In Chile, at least eight people were killed and hundreds arrested over the weekend in demonstrations against economic inequality, sparked by a transit fair hike last week.
And in Barcelona, Catalan separatists protested and clashed with police in demonstrations raging since Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders to prison last week.
There are many case-specific causes and consequences of each of these mass movements — along with significant shared dynamics.
One overarching theme: Protesters say they are sick of the ruling elite. From Beirut to Santiago, demonstrators say political and economic institutions aren’t working for the masses or representing their interests, as slogans convey.
Chile “was an economic pressure cooker that’s been building for decades, and it exploded,” Rodrigo Booth, a professor at the University of Chile, told The Washington Post’s Teo Armus. “This had little to do with public transit. It became a situation about brutal inequality.”
One element is that the neo-liberal ideal of rolling back government spending and subsidies to let the free market reign has, critics say, in practice instead enabled the rollout of government for private gain, all while inequalities grow. (Even the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, which has fundamentally shaped countries worldwide by requiring economic restructuring in exchange for loans, reported in 2016 that some policies it pushed “instead of delivering growth … have increased inequality, in turn jeopardizing durable expansion.”)
In Lebanon, for example, protests kicked off after the sectarian-plagued government imposed a tax (since rescinded) on WhatsApp calls. But frustration over growing inequality, alongside dysfunctional corrupt governance (and an organizing civil society), has long been brewing in a modern country where electricity shortages are the norm — and was only augmented by reports that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave $16 million to a South African model with whom he was romantically involved. In recent weeks, Lebanese were also outraged after wildfires tore through the mountainous Chouf district, while the government was left paralyzed to stop it after having stripped down spending for firefighters and related machinery.
Another key takeaway: Public dissatisfaction is spreading in ways politicians and pundits can’t predict. The protests in Hong Kong were sparked by a proposed law easing extradition to China — something that rattled a public fearful of Chinese repression. But Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s decision to rescind the legislation led people to double down on remaining in the streets until further freedoms were ensured. And demonstrators in other countries have learned from Hong Kong’s “be fluid like water” approach; Catalan activists even organized a forum on what they could learn from Hong Kong’s experience, Quartz reported.
And last, people want their voices to be valued — and not heard only in relation to violence.
No more was that true than for war-weary Lebanon this weekend. The country lived up to its reputation for being the hip party capital of the Middle East, with the cheers of DJs and dance parties mixing with chants for political change in public squares.
Police did respond with force, and violent clashes did break out between protesters and security forces. But one viral video captured another instructive part of the narrative, when anti-government demonstrators sang “Baby Shark” to try soothe a child scared by the protests.
It’s a small world, after all.