Explaining and Predicting the Impact of Student Protests Across the Americas: Finding a Balance

This explainer explores the varying scales and tactics of these protests and what they signify for their countries and the broader hemisphere.


Image Source: NBC News.

On May 2 at the White House, President Joe Biden addressed the nation, emphasizing the need for order after outbreaks of violence at Columbia University and UCLA amidst the largest U.S. student protests since the Vietnam War. He stated, “There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos,” rejecting calls to change his approach to the Gaza conflict as students at nearly 400 American universities protested U.S. support for Israel. This stance comes at a time when over half a million protesters in Buenos Aires marched against proposed budget cuts to public universities on April 23rd, marking the largest demonstrations Argentina has seen in over two decades. This explainer explores the varying scales and tactics of these protests and what they signify for their countries and the broader hemisphere.

What brought on the massive student protests in Argentina? 

Protestors argue that the budget reduction proposed by President Javier Milei threatens the stability and accessibility of higher education in the country, long a pillar of the nation’s public services and approach to inequality

Last November, a majority of voters backed President Milei’s vision and proposed budget cuts as a necessary means to stabilize the national budget and economy. Though the administration has nominally left the university budget intact, the 300 percent inflation rate means the school system is left with 70 percent fewer resources than before Milei’s spending plan. Nevertheless, the university system escaped the brunt of Milei’s effort to slash spending across Argentina, as his administration has shuttered ministries, defunded cultural centers, laid off state workers, and cut subsidies to reach a budget surplus.

Even so, students, professors, trade unions, and leftist political parties have resisted the budget cuts in a broad coalition that fears even the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s most renowned university, may face imminent closure. As the protests unfold, approximately 50 percent of the population still supports the government’s reform program despite massive cuts and layoffs in the public sector. The other half oppose Milei’s government entirely, with less than 5 percent undecided — reflecting a deep polarization in Argentine politics. Despite the fallout from the recent budget announcement, Milei maintains a 49 percent approval rating, with 64 percent of younger voters backing the president’s approach. Overall, the resilience in the president’s popularity implies stability in the political environment despite ongoing challenges and controversies.

How do the current protests in Argentina compare to other demonstrations, such as the current protests in the US against the war in Gaza or the Chilean student protests in the 2010s?

American readers may be more familiar with the student protests unfolding in the United States in reaction to the U.S. role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Local police have broken up several encampments at different universities nationwide, sparking national attention. American student protestors are demanding that the US take a harder stance against Israel’s actions in the war, that American universities cut ties with their Israeli counterparts and divest investments from Israel or companies that support the ongoing conflict. The protests have brought into sharp relief a generational divide that, while already present before, has deepened immensely since the start of the Gaza war in October. Unlike a majority of Americans at large, younger Americans tend to support the Palestinians in the current conflict in Gaza, with support for Israel declining by 26 percent since just last year. In this sense, the pro-Palestine protests have found broad support across Gen Z but less so among the broader American public.  

In this generational sense, the U.S. protests have little in common with those in Argentina. More comparable might be Chile’s student protests of 2011-12, which sought an overhaul of Chile’s educational system due to concerns that it deepened, rather than challenged, the country’s inequality. These protests turned out to be a generation-defining moment for those who participated, to the point where many of their leaders are now running the country. 

Another difference is tactical. The student protests in Chile engaged in multiple forms of protest, such as hunger strikes, sit-ins, marches, and pillow fights, while smaller groups of protestors engaged the police directly by hurling stones and firebombs at them. Argentina’s student protests have been primarily street protests. In contrast, the U.S. students have been using encampments, where demonstrators have built temporary communities out of tents and other shelters on their campuses to occupy the areas as a form of political resistance. These differences reflect different local traditions, but also suggest varying degrees of impact on their communities. Chilean students gained international recognition for their innovative and sometimes even artistic forms of protest, whereas the current protests are affecting, and sometimes even targeting, specific groups of students who feel unsafe, leading campus authorities to call in police. 

Overall, the success or failure of these protests seems to hinge on whether the authorities find an appropriate balance between freedom to protest and maintaining order, as well as the degree of popular support their respective causes encounter in the broader public. 

What are the likely responses from governments in the US and Argentina, and what can they learn from the Chilean case?

For her second run at high office in 2013, President Michelle Bachelet’s campaign platform included a proposal for the gradual introduction of free college tuition for the poorest 60 percent of students, a policy that would be funded by tax reform. In this sense, Bachelet was taking on one of the protesters’ main demands. Six years later, President Sebastian Pinera faced an even larger and more violent protest, which started with students but quickly escalated. The government’s response resulted in the deaths of  7 people, and thousands were wounded and arrested. 

Chile’s experience presents some interesting lessons. In order to achieve success, protesters must set realistic goals aimed at achieving meaningful reforms over time. At the same time, leaders like Milei should focus on establishing a dialogue rather than antagonizing protestors. As Chilean authorities discovered, the failure to acknowledge the protestors could lead to prolonged unrest.  This would be a stain in Milei’s first year in office, although it would not necessarily result in his being removed. Facundo Cruz, a political scientist at the University of Buenos Aires, states that no one is in a position willing to take the position, so Milei seems safe for the time being.

The current student protests in the U.S. are the largest since the 1960s anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. At Columbia University, protesters have studied the tactics used during the Vietnam era, focusing on non-violent resistance, strategic organizing, and prioritizing achievable policy demands. President Joe Biden, when asked after a recent address if the protests would prompt him to reconsider U.S. support for Israeli military operations, responded with a decisive ‘no’. He largely sidestepped the protesters’ demands, underscoring a tough stance amid significant dissent.

As the Biden administration balances its policy commitments with the need to address concerns from a crucial segment of its electoral base, media analysts suggest that his response to the Gaza War is costing him support among the young voters who played a significant role in his 2020 election victory. However, dissatisfaction with Biden’s policies does not appear to be shifting young voters toward President Trump. Instead, it is leading to increased disengagement, with 14 percent of young voters indicating they would opt out of voting if the presidential election were held today. Given the overwhelming preference for Biden over Trump among young voters, these opt-outs could significantly influence the election, potentially tilting it in Trump’s favor.

These protests hold significance for their respective countries and the entire region as they signal a growing demand for reform outside institutional politics. The challenging of the status quo appears to be part of a global phenomenon. However, because public opinion often values law and order, ongoing protests can backfire. For instance, in Chile, unruly protests may have benefited the right in the last election, and polls indicate that Evelyn Matthei, a right-wing candidate, is the front-runner for the next one. It is likely that, if the U.S. protests continue and protesters abstain from participating in the November elections, it would do little to further the protesters’ demands, and instead could contribute to greater democratic backsliding throughout the region.

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