By John J. Metzler
UNITED NATIONS — From Hong Kong to Barcelona, and from Beirut to Bolivia and Chile, a global rage seems to be boiling over.
It ranges from Hong’s Kong’s pro-democracy pushback to Beijing’s dour diktats, to Spain’s Catalonia region’s revived separatism against the central government, to Beirut’s crowds protesting Lebanon’s corrupt government, and Bolivians opposing a shamelessly rigged election. Then there’s Santiago where deadly demonstrations have rocked the core of the Chilean state.
There’s an odd irony in many of the demonstrations with the exception of Bolivia. All the cities are fairly prosperous, reasonably democratic, and not remotely resembling what would be called Third World. In a sense, the global rage mirrors that 1970’s movie Network where a fellow says, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Just last year thousands of French converged on Paris to protest fuel tax increases and what’s often seen as an out of touch central government. The Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests movement drew deep support from forgotten middle class living in suburbs and rural areas who feel “left out” of France’s general prosperity. Heavily taxed and frankly discriminated against for driving cars, these citizens converged on Paris and cities throughout France for massive and raucous demonstrations from last November till Spring. Some of the Gilets Jaunes movement sputters on.
It’s all about frustration. The demonstrations are not strictly political but do represent a deep and dangerous political undercurrent.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented, “It is clear that there is a growing deficit of trust between people and political establishments, and rising threats to the social contract.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has changed the narrative of this former British colony which used to care only about commerce and prosperity. Now a younger generation has challenged Beijing’s under handed tricks to manipulate the Legislature, muzzle the media, and remind the locals that they are living in a “Special Autonomous Region” of the People’s Republic of China. Enough said. This ultimately challenges Beijing’s authority and will not end well.
Spain’s traditionally restive Catalonian region is no stranger to separatism. But here too recent protests in Barcelona again challenged the Spanish State. But Catalonia is hardly a forgotten backwater but one of Spain’s richest and rebellious regions. The usual crisis of rising political expectations, combined with an often ham-handed response from the Madrid government, have fanned the embers of Catalonian separatism.
Beirut, once known as the Paris of the Middle East, is capital of a multiethnic Lebanon which in recent years has been able to overcome some of the Christian/Muslim divide through carefully calibrated sectarian power sharing. This was hardly the stereotypical Arab country.
Though not directly affected by regional political jolts and shocks, Lebanon has always felt its aftershocks. Syria’s eight-year civil conflict has caused more than a million refugees to seek safety in tiny Lebanon. Some say up to a quarter of the population are Syrian refugees; straining land, resources and services. Meanwhile, the Lebanese government was marinated in corruption, mismanagement, and oversaw a falling GDP and proposed only new taxes. A mass national movement saw the Premier’s resignation but now wants the entire government out.
In Bolivia, left-wing president Evo Morales ran for a fourth term in direct defiance of the Constitution. Though spiritually and politically motivated by Venezuela’s late dictator Hugo Chavez, the incumbent socialist failed to gain a clear majority. Emotions and tempers flared, and hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the Andean republic to protest what looked like the obvious in the Plurinational State of Bolivia.
In Chile, the spark for an unexpected revolt came not from politics but from a modest subway fare increase. Only a fool would deny Chile is a anything less than a democracy and largely prosperous middle class country. Serious sustained rioting and looting tarnished the assumption but did not change the fact that Chile remains a Latin American success story. Yet the fall of commodity prices and a crisis of exceptions confounded conservative President Sebastian Pinera with a deep national challenge. Chile cancelled two major international meetings; the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit was set to host trade talks between President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Frustrated expectations, a spark incident, which goes viral and sustains itself on smart phones and swirling social media can produce a ready-made rebellion as the Arab Spring proved back in 2011.
But let’s not smirk too much. Even in New York City, the arrogance of City Hall concerning proposed car congestion pricing, ubiquitous bike lanes crunching traffic and mass transit malaise has raised tempers in the urban pressure cooker. The corrosive cynicism undermining many democracies may have a very dangerous outcome.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).