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A wave of protests has spread across the world this year. Traumatic scenes from Hong Kong, showing student demonstrators in gas masks as they take on the Beijing behemoth, have been punctuated by trouble in Port-au-Prince, where Haitian men and women are bringing their government to a grinding halt. In many of these places, protests which began over single issues are now expanding into general discontent with the entire system of government in their respective countries.
Leaving Hong Kong aside, what we are witnessing is a general crisis of democratic politics. Many of the recent protests are occurring in places where varying forms of democratic government have been introduced or reintroduced only very recently. They are symptomatic of a problem in regions where at least two of a fatal synergy of socio-economic inequalities, high levels of corruption, and the threat of religious sectarianism, have precluded the transparent operation of institutions to redress popular grievances.
The current Haitian democracy was only introduced in 1987 after decades of military rule while in Chile, a transition to democracy was only established in similar circumstances, after the end of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime in 1990. In both of these locations, there are signs that a toxic combination of egregious inequalities in income and opportunities are at the heart of the present dilemma.
Chile is a shining example of a successful transition to democracy and the rule of law, and the country has enjoyed strong economic growth for many years. Yet it remains one of the most unequal countries in the world – the UN estimates that the wealthiest one per cent earn one-third of the national wealth. This state of affairs is exacerbated by a low minimum wage, slow wage growth, and a lack of affordable housing and healthcare. In these circumstances, the rise in subway fares announced by President Piñera was merely the straw which broke a beleaguered camel’s back.
The precise target for the Haitians is President Juvenel Moïse, who promised to invest in infrastructure and fight decay using the loans from a Petrocaribe deal struck with Venezuela in 2006, only to have been found with his own hands in the till by Haiti’s corruption watchdog. Adding fuel to the flame of revolt is the country’s broken education system – Haitians are frustrated with the obstinate social barriers set up by an education system which is dominated by teaching in French, a language spoken fluently by only 5-10% of Haitians. Socio-economic disparities and cultural stratification work hand-in-hand in Haiti.