Be not afraid!

Those were the stirring words uttered by Pope John Paul II to the Polish Solidarity workers and the people of Poland at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in 1987. Solidarity, led by the indomitable Lech Walesa, was the first trade union in a Warsaw Pact country that was not a lackey for the ruling Communist Party. Clearly, there was a very real threat that the Party and the government, under Stanislaw Kania and later, Wojciech Jaruzelski, would stamp out Solidarity. But the people of Poland were not going to be denied. They stood steadfastly and fearlessly against rising food prices and a host of other grievances against the government. Suffice it to say, they won. In fact, the bold and uncompromising actions of Solidarity, bolstered in no small part by the call to arms from the Pontiff, are widely seen as having changed the world for the better.

Hark the voices of protest! Listen to the rumblings of discontent! Seems, the people will be ignored no longer! We saw it in Paris where the government of Emanuel Macron had to yield to the protesters (dubbed ‘Yellow Vests’) and their demands for lower fuel taxes, a reintroduction of taxes on the wealthy, and a minimum wage increase. They were not afraid, never mind the tear gas and the water cannons and the batons. Nay, they took over the Arc de triomphe, the Champs-Elysees and the other sweeping boulevards of Paris . . . to great effect!

In Hong Kong, what began as a protest against the passage of a bill that would have allowed for extraditions to mainland China, quickly morphed into a demand for more autonomy, free and fair elections and the removal of Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. The protesters have been fearless, even in the face of words of reproof (they have called the protesters ‘terrorists.’) from the authoritarian regime in Beijing. In fact, President Xi Jinping’s words this past weekend are instructive, and provide a window into the thinking in officialdom: “Anyone who attempts to split any region from China will perish, with their bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.” Hmmm! Yet still, the struggle in Hong Kong continues, with the protesters refusing to give any quarter – even after some fifteen weeks of agitation. They are not afraid!

Actually, there is talk in a number of circles that the protests in Hong Kong are being used as an exemplar, an inspiration, if you will, to other dispossessed and oppressed peoples all over the world. In Haiti, (the Haitian protests actually began in earnest in February of this year) the longsuffering citizenry is unrelenting in its demand that president Jovenel Moise resign. They are accusing him of . . . (surprise, surprise) corruption. And Moise is not the only corrupt official in Port-au-Prince.

 Of course, the Haitian people are also fed up with widespread incompetence, inertia, and skyrocketing prices, and it appears that they will not be cowed into submission. For example, this past June, police fired tear gas into a crowd of about 200 people who were carrying the casket of a man killed by police in an earlier protest. And in that same month, a journalist/talk-show host named Rospide Petion, was killed after he criticised the government on his radio broadcast. Still, the people are not afraid!

In Iraq, notwithstanding the widespread use of force, the Iraqi’s are taking to the streets to demonstrate against . . . you guessed it – corruption! Nearly everything that moves in Iraq is tainted with corruption, and the people seem to have had enough. Indeed, their cry is “JUST GIVE US A COUNTRY!” as they lament poor services, high unemployment and privilege. Seems, only the connected and the privileged few are making any headway in Iraq, and privilege is now become indefensible and odious.

Ditto in Lebanon where the ruling elite and the privileged few feed at the trough. And yes, there is rampant corruption. From Tyre to Tripoli to Beirut, hundreds of thousands of people are clamouring for a betterment. Yea, the famed ‘cedars of Lebanon’ are shaking with their calls for “Revolution” and “The people demand the fall of the regime!” and “People cannot take it anymore!” and “There are no good schools, no electricity and no water!” This is Lebanon, mind you. But the themes are ever so familiar. Lebanon is a beautiful country, but the government stinks!

Actually, it was a proposed tax on ‘WhatsApp phone calls’ that sparked the initial outrage in Beirut, and that quickly blossomed into demonstrations against a wide range of grievances – a rotten political system, crumbling infrastructure and austerity measures.  The poor people of Lebanon couldn’t get a break! The poor people of Lebanon were suffering untold hardship, while their politicians fed fat! It was a recognition of the growing resentment between the rich and poor that prompted the politicos of Lebanon to promise to cut their outrageously high salaries in half. But that is too little, too late; it will not suffice! Poor people of Lebanon, UNITE! Poor people of the world, UNITE!  Be not afraid!

And talking about poor people. There are none more wretched and destitute than the indigenous people of Ecuador, seven of whom died in violent protests against a sharp rise in gasoline and diesel fuel, after subsidies were removed. Again, the people took to the streets, especially in Quito, and the government of Lenin Moreno had to back down. They were not afraid! They were willing to stand up, even under pain and peril of death, for that in which they steadfastly believed. Their example is instructive!

Meanwhile in Chile, South America’s wealthiest country, protesters commandeered train stations, office buildings and the streets of Santiago to show their disapproval of a hike in train fares. Again, another heist from the wallets and pocketbooks of poor people. It is a dastardly shame! But the people are having none of it, and notwithstanding the deaths of fifteen protesters so far, they will not surrender. As Tim Hector would have put it, “Enough has become too much!” and “Up with this, they will not put!” Of course, the president, Mr. Sebastien Pinera, has pledged to “reduce excessive inequalities, inequities and abuses that persist in our society,” but the Chileans do not appear to be in any mood for trite promises.

What is so very curious about all of the aforementioned protests is that it was the small straw that broke the camel’s back – a small tax on WhatsApp phone calls, a small subway fare hike, a small fuel tax. These all quickly turned into massive street marches against corruption, broken infrastructure, privilege among the wealthy and connected few, high wages and perks for politicians, no water, no electricity, unemployment, low wages for the working stiffs, and so on and so forth. Apparently, if one were to pick almost any capital on almost any given day, one is likely to find widespread disaffection over the same dastardly things! And they are not afraid!

         Folks, here in our manifestly struggling state of Antigua and Barbuda, the situation is not dissimilar. Indeed, consider the following excerpts from a Reuters story, ARMY TRIES TO REOPEN ROADS AS LEBANON REMAINS PARALYSED, that appears in the international section in today’s DAILY OBSERVER: Aiming to defuse anger at the political elite and dire economic conditions, the government led by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced a set of measures on Monday including long-delayed reforms he said were aimed at fighting corruption and waste. … The turmoil showed Lebanon was running out of time to fix its economic problems. … The country has one of the heaviest public debt burdens in the world. The reforms announced by Hariri included the symbolic halving of the salaries of ministers and lawmakers, as well as moves towards implementing long-delayed measures vital to putting the public finances on a sustainable path. The government [is] run by politicians widely perceived to have mobilised state resources and influence for their own gain. … The economy has been hit by political paralysis, compounded by strains in the financial system that have risen as inward capital flows have slowed.” Hmmmm! Talk about déjà vu!

 Fellow citizens, everywhere, people of goodwill will no longer abide ineptitude, malfeasance and corruption in high places. They are prepared to take a stand and march against the power structure without fear or favour! We urge you to do the same tomorrow, October 24, 2019. BE NOT AFRAID!