Order of the Day: Militant and Sustained Protests
R Arun Kumar
MILITANT and sustained protests have become the new norm in many countries. Just a few days back (November 17), the Yellow Vests (gilets jaunes) protests in France observed their first anniversary, protests in Haiti breached the ten-week mark, while the Chilean protests crossed thirty days, similarly in Lebanon and Iraq. On the other hand, Bolivia and Iran have now joined the long list of countries that are witnessing major protest demonstrations.
Immediately after the coup in Bolivia, workers and indigenous people started huge protests demanding the restoration of Evo Morales to presidency. The right-wing enactors of coup launched a witch hunt against the Left, progressive forces, leaders of various social movements and particularly on indigenous people. The self-proclaimed president Anez called the indigenous people ‘satanists’ and that they should go back to the highlands, as the “city does not belong to them”, displaying her arrogant contempt and racial hatred.
Anez signed a decree providing immunity from criminal prosecution to the Bolivian armed forces for their actions in restoring ‘order’ and ‘controlling citizens’. This law is similar to the AFSPA, we have in our country. Buoyed by this immunity, armed forces attacked people demonstrating in Cochabamba, killing nine demonstrators. In another city, El Alto, they used armoured vehicles and helicopters to attack protesters blocking access to a major gas plant in the city. According to the country's human rights commission, 19 people had died since October 20. Undeterred by the brutal attack of the armed forces, tens of thousands of Bolivians are taking to the streets every day denouncing the killings and the new government.
Anez also bared the intentions of the Bolivian ruling classes when she stated that the Movement for Socialism (MAS), the party represented by Morales, “does not have guaranteed participation in the next elections”. The ruling classes intend to bar both Morales and also his party from contesting as they fear popular opinion, which would certainly be expressed in favour of Morales and MAS. The coup leadership started distancing from all the progressive measures initiated by Morales and as a first step, has already broken ties with Venezuela and is sending back more than 700 Cuban medical professionals. They had even arrested some Cuban doctors, who were later released after immense pressure from the local people. It is these measures that are reminding the Bolivians of their hard days during the earlier neoliberal regimes and making them join the protests against the coup.
AN YEAR OF GILETS JAUNES
Gilets jaunes protests in France are taking place continuously on the roundabouts and road junctions for the last 53 weeks, or one year. All these weeks, every Saturday, mass demonstrations were held in major French cities with citizens occupying the roundabouts. These protests caught the imagination of the French and gained wide popularity and participation. At their height, nearly 300,000 people were on the streets in Paris alone. After a year, the crowds are definitely not so huge, but people still believe that these protests have played an important role and still have got an important role to play. Many people believe that these protests resulted in increasing the purchasing power of the poorest and in strengthening democracy in the society. And importantly according to a study, “76 per cent of French people think the gilets jaunes protests could take off again, for the people’s concerns have not been met”.
Within few weeks of the protests, French President, Macron withdrew the intended fuel tax hike. But by that time, gilets jaunes demands widened from the issue of fuel tax to other issues of taxation, fiscal, social, and environmental justice. They also brought to the fore the need for strengthening popular participation in democratic life. In response to the protesters demand for a ‘debate’, Macron announced ‘great debate’, but tried to side-step from the real issues, by concentrating on the question of migration, race and other such diversionary issues.
All such diversionary tactics are failing, as once again major signs of popular discontent are brewing. The unprecedented response to the firefighters’ strike, students mobilisations against education reforms, and the recent rail stoppages were all indicators of the failed policies of the government. All of these protests have definitely gained strength from the gilets jaunes protests. Many trade unions and youth organisations have called for a general strike on December 5 against the government’s assault on the pension system and other such anti-people policies. Paris metro workers, rail workers, truck drivers and airport staff have already announced that they will strike work on that day and the gilets jaunes too have declared that they too will join. The coming together of various streams is an important development in France and is bound to have a huge impact on its political landscape.
This shows that the ferment of social revolt is still alive among the people of France in spite of violent repression unleashed on these protests. In Paris, the smell of tear gas was felt in the air every Saturday as protesters clashed with police. As a result of police atrocities, twenty-four people lost one or both eyes, five had a hand torn off, and several thousand others were wounded. More than 12,000 people were arrested and 3,000 convicted for participating in these protests and among them, over one thousand were jailed. Apart from the violent attacks, media had attacked these protests by castigating them as ‘homophobic, racist, anti-semitic, fascistic and violent’. Never since 1968, has a France witnessed such violent repression of any popular protest.
In spite of the repression, many are seeing positives from these protests, as they had enabled people to rediscover the strength of the collective. They brought together thousands of hitherto isolated people and made them speak for themselves, engage in mutual aid and most importantly, built bonds of solidarity. These protests made people re-discover the motto of French revolution – fraternity in their struggle for equality. The centers of protest, road junctions and roundabouts, functioned as ‘laboratories of popular education and democracy’.
CHILE – ROUND ONE GOES TO PEOPLE
Thirty days ago, protests began in Chile, when students rejected a 30 cent increase in the metro fare, but they have now developed into a broad movement against 30 years of neo liberal policies. “It's not 30 cents, it's 30 years” has become the rallying cry of the people demanding an overhaul of the socio-economic model on which the country is being governed. Chilean government had agreed to hold a referendum next April on replacing the constitution drafted by Pinochet's dictatorship. The Communist Party of Chile (PCC) insisted that citizens had to play an important role in the process of writing a new constitution. The PCC welcomed the referendum as ‘an undeniable step forward’, but with certain reservations. It wants the entire Left in the country to work together to create ‘necessary conditions for the referendum’, and also respond to the ‘situation of workers, their low wages and pensions, health problems, the elderly and others’.
In Chile, a poll conducted on November 18 revealed that 81 per cent of Chileans will vote for a new constitution in the referendum. When asked about who should be assigned the responsibility for drafting the constitution, 63.5 per cent wanted a constituent assembly composed only of citizens and without the participation of politicians to undertake this job. On another question about the need for a new constitution, respondents stated, “first, the need to reduce existing inequalities, followed by a better health system, education, pensions, putting an end to the constitution imposed during the Pinochet dictatorship, and greater social justice, in that order”.
The people of Chile won this demand, braving unforeseen police brutalities, as the president of Chile had declared ‘war’ on the demonstrators. Until 18 November, 22 people were killed, 2,200 injured and 6,300 were arrested by the armed forces in Chile, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). At least 270 Chileans have been wounded in the eyes as a result of shooting directly in the face. Police had resorted to arbitrary detentions of even under-16-year minors, who are isolated and imprisoned in cells without water, food, and access to their families. Forced nudity in detentions and other more serious forms of sexual violence, torture, excessive use of violence, deaths, and disappearances were made a norm. Yet people in Chile have not demobilised. They continue to be on the streets demanding real transformations.
All these popular protests express popular anger and also reflect a deep political crisis of the present historical period. The inherent weakness of the capitalist system and its failure to come out of the global economic crisis is accentuating the social crisis. Increasing burdens in the name of austerity and widening inequalities are leading to a crisis in the present political system and bourgeois democracy. Capitalist greed and resulting environmental crisis is adding to all these manifestations. It is this volatile cocktail that is giving rise to popular wrath and making them march on the path of protests, right from Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Spain, France, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Egypt.
One thing for sure is becoming clear. People joining the protests are realising that they are in for long haul. They are realising that unless militant and sustained protests are conducted, neo liberal offensive cannot be beaten back. This is the experience even in our own country.