All around the world, governments are telling people to cut back and raising prices on basic needs. The result has been rage and chaos.
Fifteen people have died in violent protests in Chile over the past week. The unrest was originally sparked by a 4 percent increase in subway fares in the capital city, Santiago, but has since spread to other cities, triggered by more widespread anger over inequality and rising costs. “It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years,” went one slogan, referring to the three decades since Chile transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, a period during which many Chileans have felt left behind by the country’s much-lauded economic growth. The chaos in Chile has been shocking in large part because of the country’s relative prosperity and political stability. But it followed a very familiar recent pattern.
In Ecuador, recent protests led by indigenous groups were sparked by a decrease in fuel subsidies instituted under a deal with the International Monetary Fund.* After being forced by the protests to remove his government from the capital, President Lenín Moreno caved and restored the subsidies.
Argentina has seen mass protests for more than a year, also sparked by belt-tightening policies imposed under a deal with the IMF. Honduras was wracked earlier this year by proposed cuts to its education and health care sectors.
Should we have seen this chaos coming? Latin America’s economies began slowing around four years ago after about a decade of commodity-driven growth that led to increased social spending by governments and a growing middle class. As the downturn continues, governments are cutting back, and citizens feel vulnerable. And the newly empowered middle class is starting to feel its gains slipping away.
The Carnegie Endowment’s Moisés Naím wrote in a prescient 2015 article, “members of the middle class often feel more politically empowered and connected; their expectations of government rise in tandem with their economic status, and they are in a better position to organize and demand that those expectations be met.” Meanwhile, others don’t feel the growth has helped them at all. As Chilean political scientist Patricio Navia writes, describing his country’s current crisis, “the real reasons behind the rage lie in the frustration of a population that was promised access to the promised land of middle-class status, but that has been denied such access at the gate due to an unlevel playing field characterized by an abusive elite, an unresponsive government and an unkept promise of meritocracy and equal opportunity.”
Austerity-driven protest is spreading. Lebanon has been wracked by days of mass demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people that were first sparked by a government proposal to raise the value-added tax, and introduce a tax on internet messaging services like WhatsApp, in order to address the country’s massive national debt. Inflation-plagued Zimbabwe saw mass protests sparked by fuel price hikes earlier this year. Austerity measures and cuts to fuel and bread subsidies were a major factor behind the protests in Sudan late last year that led to the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir. The lifting of food and fuel subsidies sent tens of thousands of angry people into the streets of Jordan last year. Austerity measures were also one driver of the unexpected protests in Egypt last month, which probably dwindled only because of the repressive policies of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government.
This new wave of backlash to austerity appears to be on the scale of the 2011 protests that broke out in European countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom in the immediate wake of the Great Recession. But this time, the backlash is primarily happening in developing countries in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. The countries involved range from some of the world’s poorest to middle-income and from the most repressive dictatorships to established democracies. The movements are generally loosely organized and sometimes entirely leaderless, with organization taking place on social media and often encompassing a variety of grievances.
The political and economic environments vary, but austerity measures are the common thread: Under these conditions, the public has very little tolerance for cuts to services or subsidies. Governments jack up the prices for food, fuel, or even WhatsApp at their own peril.
While price increases are often the spark, the fuel is worsening economic inequality and rage over official corruption (or outright criminality in some cases). In some countries, like Haiti and Iraq for instance, economic conditions and corruptions have sparked protests in recent days without specific precipitating events. Last year’s Corruption Perceptions Index from Transparency International showed an overall worsening of public perceptions of official corruption across the globe, with the group’s managing director warning, “Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption.”
When government officials and well-connected elites are seen as enriching themselves, public tolerance for belt-tightening austerity measures is understandably even lower.
Hopefully, public backlash will force much needed reforms in some of these countries. The bad news is that we may only be in the early stages of another global economic slowdown. If fears of a recession are born out, calls for more austerity are likely to outpace political reform. And the resulting public anger could be channeled into populism, xenophobia, or authoritarian political movements as easily as reform. The public unrest seen in these countries in the past few months could be just the beginning.
Correction, Oct. 22, 2019, 3:45 p.m.: An earlier version of this article misstated that protests In Ecuador were sparked by an increase in fuel subsidies. It was a decrease.