Youths all over the world stand up to power

Youths rise in protest in Chile, Ecuador, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt against elitist rulers, neoliberal policies, unemployment and poverty, whereas in Bolivia the elite drives the protests against the election of the socialist Evo Morales.

Published : Nov 10, 2019 07:00 IST

Demonstrators  clash with riot police during a protest against President Sebastian Pinera’s policies in Santiago, Chile, on October 28.

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against President Sebastian Pinera’s policies in Santiago, Chile, on October 28.

The streets are on fire in many citiesall over the world. The rage against a corrupt elite, which has monopolised power in most countries, seems to be spreading like wildfire. Youths are no longer in thrall of the brute power of the state. The latest example of this was evident in Chile, which is supposed to be the most prosperous country in Latin America. Sebastian Pinera, the millionaire businessman who is the President of Chile, called out the army to deal with the protests. This was the first time that the army was deployed on the streets of Santiago and other major cities since the end of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1990. The protests started after the government hiked subway fares. The pent-up resentment among ordinary people was just waiting to explode. As has been the case before in the recent history of the country, high school students were in the forefront of the protests.

Like in most countries in the region, the disparity between the rich and the poor is glaring in Chile. So much so it has gained the reputation of being one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. Pinera mistakenly thought that he could crush the protests by using strong-arm methods. Human rights groups have accused the army and the police of using excessive force against the protesters. More than 19 protesters were killed and hundreds injured within a few days of the deployment of the army. Pinera declared a “state of emergency”, saying that the country was in “a state of war” against a “powerful enemy who is willing to use violence without any limits”. He did not specify who the enemy was.

But when the protests started escalating, he changed tack. He apologised for his earlier actions and announced a series of reform measures, which included the raising of the minimum wage and the monthly pension rate for the poor. Chileans earning more than $11,000 will now have to pay more taxes.

Despite the concessions, the protesters did not give up. They sought the resignation of Pinera, whom they view as a symbol of the country’s elite. The country’s trade unions lent their support to the protesters. In the last week of October, after a million-strong crowd of protesters gathered on the streets of Santiago, the President finally gave in. He ordered the lifting of the state of emergency and the removal of the military from the streets. He also sacked his entire Cabinet. But the protesters persisted with their demand for the resignation of the President himself.

Protests over Bolivia election

In neighbouring Bolivia, it seems that it is the elite that is the driving force behind the protests that are rocking the country. The protests started after the incumbent left-wing President, Evo Morales, established a healthy lead over his centre-right rival, Carlos Mesa. The protests by opposition supporters intensified after the country’s election commission declared Evo Morales the outright winner of the election. As mandated by law, Morales had a 10-percentage point lead over his rival after all the votes were counted and thus avoided a second-round run-off.

The opposition has rejected the results despite the election commission stating that it was open to outside independent audit. The United States and its allies in the region have been trying for years to destabilise Bolivia. The European Union has also joined the chorus demanding a run-off although Morales has cleared the 10 per cent margin stating that “it was the best option to restore trust and ensure the full democratic choice of the Bolivian people”.

Evo, as he is popularly called, has been in power for the last 15 years. He is the first President of the country of indigenous origin and has radically transformed Bolivia for the better since he took the reins. Since 2006, the country’s economy has grown by an average of 6 per cent every year. Because he has changed the lives of the indigenous people, who constitute around half the population, he still has their support. Evo has been a staunch and consistent ally of socialist Cuba and Venezuela. The U.S. would have liked nothing better than effecting regime change in the country. Evo has accused foreign powers and right-wing groups of trying to foment a coup against his government. The protests in Bolivia have since died down.

Before the protests in Chile and Bolivia, it was Ecuador that erupted in fury. The neoliberal policies introduced by President Lenin Moreno were a marked departure from the policies of his predecessor, Rafael Correa. His acceptance of a $4.2-billion International Monetary Fund bailout earlier this year came with conditions. Moreno announced his first dose of austerity measures on October 1 to “balance the budget”. The most controversial measure was the abolishment of fuel subsidies that were put in place 50 years ago. Ecuador is an oil-exporting country and was until recently a member of Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Overnight petrol and diesel prices rose by more than 123 per cent. The reform package included a 20 per cent cut in salaries for government servants.

Within no time, the streets exploded in anger. Left-wing parties, trade unions and indigenous groups soon joined the protest. Moreno called out the army and shifted base from the capital, Quito, to the port city of Guayaquil after delivering a defiant speech, flanked by the army chief and his Vice President. Moreno insisted that he would not budge on the issue of ending fuel price subsidies. The protests intensified after his foolhardy speech despite the brutal tactics adopted by the army and the police. Seven people were killed and hundreds injured during the two-week-long protests. Indigenous protesters, marching under the banner of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, started congregating on the capital demanding the ouster of the Moreno government and the withdrawal of subsidies.

Within a week the President backtracked and restored the fuel subsidies. He obviously did not want to meet the same fate that some of his predecessors had met. Between 1997 and 2007, Ecuador had eight Presidents, two of them overthrown following street protests. Moreno, who ran on a socialist platform but abandoned it as soon as he took power, is now considered a lame-duck President midway through his four-year term. He hopes to complete his full term in office with the backing of his new patrons in the U.S., but there is no guarantee that the streets will not once again erupt in anger, given the volatile history of the country.

Tension in Lebanon

In Lebanon, the youth took to the streets in huge numbers demanding jobs and an end to sectarian politics. The protests were said to be leaderless, but many Lebanese, including the leader of Hizbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, have cast doubts on the motives behind the “spontaneous protests”. He said that the movement had been “hijacked”. Hizbollah is an important component of the Lebanese government. At the same time, it is the only force capable of standing up to Israel. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is also a billionaire businessman like Pinera, resigned on October 29 amid the anti-government protests. It was recently revealed that he secretly gifted more than $5 million to a young South African female model in 2013.

The government’s proposal to tax WhatsApp calls triggered the protests. Lebanon has rampant unemployment and one of the highest levels of public debt. The country’s elite, comprising less than 1 per cent of the population, has cornered most of the resources. Only bankers and businessmen speculating in real estate have been prospering. The government has not been able to supply electricity and potable water regularly. Lebanese youths have been migrating in large numbers in search of jobs.

The government tried to defuse the tensions by scrapping the tax on WhatsApp calls. The Prime Minister announced that the Cabinet would take a salary cut. He ordered the banks to contribute $3.4 billion to alleviate the national debt. But the demonstrators remained defiant. They continued to demand a change in the system of government. Hassan Nasrallah warned that if the protests continued Lebanon risked lapsing into a “civil war”. The last civil war, which lasted for 15 years, ended in 1990. “Under the current economic and monetary situation and the fragile political climate and all the targeting that is happening internationally and regionally, void will lead to chaos and destruction,” Nasrallah warned his countrymen.

Violent street protests in Iraq

There were mass violent street protests in Iraq throughout most of October in which more than 150 people were killed. Eight members of the security forces lost their lives. The protests, which erupted in the country’s Shia heartland and spread to Baghdad, were a warning to the government. The country’s infrastructure is still in a poor state despite Iraq being one of the world’s top oil producers. The government has not been able to channel its oil revenues to create jobs and reduce poverty. It has failed to defuse the situation on the streets despite promising to accept many of the demands of the protesters. In early October, the government came out with a 17-point plan that included subsidised housing for the poor and stipends for the unemployed. It said that it would introduce training programmes and provide small loans to the unemployed to help them start their own businesses.

But the protesters were not placated. They demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet followed by the overhaul of the Iraqi Constitution approved in 2005. The demand of the Iraqi protesters is similar to the one echoing on the streets of Lebanon—an end to sectarian politics. After three weeks, the protesters once again took to the streets in Baghdad and other places in the south of the country in late October. Twenty-one people were killed in the latest round of protests.

The protests took place despite pleas from leading Shia clerics such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Shia spiritual leader, who rarely speaks on politics, asked the protesters to desist from damaging public and private property. The demonstrations as well as the response by the state have been violent. An official inquiry into the violence that erupted in the beginning of October concluded that 70 per cent of the civilian deaths were caused by security forces shooting directly into the heads or chests of the protesters.

In Egypt, where the government of Field Marshall Abdel Fatah El-Sisi brutally suppressed all dissent, protests were witnessed for the first time in many years in late September. More than 3,400 people were reportedly arrested. Protests were prohibited after El-Sisi seized power in 2013. In the same year, the army and the police shot dead more than 800 peaceful protesters in Cairo. Egyptian jails are overflowing with political prisoners.

The scattered protests in September in Cairo and other cities took place after an exiled Egyptian businessman named Mohamad Ali called on his fellow citizens to rise up against “the massive corruption” in the country. Ali accused the President of being corrupt, saying that he was more interested in building grandiose palaces than in the welfare of the people. In one of his video messages, posted from Spain where he currently lives, Ali said that “the system has made us all corrupt. We are going to change that system and install a proper one.” The fact that people may be losing their fear of the “deep state” is a sign that the youths in all parts of the world are no longer willing to be docile bystanders.

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