Protests Galore: Troubled Times Globally


Young people between 18 and 40 years of age, across several countries, are out on the streets, braving batons, pellets, canes and bullets, and the tide is growing every week now since the middle of 2019. Hongkong, Lebanon, Spain, Ecuador, Bolivia, Egypt, Iraq, many more and latest Chile: the fire of fiery protests is spreading

Young people between 18 and 40 years of age, across several countries, are out on the streets, braving batons, pellets, canes and bullets, and the tide is growing every week now since the middle of 2019. Hongkong, Lebanon, Spain, Ecuador, Bolivia, Egypt, Iraq, many more and latest Chile: the fire of fiery protests is spreading and more decisively in Latin America. What are the factors leading to these protests, how are they getting resolved, and what are the signs of the future through these: may perhaps be a fascinating study in South Asia. 

While thousands of miles apart, protests have begun for similar reasons in several countries, and some have taken inspiration from each other on how to organise and advance their goals. Often the reasons and goals are similar. This year, several countries in Latin America have witnessed major upheavals, including mass protests, political conflicts, and law enforcement issues. From protests against alleged election fraud in Bolivia and demonstrations against economic inequality in Chile and Ecuador, to political unrest in Venezuela and the cartel war in Mexico, trouble has been brewing across the region. Similar has been the case of a few nations in Asia too.

Rising Tide of Socio-economic Inequality

Many of those protesting are people who have long felt shut out of the wealth of their country. In several cases, a rise in prices for key services has proved the final straw.

For example, Ecuador saw large scale protests earlier this month after President Lenín Moreno on October 1 announced a rollback of fuel subsidies that were in place in the Andean nation since the 1970s. In March 2019, the oil-dependent Ecuador secured a $10.2 billion bailout package from international institutions, which included a loan from the IMF of $4.2 billion. The subsidy rollback was announced in order to meet the IMF targets. After the government cancelled the fuel subsidies, petrol and diesel prices shot up, and a massive backlash followed on the streets. The protests, led by the country’s indigenous groups, clashed with security forces, and agitators even entered some of Ecuador’s oil fields & the Parliament. President Moreno was forced to shift his government from capital Quito, and finally was forced to withdraw the IMF package and reintroduce fuel subsidies.  As part of the accord, President Lenin Moreno will repeal the International Monetary Fund-backed measure, known as Decree 883, that included a significant increase in fuels. 

Chile has been rocked by protests since the beginning of October. The unrest was triggered by an increase in subway fares by 4% in Santiago. In response, high school pupils and university students jumped over ticket barriers to evade paying the increased fares, and violent clashes ensued. The government blamed higher energy costs and a weaker currency for its decision to increase bus and metro fares, but protesters said it was just the latest measure to squeeze the poor. Chile is one of Latin America’s wealthiest countries but also one of its most unequal – it has the worst levels of income equality among the 36 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

On October 18, President Sebastián Piñera declared a 15-day curfew. Violent demonstrations continued through the curfew, and the riots spread to other cities such as Concepción, San Antonio and Valparaíso. Piñera cancelled the fee hike on October 19, and launched a package of reform measures three days later. Protesters remained unimpressed, and over one million marched in Santiago on October 26. Up to 18 have reportedly died in the protests. Despite the unrest, the majority of protesters have been peaceful, with many banging spoons against cooking pots – a form of protest known as cacerolazo. Chileans are also frustrated with the increasing cost of living, low wages and pensions, a lack of education rights, a poor public health system and crippling inequality. The protests have been described as the most tumultuous of the last 30 years, since the country returned to democracy at the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s blood-soaked dictatorship. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for an independent investigation into the deaths and “disturbing allegations” of excessive force used on protesters. The fact that protests are roiling one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations suggests a similar situation could easily happen elsewhere.

Lebanon has seen similar unrest, with plans to tax WhatsApp calls prompting wider protests about economic problems, inequality and corruption. With debt levels soaring, the government has been trying to implement economic reforms to secure a major aid package from international donors. But many ordinary people say they are suffering under the country’s economic policies and that government mismanagement is to blame for their troubles.

Call for Greater Liberty & Political freedom

In some countries, protesters are angered by political systems in which they feel trapped. Demonstrations in Hong Kong began this summer over a bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China in certain circumstances. Hong Kong is part of China but its people enjoy special freedoms and there is a deep sense of fear that Beijing wants to exert greater control.

Like fellow protesters in Chile and Lebanon, the mass action in Hong Kong led to the withdrawal of the controversial legislation, but the protests themselves continued. Among their demands, protesters now want complete universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality and amnesty for demonstrators who have been arrested.

Their tactics have inspired political activists halfway across the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have rallied in Barcelona in Spain to express anger over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders. The separatists were convicted on 14 October of sedition over their role in a 2017 referendum outlawed by the Spanish courts and a subsequent declaration of independence. Shortly after the sentence was given, people in Barcelona received a message on a popular encrypted messaging service telling them to go to Barcelona’s El Prat airport, mimicking a tactic used by Hong Kong protesters. Catalan protesters have also been distributing infographics made in Hong Kong that detail how demonstrators can protect themselves from police water cannon and tear gas. 

In late October protests have roiled Bolivia, where many have questioned the fairness of the country’s general elections held last week. The polls have brought incumbent President Evo Morales back to power for a fourth term. Critics allege that the vote was rigged during the 24 hours when the publication was cut off, and the US, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia have urged Bolivia to conduct a second round of voting.

Battling Corruption

Claims of government corruption are at the heart of several of the protests, and are closely linked to the issue of inequality.

In Lebanon, protesters argue that while they are suffering under an economic crisis, the country’s leaders have been using their positions of power to enrich themselves, through kickbacks and favourable deals. The government on Monday approved a package of reforms, including slashing politicians’ salaries, in an effort to quell the unrest.

People in Iraq have also been calling for the end of a political system that they say has failed them. One of the main points of contention there is the way government appointments are made on the basis of sectarian or ethnic quotas, instead of on merit. Demonstrators argue that this has allowed leaders to abuse public funds to reward themselves and their followers, with very little benefit to most citizens. 

Protests against alleged government corruption have also taken place in Egypt. The rare demonstrations in September were prompted by a call from Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian businessman living in self-imposed exile in Spain, who accused President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military of corruption. His allegations that Mr Sisi and his government have been mishandling funds resonated with many Egyptians who have grown increasingly disaffected by austerity measures.

The heavily oil-dependent country Venezuela’s troubles first began with the fall in crude prices starting in 2014. But, in May 2018, sitting President Nicolas Maduro won a highly controversial re-election in the midst of economic and humanitarian crises and corruption allegations that continued to plague the country. With the executive and the judiciary under his control, Maduro sought to curtail the powers of the National Assembly. The legislature resisted, and its leader Juan Guaidó questioned the government’s legitimacy. In January 2019, Guaidó declared himself interim President of Venezuela. Since then, 50 countries, including the US, have recognised Guaidó as the country’s rightful president. In August 2019, talks between Maduro and Guaidó collapsed after the US slapped further sanctions against Maduro’s government, and street protests and violence still rocks the country.

Protests to Mitigate Climate change

Activists from the Extinction Rebellion movement have been protesting in cities around the world, as they demand urgent action from governments. The protests have taken place in countries including the US, UK, Germany, Spain, Austria, France and New Zealand. Participants have glued and chained themselves to roads and vehicles, and tried to disrupt busy city centres.

Young people around the world have also been joining weekly school strikes, inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Millions recently joined a global climate strike led by schoolchildren, from handfuls of demonstrators on Pacific islands to mass rallies in cities like Melbourne, Mumbai, Berlin and New York.

Ongoing Chilean Revolt: Signs of Times

If it can happen in Santiago, it could happen anywhere. The riots and vandalism of the last few days, which have sparked a state of emergency, a military response, and even a declaration by Chile’s president that the country is at war, have come in Latin America’s stablest and most prosperous nation. It had the longest uninterrupted democracy on the continent before the coup that installed Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1973, and it has enjoyed uninterrupted democracy since his regime’s peaceful fall in 1990.

Globalization allowed Chile to benefit from its huge supplies of copper. In 1975, just after Pinochet had taken over power, Chilean gross domestic product per capita lagged Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and even its neighbour Peru. Now, it has more wealth per capita than any of them. The fact that Chileans have revolted against the cost of living is alarming, and suggests a similar situation could more easily happen in the rest of the developing world. 

Why did Chile revolt? The first reason is inequality. The Western educated economists, the Chicago Boys’ agenda delivered reasonably strong and stable aggregate growth, but Chile remains one of the most unequal countries on earth. It ranks as one of the leaders in inequality among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and, according to the World Bank, remains more unequal than either of its very different neighbors, Argentina and Peru. People are far angrier about a rising cost of living if it comes with a sense of injustice.

Second, the catalyst was a proposal to raise public transport fares and energy bills. There is ample evidence from across the world that these will incite rebellion like nothing else — a point that those who hope to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions via a carbon tax should bear in mind. The violent protests of the Gilets Jaunes in France were over higher gasoline taxes, which were seen as penalizing car-dependent people in the provinces while favoring metropolitan elites. Mexico in 2017 saw riots and protests against what was known as the “gasolinazo,” a 20% rise in fuel prices that was a part of the government’s partial privatization of Pemex, the  monopoly state oil company. Last year, Brazil was rocked by protests and a strike by truck drivers in response to fuel shortages and a sharp increase in the price of diesel.

Third, Chile lacks a populist movement by a populist politician. Such a figure might have been able to use public anger for their own purposes, but would also have had a better chance to control it. For example, Mexico’s left-wing populist president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador frequently led public protests, but successfully persuaded his followers not to resort to violence. In Chile, where conventional politics lacks a party or a personality to channel their grievances, protesters have resorted to self-destructive vandalism. 

Finally, Chile’s dependence on commodities, particularly copper, set it up to suffer severe collateral damage from China’s economic deceleration, and from the U.S.-China trade war. Chile is greatly dependent on its exports of copper, whose price is in turn dependent on the health of the Chinese economy. With Chinese growth slowing to 6%, the slowest in three decades, copper prices are under pressure again. 

A weakening currency makes it harder for the Chilean government to balance its books. Chile’s leaders need to answer questions as to why they have not managed to diversify their economy away from a reliance on metals. But the country is far from alone. Several other emerging countries are similarly exposed to metals prices, including Brazil.

If lessons are not learnt by leaders of various nations writhing in inequality and suppression of voice, including those of India, there can be a spate of protests and violence in many more nations. Simultaneously, without an overarching ideology behind these protests, these remain as on today sporadic protests and violence not leading to any major systemic changes. 

The author is a columnist & television commentator, and currently the Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata based Adamas University, earlier the Media Dean of Symbiosis, Amity and Pearl Academy. 

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