Open Empowerment Initiative: Latin America

What is Open Empowerment 

Open empowerment is self-empowerment enabled by the digital revolution that is scaling faster than institutions, rules and norms can respond.

The past twenty years have seen the greatest expansion of information in the history of humanity. We now create more information in two days than we did from the dawn of civilization. Two-thirds of humanity are now connected to the internet. There are more cell phones than people on the planet. Computing power doubles every 18 months. The cost of communication continues to fall.

We live in revolutionary times.

Institutions are under stress as digital natives — those born into a 24×7 online world — flex their political muscles. Empowerment in the wired world is not constrained by borders or convention.  Street protests in Brazil and the regional narco-economy share commonalities. They are made possible by friction free communication that enables coordination without hierarchy and lowers the barriers of entry into the global marketplace.

About the Open Empowerment Initiative

Cyberspace is fundamentally rewiring the ways groups, individuals and states engage with politics, economics, social action and governance across Latin America. With some 40% of the region’s population now online, connectivity is expanding faster than in any other part of the world. Most of that expansion is happening amongst the young – digital natives with ambitions to change and better their lives.

Civil society has rapidly moved online, evidenced by a groundswell of blogs and networked social movements such as those in Argentina, Chile, Colombia and YoSoy132 and the erstwhile Blog del Narco in Mexico. The recent street protests in Latin America’s largest country, Brazil, may signal a new popular awakening, as digital natives flex their collective political muscles and the government quickens its pace to respond.

Yet criminals too are also rapidly colonizing Latin American cyberspace. Enterprising criminal groups, street gangs and drug cartels use online platforms to organize and advertise their activities, recruit members, intimidate authorities and citizens, extort money and hire-out contract killers. The region also features disturbingly high rates of credit card fraud and identity theft.

Across it all, states are struggling to cope. Government responses vary from leveraging cyberspace to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of governance through to adopting legislation and capabilities to police and securitize this promising, yet also volatile space. Across most of Latin America, citizens are far ahead of states in settling the cyber-commons and a debate is fast emerging about ways to balance personal privacy with public security.


The Open Empowerment Initiative (OEI) is a partnership between The SecDev Foundation (Canada) and the Igarapé Institute (Brazil). Its mission is to investigate how cyberspace is shaping citizen action and state-society relations in Latin America.

International Development Research Center

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is a Canadian Crown corporation established by an act of Parliament in 1970 to help developing countries find solutions to their problems. Most of IDRC’s funding comes from annual appropriations from Canada’s Parliament. IDRC also receives funds from other sources, such as foundations and other Canadian and international organizations that support international development or fund research. IDRC funds researchers in the developing world so they can build healthier, more prosperous societies.

llama-11#open_empowerment @livelihoods

Regional economies are being transformed as the local goes global. Small and medium-sized enterprises and rural farmers leverage cyberspace to reach global markets. Coffee beans are now directly sold to cafés in the north but so too are cocaine, marijuana, and human beings. The virtual and real economies have blurred. Latin America’s regional narco-economythreatens to colonize and supplant the real economy.  Criminals – individuals, groups, gangs and drug cartels – have migrated into cyberspace to coordinate profitable, and often violent, activities, from identity theft, kidnapping and extortion through to gang recruitment, intimidation of authorities, recruitment of hitmen, and the silencing of citizens.

society-final-15#open_empowerment @society

Cyberspace is forcing a redrafting of the social contract between citizens and states. Across Latin America communities and individuals are connecting and organizing to pursue economic gain and/or socio-political recognition. Social empowermenttakes many forms: community advocacy to increase access to services; student and street protests in Mexico, Chile and Brazil; Aboriginal Rights movements from Central America to the Andes; and the growth of new spaces where Latin American youth, and youth gangs, are connecting, socializing, and organizing.

society-protest-16#open_empowerment @politics

Politics is taking new forms, as digital natives come of age.  In Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Central America, netizenshave mobilized using Facebook, Twitter and other social media to publicize grievances ranging from endemic corruption and homelessness to insecurity and violence. Political insurgencies and opposition movements are taking to cyberspace. In Mexico Yo Soy 132 and Blog del narco are the vanguard of online activism fighting against corruption and the cultural dominance of the narco gangs.

the-state#open_empowerment @the state

The state is late in cyberspace. Latin American states are scrambling to respond to the consequences of open empowerment. Latin America represents a varied tapestry of democracy, kleptocracy and authoritarianism. The region is affected by long-standing grievances, economic inequalities and a history of elite-managed politics. State responses to cyberspace tend to align with their responses in other sectors. States with legacies of military rule tend to securitize their response, imposing more control. Others are more sporadic, giving rise to grey areas in the regulation of the cyber commons. Cyberspace will require rules. How these rules are implemented will determine whether empowerment will lead to positive democratic change or open revolt. It will also determine whether cyberspace and Latin America will remain an open commons or become a series of gated communities.


Upcoming work

OEI Book AdThe Open Empowerment Initiative America is pleased to announce a forthcoming research publication. The volume – The Open Empowerment Era: From Digital Protest to Cyber War – will offer an original exploration of the changes underway, its regional implications, and what it means for the rest of the world. The edited book will review trends, patterns, and dynamics of information technologies in Latin America and the political, social and economic implications for the region ́s societies. In the process, it will also elaborate new methodologies, approaches to interpreting big data analytics and innovative social media monitoring techniques that are changing the way social science is apprehending change. The volume will also appraise how governments in the region are responding, including their tendency to securitize cyberspace, and the consequences for democracy and human rights.

Within the book will be several country case studies based on original research, including the following:

  • Brazil – “An emerging power’s approach to cyber-(in)security: assessing Brazilian threats and responses” by Gustavo Diniz, Misha Glenny and Robert Muggah
  • Colombia – “Colombia’s black web: guerrilla websites, twitter protests and the cybercrime challenge” by Elyssa Pachico and Hannah Stone from InSight Crime
  • El Salvador  – “Online power and impotence in el Salvador” by James Bosworth and Samuel Logan from Southern Pulse
  • Mexico – “#DemocracyMX: impacts of cyberspace on Mexican civil society, drug cartels and government” by Jorge Soto and Constanza Gomez Mont
  • Argentina – “Internet, participación ciudadana y ciberdelito en Argentina” by Miguel Sumer Elías y Daniel Monastersky