HONG KONG/LA PAZ – From Hong Kong to Bolivia, people took to the streets as a wave of protests swept countries across the world in 2019.
HONG KONG: THE SEED OF GLOBAL PROTEST
It began in February with a contentious legislative proposal. In June, it grew into discontent. By November, airports had been paralyzed, roads blocked, universities were under siege and people dying or being set ablaze in the streets.
As the leader of a tiny semi-autonomous region in southeastern China attempted to calm tensions – hoping to prevent what eventually became urban warfare – she didn’t seem to realize she represented a parental authority many had grown to loathe in their quest for democracy.
“Regardless of the number of participants in the march, the march was peaceful and generally orderly, and this fully reflects the inclusiveness of Hong Kong society, and the core values we attach to peace and order,” Carrie Lam said on July 2, trying to highlight scant positives of events the day before.
Lam spoke, looking disheveled, during an emergency 4 am presser a day after anti-government protesters stormed Hong Kong’s legislature on the 22nd anniversary of the special administrative region’s handover from the United Kingdom to China.
It was merely a taste of events that continue to this day to support pro-democracy protesters in the “Water Revolution,” which began over a bill proposing the extradition of detainees to mainland China and has now become the territory’s biggest crisis in memory.
From the day almost 1 million people marched in June demanding the bill’s retraction to when a man trying to remove barricades was knocked out with a drain cover this month, police have shot a protester, a man chiding demonstrators has been set on fire and bloody street battles have been waged.
By the time Lam’s government withdrew the bill in September, the pro-democracy camp’s demands for greater autonomy in Hong Kong had far exceeded their initial objective. Activists such as Joshua Wong, involved in 2014’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, again led the front – this time garnering vehement support, even from those who would have previously scoffed at him.
The resulting daily protests – increasingly out of control and at one point even paralyzing all inbound and outbound traffic at Hong Kong International Airport – led the government to enact a law banning face masks in October; dozens were arrested as they flouted the ban.
Though insignificant at an executive level, local elections in November made a clear statement of where support lied, with the pro-democracy camp achieving its biggest win in history, grabbing 388 of 479 seats after a 71-percent record turnout.
Protests – by now a staple of daily life – continued as Hong Kong Polytechnic University came under siege when demonstrators used it as a base to block the Cross-Harbour Tunnel connecting Kowloon area to Hong Kong Island, leading to its closure for more than a week.
By December, the economy was in a recession and businesses from airlines to television firms had begun collapsing and laying people off – the first consequences of a situation that for the moment seems to have no end in sight.
BOLIVIA: A LEADER FORCED INTO EXILE
Bolivia’s longtime leftist head of state, Evo Morales, resigned and fled the country in November following nearly three weeks of widespread protests stemming from a disputed presidential election.
The unrest began a day after the Oct. 20 balloting amid accusations by Morales’ chief rival, former president Carlos Mesa, that the first round of voting had been marred by fraud.
Mesa’s claim was backed by the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States, which said on Oct. 21 that the two leading candidates had appeared to be headed for a December run-off before an “inexplicable change” in the trend of the vote count put Morales on course for a first-round win.
Morales maintains that his late surge in the balloting came after votes from remote rural areas were counted.
The final official tally showed Morales won with 47.08 percent of the vote, compared to Mesa’s 36.51 percent, just over the 10-percentage-point margin needed to avoid a run-off.
Violent clashes since Oct. 21 between Morales’ opponents and supporters had left at least three dead and 384 wounded as of Nov. 10, when a report by an OAS-appointed team of auditors found numerous irregularities and recommended that the election be annulled.
Morales, who rose to prominence as the leader of a coca growers’ union and became Bolivia’s first indigenous president in 2006, called for a fresh election that same day but was forced to resign hours later after losing the support of the army.
He and his leftist allies across Latin America denounced the events of Nov. 10 as a coup.
Morales’ mere participation in the 2019 election had been controversial.
Voters had narrowly rejected a possible fourth consecutive term for Morales in a 2016 constitutional referendum, but the following year Bolivia’s Constitutional Court abolished term limits for all elected officials on the grounds that they violate candidates’ human rights.
Violence has continued since Morales took up an offer of political asylum by Mexico (he has since been granted refugee status in Argentina, where he later moved) and right-wing Sen. Jeanine Añez became interim president, with a total of 33 people dying in the unrest.
Eighteen of those deaths, according to a report from the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, took place in a pair of incidents in mid-November in which soldiers and police “opened fire on civilians” taking part in protests against the caretaker government.
New Bolivian presidential elections are to be held early next year under rules that bar Morales from competing.