Lately there seem to be an unusually large number of mass resistance movements unfolding in countries all over the world. Here in the U.S., Puerto Rico’s recent political turmoil upended the entire local government structure. In Latin America, there have been upheavals over the past few weeks in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. In the Caribbean, Haiti is experiencing its worst political turmoil since the 2004 ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide. On the other side of the planet, Arab nations like Iraq and Lebanon have erupted into mass upheavals. Sudan just a few months ago toppled dictator Omar al-Bashir and now wants his party disbanded. And in Hong Kong, months of mass sustained protests have brought the nation to a standstill. What is happening?
There are common themes running throughout this widespread global uprising. The unrest is marked by a deep dissatisfaction with an economic order that benefits elites over others, combined with outrage against authoritarianism and the use of force to quell dissent. Often these are intertwined, as regimes use force to maintain the unequal economic order and demand public subservience and obedience. Then, a new proposed rule or law— seemingly innocuous at first—lights the spark of protest over long-simmering issues. In the internet age, activists organize with greater ease than before and are highly educated about their plight, giving them a greater ability to document and share abuses far and wide.
I spoke with three people to try to understand the common threads of protest in Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong, and to explore why and how people have been rising up and organizing in the face of inequality and repression. Mia Dragnic is a sociologist from Chile and a doctoral candidate in Latin American studies at the University of Chile. Dragnic considers herself a “feminist militant” and, in the midst of her current tenure as a visiting scholar at University of California at San Diego, she explained to me in an interview that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera “has not attempted to dialogue with social movements nor changed any of the type of structural factors that have given rise to the current crisis.” Chileans rose up after the announcement of a hike in subway fares, but as is often the case, their response to the fare hike was symptomatic of a broader economic resentment. In fact, although Chile has been lauded for being an economic miracle, it experiences the highest level of inequality among OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations.
According to Dragnic, the protesters “are demanding social rights because the Chilean state has privatized those rights and converted itself into a guarantor of the rights of the private sector.” Those “social rights,” she says, include “education, health and housing.” Dragnic recently authored a statement titled “International Community Against the Militarization of Chile,” which was signed by thousands of academics, activists and others. The statement demands Piñera’s resignation and denounces his militarized response to the protests. So far, Piñera’s response has been to oust eight ministers, but he has resolutely refused to resign from his own position. Dragnic pointed out Piñera has “handed power to a military general to handle the protests.” Many fear that such a move is reminiscent of Chile’s violent past, when the U.S. backed a brutal 1973 coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende and helped install the notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Across the world in Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri was more responsive to dissent than Chile’s Piñera, resigning after just 13 days of sustained mass protests in cities all over the country that included the formation of a human chain. As with the subway fare incident in Chile, outrage among the Lebanese public was initially triggered by the announcement of a tax on the popular texting software WhatsApp, but it reflected a deeper economic discontent.
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I recently spoke with Jackson Allers. In our interview, Allers explained to me that Lebanese people are fed up with their government because “the infrastructure has crumbled, [and] the currency, which is artificially pegged to the U.S. dollar, is in absolute disarray right now, and it mirrors what’s happened around the Arab world since 2012.” Allers was referring to the Arab Spring movements in many Middle Eastern nations that comprised a wave of pro-democracy movements demanding democratic reforms. “The final straw was on Oct. 17,” said Allers, “[which] was when the government imposed a tax on WhatsApp phone calls.”
Allers pointed out Lebanon’s crisis was centered on the failures of capitalism, calling the country “a perfect example of a free-market state,” and “crony capitalism gone rampant.” One of the positive hallmarks of this mass movement — unlike previous eras of dissent in Lebanon — is the cross-sectarian nature of protesters. People from nearly every socioeconomic, political and religious sector are joining together. They say Hariri’s resignation is not enough and want to see an overturning of the entire corrupt system.
Elsewhere on the globe, in Hong Kong, which has occupied international headlines for many months now, protesters are also sustaining their activism for the long haul. Although the protests were initially triggered by a controversial extradition plan with China, they are now a response to broader issues of control, authoritarianism and—just as is the case in many other sites of dissent—the economy. Economic inequality in Hong Kong has increased dramatically and is now the greatest it has been in 45 years.
A brutal police response overseen by Chief Executive Carrie Lam has only hardened the resolve of the largely youth-led and seemingly leaderless movement. Joy Ming King is activist born and raised in Hong Kong and an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University. In an interview, he explained to me that activists marked an ongoing ban on face masks in the public realm by donning masks en masse on Halloween while defying authorities. King, who has been participating in the ongoing protests through organizing and direct action both outside and inside Hong Kong through his work in the Lausan Collective, explained that the creative action was an example of “collective enjoyment and rejuvenation, a way to sustain the movement, and that Hong Kongers are organizing largely through the use of digital technology in online forums and without leaders directing most of the actions. The anger that residents feel toward the government is aimed both at the local authorities and at China, which through its special relationship with Hong Kong has attempted to exert greater control over the semi-autonomous city.
The commonalities of why there are so many movements in disparate parts of the world are quite striking. Free-market capitalism has proved time and again to be a failure. The promised riches are distributed far too unequally, and for most they never transpire. The only way to preserve the current social and economic order is by force. And when people have had enough, they meet force with resistance and resilience. These are lessons not just for ordinary people suffering economic injustices, but for the governments that oversee them.