faltered as the challenge has shifted with the more contagious Delta variant and the wider availability of vaccines.

Southeast Asian states have struggled to vaccinate their populations; just three of eleven countries in the region have vaccinated over 60 percent of their eligible populations. Meanwhile, countries such as Vietnam have struggled in trying to switch away from a “zero-COVID” approach to a more flexible pandemic strategy.

Often, these failures stem from corrupt and autocratic politics, or from political situations in which leaders spend their time battling each other rather than the virus. The Thai government originally handed domestic vaccine production over to a company, controlled by the Thai king, that had no real experience making vaccines and struggled to get up to speed. The Myanmar junta appears to be withholding vaccines from political opponents. Malaysian politicians have spent the past year trying to topple each other’s parliamentary coalitions and using pandemic-related emergency orders to boost their political powers, failing to develop a clear approach to the pandemic.


How severe is the outbreak now?

Today, Southeast Asia is struggling with one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world.

Myanmar is a failing state, with COVID-19 patients dying at home, unable to get oxygen, medication, or vaccines. Malaysia has one of the highest per capita daily COVID-19 cases of any country in the world. Thailand is recording around eleven thousand new cases per day.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Economist suggested that, although Southeast Asian nations have reported about 217,000 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, the real figure could be 2.5 to 8 times higher.


How has the devastation affected politics?

The pandemic era could prompt the biggest political changes in Southeast Asia since the 1990s. Even in places where autocrats are holding on, failure to control the virus has damaged leaders’ legitimacy.

The spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent economic damage has made people desperate in countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, where anger was already rising over inequality. Partly as a result, protests have been erupting more often. Large, anti-government protests have taken place in recent months in Thailand and Myanmar, and Malaysia’s government collapsed earlier this year, in part because of political in-fighting and because of citizen anger at the government.

Even in normally placid Singapore, the usually dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) called an election amid the pandemic and won reelection, but the opposition put up a strong result, winning a higher percentage of the overall vote than in the last general election. After the mediocre showing, the PAP’s prospective candidate for prime minister, Heng Swee Keat, who also barely squeaked home in his constituency, took himself out of the running for the job. 

At the same time, however, autocratic leaders are digging for more years in power. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he could rule for ten more years. Indonesia’s Jokowi has hinted at pushing amendments to the constitution. It is possible that such an amendment could allow him to run for a third term as president—when Indonesian presidents are limited to two terms—but so far Jokowi has denied that he would do so. The Myanmar junta has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to kill civilian protesters. The Thai military, police, and government have used brutal force to stifle dissent.


Could democratic backsliding be reversed?

It’s possible. In other regions, failed pandemic policies have led publics to oust leaders or turn sharply against them, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Although many Southeast Asian states are more repressive than the United States or Brazil, the pandemic has been so destructive that it could spark political change.

Tarnished governments in Southeast Asia now face a different political reality. Although the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam can rule by force, most Southeast Asian politicians cannot. They require some degree of popular legitimacy, and thus need to hold elections which, while often not fully free and fair, have the possibility of a loss for ruling parties. Indeed, voters around the region crave political leaders who will prioritize effective public health strategies over politicking, partisanship, and repression, and they see that the current wave of leaders cannot pass this test.

It could be possible for citizens to eject unpopular, as well as repressive, regimes. One strategy is for citizens to organize a long-running, intense pressure movement before elections, as the Bersih movement in Malaysia has done, and then, during the election season, consolidate reformist voters around one coherent party or coalition. In addition, activists in Southeast Asia—sometimes supported by foreign democracy-promotion groups—can help reverse democratic backsliding by protesting and mobilizing voters, among other actions, to make clear that they will not stand for further destruction of institutions such as independent media, anticorruption commissions, and impartial judiciaries.

In a sign of how this hunger for competent governance could reshape regional politics, Malaysia’s leading reformist party recently made an alliance with the long-dominant party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), to govern together and develop new pandemic strategies. After more than a year of ineffective government, the move will likely enjoy high levels of popular support. It will also put Malaysian reformers in a position to potentially win power the next time national elections are called.

*Editor’s note: The author serves as a consultant for Freedom House’s Southeast Asia country reports.


By                  :                        Joshua Kurlantzick

Date              :                         October 6, 2021

Source          :                         Council on Foreign Relations


9/11 killed it, but 20 years on global justice movement is poised for revival


Since the attacks on the United States by 15 Saudi Arabian Islamic fanatics on 11 September  2001 — now known as 9/11 —  the world has been divided by a “war on terror” with any protest group defined as “terrorists”.

New anti-terror laws have been introduced both in the West and elsewhere in the past 20 years and used extensively to suppress such movements in the name of “national security”.

It is interesting to note that the 9/11 attacks came at a time when a huge “global justice” movement was building up across the world against the injustices of globalisation.

Using the internet as the medium of mobilisation, they gathered in Seattle in 1999 and were successful in closing down the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting.

They opposed what they saw as large multinational corporations having unregulated political power, exercised through trade agreements and deregulated financial markets, facilitated by governments.

Their main targets were the WTO, International Monetary Fund (IMF), OECD, World Bank, and international trade agreements.

The movement brought “civil society” people from the North and the South together under common goals.


Poorest country debts
In parallel, the “Jubilee 2000” international movement led by liberal Christian and Catholic churches called for the cancellation of US$90 billion of debts owed by the world’s poorest nations to banks and governments in the West.

Along with the churches, youth groups, music, and entertainment industry groups were involved. The 9/11 attacks killed these movements as “national security” took precedence over “freedom to dissent”.

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, a former vice-president of the UN Human Rights Council and a Sri Lankan political scientist, notes that when “capitalism turned neoliberal and went on the rampage” after the demise of the Soviet Union, resistance started to develop with the rise of the Zapatistas in Chiapas (Mexico) against NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and culminating in the 1999 Seattle protests using a term coined by Cuban leader Fidel Castro “another world is possible”.

“All that came crashing down with the Twin Towers,” he notes. “With 9/11 the Islamic Jihadist opposition to the USA (and the war on terror) cut across and buried the progressive resistance we saw emerging in Chiapas and Seattle.”

Geoffrey Robertson QC, a British human rights campaigner and TV personality, warns: “9/11 panicked us into the ‘war on terror’ using lethal weapons of questionable legality which inspired more terrorists.

“Twenty years on, those same adversaries are back and we now have a fear of US perfidy—over Taiwan or ANZUS or whatever. There will be many consequences.”

But, he sees some silver lining that has come out of this “war on terror”.


Targeted sanctions
“One reasonably successful tactic developed in the war on terror was to use targeted sanctions on its sponsors. This has been developed by so-called ‘Magnitsky acts’, enabling the targeting of human rights abusers—31 democracies now have them and Australia will shortly be the 32nd.

“I foresee their coordination as part of the fightback—a war not on terror but state cruelty,” he told In-Depth News.

When asked about the US’s humiliation in Afghanistan, Dr Chandra Muzaffar, founder of the International Movement for a Just World told IDN that the West needed to understand that they too needed to stop funding terror to achieve their own agendas.

“The ‘war on terror’ was doomed to failure from the outset because those who initiated the war were not prepared to admit that it was their occupation and oppression that compelled others to retaliate through acts of terror.” he argues.

“Popular antagonism towards the occupiers was one of the main reasons for the humiliating defeat of the US and NATO in Afghanistan,” he added.

Looking at Western attempts to introduce democracy under the pretext of “war on terror” and the chaos created by the “Arab Spring”, a youth movement driven by Western-funded NGOs, Iranian-born Australian Farzin Yekta, who worked in Lebanon for 15 years as a community multimedia worker, argues that the Arab region needs a different democracy.

“In the Middle East, the nations should aspire to a system based on social justice rather than the Western democratic model. Corrupt political and economic apparatus, external interference and dysfunctional infrastructure are the main obstacles for moving towards establishing a system based on social justice,” he says, adding that there are signs of growing social movements being revived in the region while “resisting all kinds of attacks”.


Palestinian refugee lessons
Yekta told IDN that while working with Palestinian refugee groups in Lebanon he had seen how peoples’ movements could be undermined by so-called “civil society” NGOs.

“Alternative social movements are infested by ‘civil society’ institutions comprising primarily NGO institutions.

“‘Civil society’ is effective leverage for the establishment and foreign (Western) interference to pacify radical social movements. Social movements find themselves in a web of funded entities which push for ‘agendas’ drawn by funding buddies,” noted Yekta.

Looking at the failure of Western forces in Afghanistan, he argues that what they did by building up “civil society” was encouraging corruption and cronyism that is entangled in ethnic and tribal structures of society.

“The Western nation-building plan was limited to setting up a glasshouse pseudo-democratic space in the green zone part of Kabul.

“One just needed to go to the countryside to confront the utter poverty and lack of infrastructure,” Yekta notes.

”We need to understand that people’s struggle is occurring at places with poor or no infrastructure.”


Social movements reviving
Dr Jayatilleka also sees positive signs of social movements beginning to raise their heads after two decades of repression.

“Black Lives Matter drew in perhaps more young whites than blacks and constituted the largest ever protest movement in history. The globalised solidarity with the Palestinian people of Gaza, including large demonstrations in US cities, is further evidence.

“In Latin America, the left-populist Pink Tide 2.0 began with the victory of Lopez Obrador in Mexico and has produced the victory of Pedro Castillo in Peru.

“The slogan of justice, both individual and social, is more globalised, more universalised today, than ever before in my lifetime,” he told IDN.

There may be ample issues for peoples’ movements to take up with TPP (Transpacific Partnership) and RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) trade agreements coming into force in Asia where companies would be able to sue governments if their social policies infringe on company profits.

But Dr Jayatilleka is less optimistic of social movements rising in Asia.


Asian social inequities
“Sadly, the social justice movement is considerably more complicated in Asia than elsewhere, though one would have assumed that given the social inequities in Asian societies, the struggle for social justice would be a torrent. It is not,” he argues.

“The brightest recent spark in Asia, according to Dr Jayatilleka, was the rise of the Nepali Communist Party to power through the ballot box after a protracted peoples’ war, but ‘sectarianism’ has led to the subsiding of what was the brightest hope for the social justice movement in Asia.”

Robertson feels that the time is ripe for the social movements suppressed by post 9/11 anti-terror laws to be reincarnated in a different life.

“The broader demand for social justice will revive, initially behind the imperative of dealing with climate change but then with tax havens, the power of multinationals, and the obscene inequalities in the world’s wealth.

“So, I do not despair of social justice momentum in the future,” he says.


By                :                 APR editor

Date            :                 September 11, 2021

Source        :                  Asia Pacific Report



Nicaragua: The revolution betrayed


President Ortega is seeking a fourth successive term – but seems to have no intention of giving up power whatever the outcome of November’s election

When Nicaragua goes to the polls in November, it is worth considering how rare a flower democracy is in the land of Sandino, the heroic revolutionary who led the resistance against US occupation.

Consider the 1990 general election, nearly 60 years after the US withdrawal from Nicaragua. Confident of victory, Daniel Ortega’s leftist Sandinista government had prepared the biggest celebration the country could remember. But then the unimaginable happened. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of a newspaper editor assassinated during the Somoza dictatorship, had more votes than Ortega. The shock was palpable. How could it be that the Nicaraguan people would vote against their liberators, against the heroes who liberated them from the Somoza dictatorship?

Everything suggests that was the moment Ortega sensed power is not assured in a democracy.

A recent demonstration of the Sandinista National Liberation Fronts’ (FSLN) pragmatism was the party’s exit in August from the Permanent Conference of Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean (COPPPAL). The FSLN did not want to ratify COPPPAL’s democratic principles of the organization, which led its president, Alejandro Moreno Cárdenas, to note that human rights in Nicaragua are ignored in Nicaragua on the pretext of defending the people’s sovereignty.

It was a reference to the current situation in Nicaragua. Ortega and Rosario Murillo, who is both the president’s wife and the vice-president, have disdained international condemnation of Nicaragua’s crackdown on critics, withdrawn ambassadors and responded aggressively to accusations of human rights violations. Ortega has said that he is taking decisive actions against “agents of the Yankee empire” who “conspire against Nicaragua to overthrow the government”. The presidential couple knows that the pandemic has consumed all the attention. Or perhaps that the disillusionment is so great it is difficult to overcome.

There are several reasons for this, not least how rare democracy is in Nicaragua. Consider its history.

In 1912, US military forces invaded and occupied the country until 1925. Nationalist leader Augusto César Sandino organized the resistance and US Marines finally left in 1933.

A 1936 coup put the Somoza family in power and they ruled Nicaragua for more than 40 years. A number of strategies were used to keep the Somoza dictatorship in power, including provisions that lengthened presidential terms, electoral fraud, US support and the guarantees provided by the Nicaraguan army.

Between 1937 and 1979, there were generations who never knew democracy. Dictatorships end, but they leave a trace on a country’s consciousness. The Sandinista revolution, which overthrew the Somozas, occurred on 19 July 1979. It would awaken the admiration of millions around the world and draw political and financial support from dozens of countries.

Fast forward to April 2018 and the beginning of Nicaragua’s popular protests for democracy.

They were a consequence of changing times. Young people had access to the internet, they were rebellious and eager to build better lives. They were fed up with the abuses of tyranny and the enrichment of those in power. Between April and September 2018, 325 people were killed, thousands injured, an undetermined number disappeared, and at least 100,000 were exiled. Other organisations, such as the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights reported 302 deaths between 18 and 30 July.

More than 1,600 people were thrown into prison and 140 of them remain incarcerated.

The list of political prisoners has grown in recent weeks with the arrests of seven presidential candidates running against Ortega in the 7 November elections.

A further 26 opponents have been detained and are being investigated for violation of the law on the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace. In short, they have been branded ”traitors to the homeland” and protagonists of a “conspiracy to undermine national integrity”.

The persecution has extended to 40 non-governmental organizations, which lost their legal status and are no longer able to carry out their social assistance and poverty alleviation programmes.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, its special rapporteur for freedom of expression and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Central America and the Dominican Republic have noted “the intensification of repression" in Nicaragua in the past two months. At least 12 journalists have been forced into exile, they said.

Power in Nicaragua has been exercised as a monopoly. The army, the national electoral board, the national legislature, the attorney general's office and the judicial system enable various measures against the opposition, including laws that proscribe human rights. There are ways in which violence is justified against the population at the hands of the police, the army and the paramilitary.

The opposition is fragmented and has not managed to make a convincing and attractive argument for change. When they speak of a return to liberal democracy, they address the international community rather than the Nicaraguan people.

Ortega-Murillo are not wrong in the course they have set. Democracy is about fickleness, it means it is possible to lose. Best to portray it as a trap set by US imperialists. “We are going all out,” said Murillo, which some have decoded as the promise to stay on, that no one will get us out of here.

The title of an Amnesty International report published earlier this year is ‘Silence at Any Cost: State Tactics to Deepen Repression in Nicaragua’. It lists the regime's methods to crush dissent or criticism.

Ortega-Murillo know that the international community may issue condemnations but is incapable of doing much more than that. In any case, other countries in the region have their own domestic problems, especially on account of the pandemic, and it’s neither likely nor possible for them to get more involved in Nicaraguan issues. As for governments in Central America, their attitudes are largely unacceptable.

The Amnesty report denounced the strategies used by the Nicaraguan authorities to prevent Nicaraguans from turning the page on one of the darkest chapters in the country's recent history. For now, the nightmare continues.


By                    :            José Zepeda

Date                :            September 26, 2021

Source            :            Open Democracy


Fat acceptance as social justice


The fat body has long been a site of medical surveillance, and this has not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early research focused on linking fatness with more severe disease outcomes, yet many have questioned the strength of this association, including within the pages of this journal.

Fat communities, such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), have contested society’s stubborn generalizations that associate fatness with disease and poor health outcomes, and push back against the assumption that fat people have little regard for themselves or their own well-being. They argue that thinking about obesity as a disease or medical risk (such as for severe COVID-19) contributes to stigma because it positions larger bodies as drains on an already-taxed health care system.

The NAAFA mobilizes the term “fat” in its fight against weight discrimination and fatphobia in all aspects of life, including in employment, health care and education. Similarly, as social scientists, we use the term “fat” rather than the deeply problematic medical term, “obesity,” which causes harm to people under the guise of benign objectivity. Categories can shape how individuals view themselves, as philosopher Ian Hacking has argued; they reinforce judgments about people who do not conform to a norm. Thus, “obesity” is not merely a statistical category, but is rather an evaluation about what constitutes an ideal weight. To “fatten” a category, Mollow and McRuer explain, “means examining it through the lenses of fat studies and the fat justice movement.”

Scholars of fat studies understand fatness as a way of thinking about bodily diversity. This literature maintains that fatness should be uncoupled from pathology, as such framings attach fatness to a sense of moral weakness and failed citizenship, and can fuel stigma in various settings, even health care. Such an uncoupling is increasingly supported by medical and population health research, which suggests that people who are labelled obese are not necessarily unhealthy.

Larger bodies have been associated with heightened health risks, chief among them rising rates of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, mental illness and some cancers. Early in the pandemic, research identified a link between larger-bodied patients and higher mortality rates from COVID-19, as well as more severe COVID-19 that required mechanical ventilation.  As the authors of a recent meta-analysis on obesity and COVID-19 have cautioned, however, body weight may not be an independent predictor of poor health outcomes. Such findings are echoed by the recently developed Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines, which acknowledge the complex relation between weight and health, and link a person’s overall health and well-being to health markers such as blood pressure and sugar levels, which can be normal in larger-bodied people. Thus, a fat person might be at risk of a particular health condition, but the move to think about a person whose body mass index categorizes them as obese, or worse, “morbidly obese,” as generally unhealthy does little to promote the health of the person sitting in the doctor’s office.

Scholars of fat studies also point to the ways in which obesity is racialized, as higher levels of obesity are often associated with already marginalized communities. This is particularly important for the medical profession, given that physicians and other allied health professionals have recently engaged in efforts to challenge the structural racism in health care experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities in Canada.  The struggle for social justice is incomplete without serious attention to how fear, hatred and discrimination occur at the nexus of different identities, including among people labelled as obese. Fat studies scholars and activists have pointed to how the conflation of obesity with racialized and colonized communities is part of a long tradition of marking marginalized populations as diseased, and of associating pathology with Indigenous, Brown, Asian and Black bodies. As such, the surveillance and regulation of fat bodies must be understood in the context of colonialism and state regulation of Indigenous, Black and racialized communities. It is essential to think carefully and urgently about how “obese” bodies are treated as “risky” in this political moment, and to ensure that conversations about fatness are read with an appreciation for the realities of structural racism and the history of insufficient care for members of BIPOC communities.

How should physicians approach larger bodies in clinical settings? Physicians and health professionals should “fatten” their understanding of the complex factors associated with weight, and rethink some of the assumptions undergirding the association between weight and health by engaging with critical fat studies scholarship, as well as with fat activist perspectives, such as those advanced by the NAAFA. People who identify as fat should be understood as authoritative sources of knowledge, not passive recipients of occasional public or professional pity or sympathy. Physicians wield substantial power in the health care system — we are asking that doctors confront the possibility that how they interact with patients whose bodies are larger than the statistically ideal weight can harm their patient’s psychological and emotional well-being, as well as their physical health, if these interactions discourage them from seeking health care in the future. As a prominent blogger who writes under the name “your fat friend” explains: “Perhaps the largest factor that kept me out of doctors’ offices for eight long years was the relentless drumbeat of conversations about weight loss. Those conversations overwhelmingly ignored any history of eating disorders, food insecurity, and trauma. Often, health care providers skipped straight to a lecture without even asking about my current diet or activity levels. It felt like someone had pressed play on a recording, and I just had to wait it out.”

There are, however, no neat checklists for physicians who want to do better. Confronting fat stigma requires more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It behooves those in the medical profession to resist suggesting that there are only a few bad apples, and that most doctors and other health care professionals treat their fat patients respectfully. Living in a culture that is consumed by feel-good narratives of weight loss and recovery means that few of us are immune to a series of embedded assumptions about fatness. And yet, like members of other marginalized communities, fat people deserve compassionate, competent care that is based on careful understandings of bodily difference and that respects their human rights.


By                            :                        Deborah McPhail and Michael Orsini

CMAJ September 07, 2021 193 (35) E1398-E1399; DOI:


How Latin America’s protest superheroes fight injustice and climate change – and sometimes crime, too


Not all heroes wear capes. In Latin America, some real-life icons wear Mexican wrestling masks or arm themselves with shields and herbicide to lead demonstrations and strong-arm government officials into protecting the people.

These superheroes aren’t traumatized billionaires like Ironman or aliens with modest alter egos like Superman. They are regular people from Mexico, Argentina and beyond who, with outlandish costumes – and, sometimes, social media accounts – galvanize their communities to defend themselves against everything from police brutality to corporate greed.

Mass demonstrations in the United States have yet to spawn this kind of real-life superhero. But as my research on Latin American cultural studies and history demonstrates, common citizens there regularly don outlandish outfits and adopt comic book-inspired personas to promote social change.


Mexico’s Superbarrio

Perhaps the best-known character of this sort is Mexico’s Superbarrio, who in the late 1980s advocated for housing reform in Mexico City. The character was created by Marco Rascón, a social activist and occasional political candidate, who never actually wore the mask but who coordinated the character’s public appearances.

In addition to organizing rallies for affordable housing and tenant protection programs, Superbarrio routinely met with politicians and housing officials as an advocate for the needs of the city’s poor, many of whom were rural migrants who came to the capital during Mexico’s mid-20th-century boom years.

In the 1990s, Superbarrio supported the Zapatistas – an Indigenous protest movement based in the southern state of Chiapas – in their grassroots challenge of the Mexican government and global capitalism.

The costume Rascón helped design for Superbarrio combined some elements of Mexican masked wrestlers like El Santo – a justice-seeking “luchador” who became a folk hero and movie character – with others recalling El Chapulín Colorado, perhaps the Spanish-speaking world’s best-known superhero. Superbarrio combined these influences with the stylized “S” chest emblem of Superman.

Superbarrio inspired other real-life superhero protesters in Mexico, including the environmental activist Ecologista Universal and the LGBTQ rights advocate Super Gay.


Newer figures join in

More citizen-superheroes have since emerged in other Latin American countries.

One is Menganno, a middle-aged Argentine crime fighter who patrols the streets of the city of Lanús on a motorbike, dressed in a full costume with mask and shield. Menganno alerts authorities and city residents whenever he comes upon petty crime, from robberies to drug deals. He also helps aid agencies in identifying people who need food or shelter.

A 2018 Menganno movie has languished in post-production due to the COVID-19 crisis, but Netflix Latin America may be picking up his story.

Like Menganno, the Honduran masked figure Súper H – born Elmer Ramos – informs his neighbors about such issues as homelessness, gang violence and corruption. He has plenty of problems to identify: Súper H works in San Pedro Sula – once infamously known as the murder capital of the world.

Active on social media and in the streets since 2016, Super H wears a Mexican-style luchador mask and the jersey of the Honduran national soccer team.

Increasing pesticide use is one of his targets. Another is Honduras’ semi-authoritarian president, Juan Orlando Hernández. Several Hernández administration officials have been convicted in U.S. courts for drug trafficking; in their trials Hernández himself was accused of participating in those operations.


Chilean characters

Back in South America, Chile has seen several iconic figures arise from recent national protests there against a public transit fare hike and a starkly unequal economy.

Some of them are accidental heroes, like Pareman or “Stopman” – a protester who was captured by journalists holding a stop sign while being hosed down by the police in October 2019.

Other notable homegrown Chilean protest heroes include the Stupid and Sensual Spiderman, a street performer in a Spiderman costume who twerks in front of police while chanting protest slogans, and a climate activist dressed as Mexico’s Chapulín Colorado but armed with a gas mask and a sprayer of Round-Up herbicide.

Chile’s modern-day protest heroes follow in the footsteps of Negro Matapacos, a street dog wearing a red bandanna who electrified protesters almost a decade ago. Though he died in 2017, Negro Matapacos is still depicted as a sort of super sidekick in Chilean graffiti and print.


Capitán Colombia

Dressed in black gym clothes, ski goggles and a gas mask, Capitán Colombia is a visible figure on the front lines of his country’s ongoing protests against political corruption, economic difficulties and health care privatization.

Capitán Colombia, who carries a tri-colored shield in the colors of the Colombian flag, adorned with a drawn heart, is a comic book-like muscular superhero. His toned arms and expansive chest are an exception to generally rounded physiques of Latin America’s other real-life icons.

Like his Latin American peers, though, Capitán Colombia has no actual superpower. Still, his participation in marches draws local and international attention to the demands of his fellow protesters. So does his Instagram account, which has 11,000 followers.


An all-male cast

While Latin America’s mass demonstrations draw all genders – and some are women-led – nearly all its citizen-superhero protesters are male. In Chile, women activists have donned creative masks and outfits, sometimes going topless at protests against gender violence and police abuse. They have not, however, adopted a superhero persona.

The all-male street superhero cast may reflect Latin America’s broader issues with gender inequity, and it mirrors the sparsity of women superheroes in both Latin American and U.S. comic franchises. Only recently have Marvel and DC put out female-led films.

In Mexico – which has seen several recent feminist uprisings against rape and other forms of gender violence – the government recently created a coronavirus-fighting superheroine named Susana Distancia. Perhaps officials consciously sought to add a female-identified character into the mix of national superheroes. But their choice may have to do more with the rhyme of “distancia” – distance, as in social distancing.

Latin America’s activist superheroes skip the big screen to fight not aliens or supervillains but real world injustices. Might gender equality be a future target?


This story has been updated to correct an error, introduced during editing, about the Mexican state in which the Zapatista movement originated.


By                   :                     Vinodh Venkatesh (Professor of Hispanic Studies, Virginia Tech)

Date               :                       July 13, 2021

Source           :                       The Conversation