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The subway, the bread, the whatsApp: the great protests of 2019 began with a spark of inequality

Image of a protester in Ecuador
Image of a protester in Ecuador

Sudan, Puerto Rico, Iraq, Iran, Chile or Ecuador … many of the mobilizations of the last year are joined by the rejection of increasingly deteriorating living conditions.

For Ravina Shamdasan, a UN spokesman, the pattern is common: “People fed up and angry about socioeconomic conditions, inequality and the widening of the rich-poor gap”.

“If the Lebanese Government had known, I would not have announced a fee to WhatsApp. But WhatsApp or gasoline is just the straw that fills the glass,” says Eduard Soler, a CIDOB researcher.

Image of a protester in Ecuador
Image of a protester in Ecuador

In Sudan it was bread. In Iran, the rise in the price of gasoline. In Lebanon, it was a fee to use WhatsApp and in Chile, the subway ticket. 2019 has been marked by massive protests in different corners of the world. The discontent responds to a cluster of very diverse and complex causes, but many of these social outbreaks are joined by the same thread: a spark of inequality before which people said enough.

The bread, the gasoline, the WhatsApp or the subway were the spark. The underlying reason, a growing cost of living and very deteriorating economic conditions. The discontent expressed in the street has ended up taking political measures that are already governing, among claims that often extend overtime demanding much deeper reforms.

“There are demonstrations in different places, caused by different things, but they share some characteristics. In particular, people feel they are under extreme financial pressure, the problem of inequality and many other structural problems. Governments need to listen to their people and meet their needs, “Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for UN secretary Antonio Guterres, told a news conference. The same is said by the spokeswoman for the UN office for human rights, Ravina Shamdasan, for which there is a common pattern: “People fed up and angry at socioeconomic conditions, corruption, inequality and the widening of the gap- poor. ”

“It’s a revolution against” There is no alternative, “says Karim Bitar, director of the Institute of Political Science at St-Joseph University in Beirut, paraphrasing the slogan attributed to the former neo-liberal minister. Margaret Thatcher. “It’s the revolutions for dignity,” he says.

The cycle of mobilizations, which has intensified in the second half, especially in Latin America – the most unequal region on the planet -, has as its starting point the protests of the yellow vests in 2018 in France, reminds eldiario.es Eduard Soler, senior researcher of the think tank CIDOB. “In 2019, there has been an intensification with a copy process: in the imaginary, in the masks, in the vests, the colors and the slogans. This has contributed to creating the image of a homogeneous phenomenon when it is not. There are protests very different, for example, some have gone against authoritarian regimes and others against democratic governments, protests with a high level of violence and others not … “, he exemplifies.

For Soler, what is repeated in all the protests is that they have occurred simultaneously, that they look at each other and copy elements such as the slogans – although he refuses to speak of ‘domino effect’, rage and frustration ‘not channeled “and institutions that fail to give a way out. “If the Government of Lebanon had known what was going to come, it would not have made the decision to impose a fee on WhatsApp. But WhatsApp and gasoline are only the triggers, the straw that fills the glass. There have always been,” he says…

Also remember that what happened in 2019 is not a world wave “unprecedented”, mentioning other moments such as 1968 or 2011. What we have attended, in his opinion, is a resurgence of the social outbreak after a cycle of ” some discouragement. ” “The period of emancipatory protests such as 15M, the ‘Occupy’ or the Arab spring was followed by a certain discouragement. In global terms, we have gone from slowing down to a slowdown, sometimes articulated very emancipatory, such as Algeria and Sudan, and others in the form of rage. ”

From Hong Kong to Bolivia, passing through France, Russia, Czech Republic or Iran. Soler argues that it is difficult to attribute a single cause to the series of world protests that have happened this year. But although inequality “is not the only element”, in many of them it is an important factor. “Above all, the perception of inequality. What there is is a perception of injustice, but others are added such as institutional dysfunction, corruption or the feeling that the government governs only for one party.” These are some cases:

Sudan’s bread

Protesters occupy the squares and roads near the Army headquarters
Protesters occupy the squares and roads near the Army headquarters

Some called it the ‘bread revolution’. The rise of this staple food in a decree that multiplied its price by three years ago pushed thousands of Sudanese to the streets a year ago. The measure was part of a larger package aimed at curbing galloping inflation. What began as a protest against the dramatic economic situation that the country was going through and the deterioration of living conditions quickly became a wave of unprecedented mobilizations, which demanded the fall of Omar al Bashir after three decades of dictatorship.

After four months of harshly repressed protests, Al Bashir was overthrown in April by the Army. According to Amnesty International, between December 2018 and April 11, 2019, at least 77 protesters lost their lives. But the road to free elections seems long. The military took power after the fall of Al Bashir but agreed with the civil opposition a transitional government that begins to take its first steps. Al Bashir, meanwhile, has recently been convicted of illegal possession of foreign exchange.

A macho and homophobic chat in Puerto Rico

Hundreds of people participate in a mass march, in San Juan
Hundreds of people participate in a mass march, in San Juan

In Puerto Rico, the political earthquake was triggered by the private chat full of sexist and homophobic messages from the then governor, Ricardo Roselló, which last July brought out an outrage that was widespread. The citizen’s malaise against the leaders responded to an accumulation of causes, among which was corruption or the criticized response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. “Your apologies are drowned in the rainwater, in the houses that they still have no roof, ” said Puerto Rican singers Residente and Bad Bunny, who led the protests, in the song they released those days.

In the background, more than a decade of suffering from the severe economic crisis that is going through the island, which has experienced hard cuts in public services and layoffs, and poverty lurks around 40% of the population. After 11 days of mass protests, Roselló announced his resignation. Currently, his former secretary of Justice, Wanda Vázquez, is in charge of Puerto Rico, and the country will go to elections in November 2020.

The destitution of a general in Iraq

Security forces shoot into the air to disperse a protest in Iraq

In Iraq, the spark last October was the removal of Abdul Wahab Al Saadi, a popular general for his role in the war against ISIS. But the underlying reason for one of the biggest uprisings in the country ‘s recent history once again, it was the deep malaise that there is with the religious oligarchy, corruption, and, above all, with the deterioration of economic conditions.

Since the beginning of October, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demand more jobs and the improvement of poor basic services, as they did last year in the south of the country when they protested against power cuts or supply of water. In Iraq, a country rich in oil, the life of many of its citizens is similar to that of the Arab countries most impoverished by unemployment or a collapsed health system.

The riots have evolved to demand a total political reform that ends the system established after the US invasion in 2003. The dead in the repression of protests these months are counted by hundreds, at least 460. On November 29, the wave protests knocked down Prime Minister Adel Abdelmahdi, who announced his resignation and, at this time, political parties are trying to finalize the appointment of a substitute.

The fuel subsidy in Ecuador

Protests corner Ecuador government
Protests corner Ecuador’s EFE government

On October 3, Ecuador woke up with a halt of carriers. The decree announced by Lenin Moreno had just come into effect, eliminating the historic state subsidy for fuels, which, in practice, made the price of gasoline and diesel dependent on the international market. The measure, which affected hundreds of thousands of rural and indigenous families, was part of the “packet” of cuts in response to IMF conditions to receive a credit line of 10,000 million dollars.

The unions were joined by professors’ unions, university students and, above all, indigenous leaders, who insisted: “This fight is not for today, for the price of gasoline only, it is to prevent us from mortgaging the future and paying with hunger and poverty of two and three generations what we do not stop in time “. With the protests, which put the government on the ropes, police repression also came. At least a dozen people died, and hundreds were arrested and arrested. After 12 intense days of protests, the popular mobilization noted victory: the president backed down and repealed the controversial decree.

The WhatsApp in Lebanon

Hundreds of protesters protest in front of the Al-Ameen mosque in the center of Beirut, in Lebanon
Hundreds of protesters protest in front of the Al-Ameen mosque in the center of Beirut, in Lebanon

In Lebanon, the trigger for protests that still continue was the announcement of the authorities to approve a rate of 20 cents per day (six dollars per month) to voice calls by messaging applications like WhatsApp in an attempt to increase the income of the beaten economy of the country. The tax was interpreted as an arbitrary measure, one more of the Saad Hariri Executive, under pressure from international investors, to reduce a debt equivalent to 151% of GDP. But the claims, also, in this case, went further, calling for economic and social reforms of the draft.

In Lebanon, there are 1.5 million people living below the poverty line, an unemployment rate of 25% and a blatant economic inequality. It is also a semi-absent State, unable to produce electricity 24 hours a day, without a public transport network, poor treatment of wastewater and garbage collection or a lack of a public health system or decent pensions. Among slogans already sounded in the revolutions in the Arab world, such as “the people want the regime to fall,” the mobilizations have also demanded the end of corruption and religious division, targeting all political leaders.

Despite attempts by the Government to calm them by announcing reforms, the demonstrations did not subside and after 13 days of protests, Hariri announced his resignation. A month and a half later, last Thursday, Hassan Diab was appointed as the new prime minister to form a government. It was done without consensus and further deepening the crisis that the country is experiencing since the street has already opposed its appointment.

The subway in Chile

A woman in the protests in Chile
A woman in the protests in Chile

Chile was one of the last to join this list of countries. The outbreak came after the rise in the price of the meter by 30 pesos, 4 cents, with the students calling not to pay it. But soon it was transformed into a massive movement with a much broader claim, which pointed to the heart of a country considered the outdated student of neoliberal policies in Latin America, but which hides a very unequal society. For this reason, although President Sebastián Piñera announced within a few days the suspension of the increase in the subway ticket, it was already late. He remembers one of the motto of the protesters: “Chile woke up”.

Chileans have expressed their distaste for the lack of access to basic rights such as health or education, or the current pension system. They have also demanded a change in political and social relations, demanding a new constitution that would replace the current one – dating from the dictatorship. The goal was scored last November, when the Government of Sebastián Piñera, after four weeks of protests, agreed with the opposition a road map to develop a new Constitution with a referendum in April 2020.

In the middle, curfews, the Army in the streets, a shower of complaints of violence and police abuse, hundreds of wounded and more than twenty dead as a result of protests in the country.

Gasoline in Iran

Protests and riots in Iran against rising price of gasoline

In Iran, a new outbreak of protests came unleashed by a sudden rise in the price of gasoline that, last November, resulted in roadblocks, clashes, internet cuts and overwhelming repression of the Iranian regime that has left more than 200 dead, according to the UN and Amnesty International. The measure was the trigger for the discontent of a population that already suffers the consequences of an economy suffocated by the sanctions of the United States.

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