democraciaAbierta

From Hong Kong, to Beirut, to Quito, to Barcelona, the frustration extends throughout the world.

Frustration is growing and often turning into urban violence. There are a number of reasons why this is happening but something in the system has broken and it urgently needs to be repaired. Español, Português

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
23 October 2019
Graffiti in downtown Quito, Ecuador, during the October 2019 protests.
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Foto: Francesc Badia. all rights reserved.

At 2,850 meters above sea level, Quito is the second highest capital in the world, behind only La Paz which sits at 3,640 meters. From this considerable Andean height, the convulsive world in which we live in, can be viewed from a certain distance and perspective.

Also, here in Quito, the billboards are advertising the premiere of the latest big American film, Joker. The film is many things and has many layers, but it is an appropriate as a metaphor for the rise of the marginalised and the revenge of the victim against a ruthless, cynical and abusive system. The victim reveals themself, awakens the oppressed and opens the door of liberation.

Meanwhile after the hangover of the violent 6 months from the “gilets jaunes” in Paris, protests and clashes with police in important cities of the four continents are continuing and remain alive in the retina of public opinion.

Although the images of police repression are very similar, the causes of the protests and the ways in which the people are supressed are not so similar. Even if a quick glance at a punchy headline or some hasty tweets makes us think that the responses are the same and that all police officers act the same.

The violent protests are the outbreak of serious frustration in the face of some measures by the respective states, but all of these protests have their own peculiarities and cannot be put in the same basket.

What are the key elements to this wave of urban protest?

Democracy, survival and despair

In Hong Kong, the global financial capital, numerous groups of very well organised young people are defending the special status of Hong Kong, as an ex-colony of Britain, and thereby defending some mechanisms of democratic participation that remain, these are being threatened by the governor of the enclave, with the support of the People’s Republic of China.

The protesters have accumulated many weeks of violent confrontations, they are armed with helmets, gas masks, body protection, even fire- retardant gloves, and at the moment they have managed to force the government to postpone their measures, despite Beijing’s watchful eye

In Beirut, it is the dispossessed who are burning car tyres – a combination of what remains of the Shia militias and homeless people – protesting the latest abusive tax and price increases in a deeply unfair system that, as always, hits the most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, Syrian refuges languish in the Bekaa Valley, who joined the eternal despair of the Palestinians in Lebanon, who for decades have been treated as the spoils off the State of Israel.

The violent protests are the outbreak of serious frustration in the face of some measures by the respective states, but all of these protests have their own peculiarities and cannot be put in the same basket

And this week, Santiago is also burning, where frustration has accumulated in many people, but especially young people who, have felt they are being taken advantage of and this social contempt has ended in an explosion. These violent protests are in the face of a deeply antisocial measure - the disproportionate increase in the price of public transport, which is just the tip of the iceberg of a deeply unfair and harmful socio-economic system for the most disadvantaged.

And the right-wing government cannot think of anything other than declaring a State of Exception (emergency), placing the situation in the hands of the military which has resulted in the killing of people (up to 11 are dead at the time of writing). “We are at war,” said Piñera, in a disproportionate and reactionary attitude, which is bordering on a state crime.

No one expected the liberal and stable Chilean democracy to explode so violently.

Revolt in Ecuador

The very violent confrontations in Quito in the first two weeks of October are the response to the very important collective frustration on the part of many Ecuadorians.

Similar to in Chile, the drop that filled the glass, the match that lit the fire was the doubling of the price of fuel within a package of cuts and measures that aimed to reduce the deficit, to the liking of the IMF. And it was when the different indigenous communities, who are principally affected by the aggressive austerity measures decided to mobilise and go to the capital and partake in various different marches, that the confrontational situation became very tense until it broke out into a pitched battle.

Ecuadorian indigenous people have been and continue to be victims of an aggressive neo-extractive system (as they were before colonialization) where large oil, wood and mining farms devastate their territory.

This throws the indigenous communities into misery, uprooting, penetrating and destroying their habitats, where they live in a fragile balance which borders on misery. The natives, who are the survivors of a thousand abuses and killings over centuries, joined other social sectors also affected the neoliberal polices of the “packet”. They have put their bodies on the line because they have nothing to lose, just their own life, which has a market value of almost nothing.

The indigenous communities managed to open discussions thanks to the strength, determination and responsibility of community leaders, who camped in Quito not willing to give in.

Finally, after 12 days of clashes with riot police trained in American urban war tactics and inspired by Robocop, the natives managed to negotiate with the government. This was thanks to the strength, determination and responsibility of community leaders, who camped in Quito not willing to give in.

Their very poor living conditions meant that many people from Quito gave them solidarity and they received hot soup, blankets and first aid. In this case (unlike Hong Kong or even Santiago) they are deprived of their land and willing to fight for it until they die. As indigenous people, they have known for centuries that resisting is the only way they can survive.

Once dialogue with the government was established and the detrimental article 883 was withdrawn, the indigenous communities behave in such a dignified way it surprised those who did not know the nature of these people. The communities buried their dead, organised crews that cleaned the streets for two days and re-organised the city.

They fixed the wounds caused by the wild clashes, climbed into their trucks and returned to their villages. The general feeling here in Quito, is one of tense calm, that this has been only one chapter of the battle, which will be long and will continue. Many say that what we are seeing now is simply a truce.

In Catalunya it is different

But, how does Barcelona fit into all this?

Seen from afar it might seem that this is a similar situation, a state – an old leviathan repressing and imprisoning a historically oppressed and punished, peripheral and impoverished national, which only fights democratically for its freedom.

An authoritarian state, heir to the fascist dictatorship of General Franco, who seeks only to destroy the Catalan people, despising their historical rights and who is hit with viciousness at any opportunity. No one should be surprised then that the people rise and face, even violently, anti-democratic "occupation forces” from outside the enemy.

That Spain undoubtedly existed for 40 years in the twentieth century. But many have a hard time overcoming the cliché of an authoritarian and retrograde Spain and assume that the Spaniards managed to overcome their darkest past to build an advanced democratic regime, approved as a European democracy and one of the most decentralized states in the world.

But the indexes that corroborate this are considered inadequate by some, because they come from the mainstream. The Democracy Index published by the prestigious Economist Intelligence Unit places Spain among the top 20 democracies in the world, and Spain gets 94 out of a possible 100 in the Freedom House freedom index. Still many consider this data manipulated, a lie.

And the current battles in political reporting are about populism being responsible for trying to assert and support lies, that everything is fake, and that truth is based on opinion

And the current battles in political reporting are about populism being responsible for trying to assert and support lies, that everything is fake, and that truth is based on opinion. For populism, denying the evidence and building an equally fake alternative is legitimate, if it is about saving the people.

In the world of the alternative facts of national populism, attacking the free press, disqualifying the pillars of institutional democracy and abominating the independent courts of justice is equally legitimate, if it serves to weaken the people.

Catalonia, one of the richest and most self-governing regions in Spain (and the world), has also been caught in the networks of national populism. And this has perhaps been the case from the beginning of the political transition, when the constitution granted the territory a statue of autonomy broad enough to develop a powerful nation building process.

But even with all these instruments and despite being in a privileged situation vis-à-vis other regions of Spain based on their “historical rights”, the extractive elites and landlords, in a battle for political hegemony the promise of “independence” is almost the only axis of their political agenda. They affirmed that this would be the only thing that will guarantee a fully democratic space in the face of the oppressing state, who covers everything else.

This story has been claimed by an important part of Catalan society who feel the grievance in their own flesh. And when, after having pushed this agenda to the limit, having broken the constitutional seams and fragmented the coexistence of the diverse people that live in the Catalan territory, the politicians imposed their referendum on the people, because they wanted to.

They did so by ignoring the Constitutional Court and without having a majority to do so, without a census or democratic guarantees. The referendum which in reality was fake, was followed by a unilateral declaration of independence which was equally fake was something in which they wanted to believe in. And it excited, with almost blind faith, almost 2 million Catalans.

And I say fake because the day after declaring independence, instead of raising the flag and publishing it in the official newspaper, one part of the government went out for the weekend and other, fearful of the criminal consequences of their actions, fled to Belgium and Switzerland, to wrap themselves up in the golden cloak of political exile, also fake.

The old Leviathan, a slave to his archaism and his inability to politically anticipate the irresponsible disaster that lay ahead, fell into the trap of beating the citizens

Inexorably, the old Leviathan, a slave to his archaism and his inability to politically anticipate the irresponsible disaster that lay ahead, fell into the trap of beating the citizens that who took part in a passive resistance by voting with hope of finally being free.

Then, after the unilateral declaration of independence the Leviathan intervened with the autonomy and put in justice in the hands of those were considered to be violating the rule of law. Something, which many on the left and right believed was an inalienable right of their self-determination.

Despite two years of preventive (and probably abusive) imprisonment of the main leaders, the sentences have been harsh, although the sentences open the door to an immediate third-degree application, which might result in the convicted seeing their sentences softened.

But after two years of systematically disregarding any sentence that was not absolutory and accusing the Supreme Court of being nothing more than an instrument for revenge (although it was a trial with all the procedural guarantees of a democratic state and was broadcast live by television with maximum transparency). The aim of the massive mobilisations in October was to create new momentum that would lead to popular uprisings and eventually independence given the absence and collapse of the Spanish state.

It is time to throw their hand up and summon their civil organisations and related means and go out to the streets to express their indignation. They have appealed not only to the hundreds of thousands of faithful who have religiously taken this process seriously and were genuinely hopeful that one day liberation would come, but also to others who felt outraged with cruelty of justice, accompanied by a few thousand radicalised militants , blessed by the president, who are willing to cause endless clashes and violently confront the police.

What moves young people (and not so young), beyond the understandable emotion of seeing their own humiliated by justice, is the immense frustration is seeing that the promises have not been kept or come true and that the supposed independent Catalan Republic turned out to be fake, and the deception is monumental and permanent.

The astonishing lack of self-criticism of Catalan politicians come from the tic of attributing anything (including their own mistakes) to the foreign enemy called Spain. This also happens in Spain, since the “Catalan problem” is used to gain political and electoral advantage, without any qualm.

It only remains to burn the rich, bourgeois city, the city of their privileged children, a unique place in the world where the oppressed bourgeois live.

Shared frustration

Frustration, although caused by many different reasons, is the engine of the protests we are seeing in so many cities throughout the world.

But students radicalised in an Asian financial capital, disadvantaged Lebanese people, disadvantaged indigenous, or young Chileans who have accumulated unmanageable difficulties and social cuts in the face of unequal system that punishes them unfairly, are not all the same.

Neither are the middle-class boys, frustrated because their parents told them their lives are being oppressed by an authoritarian state, but they would be liberated soon, and whose leaders ended up doing badly wrong.

But these boys who throw shells and burn bins in Barcelona are not the cousins of the Joker that Joachim Phoenix embodies, this “joker” is the victim of marginalization and abandonment of a neoliberal and wild society.

He is the victim of unmentionable abuses that make him a marginalised and sick creature, and he ends up killing the top representative of the society of spectacle, hypocrisy and abuse. Eventually encouraging a revolt against the system that sets the streets of Gotham of fire.

Those who are buring Barcelona are not the disadvantaged of the world; they are not even the marginalized and exploited of a widely neoliberal society. They are the stagnant middle class children, trapped by national populism that is flourishing within advanced European democracies.

This Joker who planted a political discourse against a society with the wildest capitalism, which is capable of generating monster in a very triumphant North America without even flinching, this doesn’t resemble these European boys at all. These guys, in bourgeois Barcelona, play to provoke the police as if they were playing paintball, knowing that they don’t have militarised police as they do in Ecuador or Chile who are ready to kill. And so, they fight to achieve a freedom they already enjoy.

They are not the disadvantaged of the world; they are not even the marginalized and exploited of a widely neoliberal society. They are the stagnant middle class children, trapped by national populism that is flourishing within advanced European democracies.

From the height and distance of Ecuador, it is worth asking how we can build viable and constructive alternatives and hopeful and optimistic stories for a better society because the current outlook will lead to growing frustrations, as destruction of the environment grows.

Today it is urgent to overcome authoritarianism, destructive neoliberalism and national populism, which depresses the elderly, frustrates young people and results in setting fire to our cities.

It is not enough to simply invoke a dialogue. We must go further.

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