Protest Around the World

Trevor Jones, CEO, Lynx Global Intelligence 

Protests have swept the globe in late 2019, bringing unrest to locations from Hong Kong to Lebanon. Protest is a necessary part of free expression but presents a security and business continuity threat when violent. Protests are often fueled by specific policy changes at the outset, before later expanding to take on general economic or political grievances.

The staff at Lynx Global Intelligence has compiled a list of global protests and the dynamics and associated risks attached to the ongoing unrest. Every protest listed has involved the deadly use of force against protesters, and often the large-scale disruption of communication, transport and/or energy infrastructure. These disruptions lead to business continuity risks for in-country personnel or physical assets.

Hong Kong – The most visible of the protests, the roots of unrest in Hong Kong go back to an April extradition law, which if implemented would have allowed criminal suspects to be deported to mainland China. The bill was not withdrawn until September, and by that point tension had escalated and protesters began demanding more than just the withdrawal of the legislation. In recent weeks, protests have included the use of petrol bombs and arrows. Demand for greater autonomy from China has only fueled a further crackdown in a cyclical pattern of violence that has no end in sight.

Chile – All it took was a hike in the price of subway tickets to ignite protests in Santiago in mid-October. Like Hong Kong and several other protests on the list, the scope of grievance has expanded to include housing, the economy and corruption. A state of emergency was declared since protests expanded and 8 were ministers fired and replaced. Chile experiences a high level of inequality, explaining how a 4% rise in transportation fare could widen to a call for constitutional reform.

Ecuador – Just like in France a year earlier, fuel prices (revoking subsidies in this case) sparked a protest movement in Ecuador in early October. Unlike Evo Morales in Bolivia, President Lenin Moreno was able to hold on to power, but not before the government was forced to relocate to a coastal area during the unrest. Businesses faced major continuity disruptions as the protests affected the nation’s road, oil and communication infrastructure.

Colombia – Although Colombia’s economy has done well under President Iván Duque, unrest has broken out at the time of writing this post, mobilizing multiple groups in society against inequality and corruption. Colombia’s political landscape is complex, and although recent gains have been made, a history of corruption and civil war still ensures some groups do not feel included. Teachers, students, indigenous and social leaders have protested against perceived corruption and President Duque’s handling of the country’s peace agreement with the FARC.

Bolivia – In a testament to the impact of international institutions, President Evo Morales was ousted when protests in Bolivia developed after the Organization of American States published a report citing vote count irregularities. Police joined the protests and the military publicly called for Morales’ ouster. Road infrastructure has been blocked as pro-Morales protests have proliferated. Allegations of interference by outside powers, long a refrain during times of transition in Latin America, have surfaced alongside the discovery of bot networks and social media influence campaigns on both sides of the issue.

Venezuela – The list of grievances Venezuelans have against their government is long. Since Juan Guaidó was declared president in January 2019, this list has only grown. Despite being one of the most resource-rich nations on the planet, Venezuelans are hungry and struggling economically. At the time of writing, protests against Nicolás Maduro continue by students and the wider population. Unlike Morales in Bolivia, Maduro has maintained control of the state police, intelligence and military apparatus by using Cuban intelligence to control and report on his own forces. Unhappiness with Maduro is widespread, but a stalemate has resulted as opposition momentum has slowed.

Lebanon – The tax of social media itself, WhatsApp in this case, sparked protests that are ongoing at the time of writing in Lebanon. The standoff between protesters and the government has reached an impasse; although Prime Minister Saad Hariri stepped down in late October, he has stayed on as caretaker. And while the protests evolved inclusively, more recent clashes have erupted along sectarian lines. The stalemate does not yet have a clear forthcoming conclusion.

Iraq – A combination of foreign interference by Iran and economic inequality are driving protests in Iraq, ongoing at the time of writing. Iran has always been active inside Iraq, especially since the US-led invasion in 2003 and again after the rise of ISIS in 2013. Reporting by The Intercept and New York Times uncovered “…years of painstaking work by Iranian spies to co-opt the country’s leaders, pay Iraqi agents working for the Americans to switch sides and infiltrate every aspect of Iraq’s political, economic and religious life.” Like Lebanon, the protests in Iraq have resulted in stalemate, with only vague promises for change coming from the government. The internet was shut down by authorities early in November, and several ports have been blocked, affecting food supply and supply chain logistics.

Iran – Like in Ecuador, protests that began in order to demonstrate disapproval of a hike in fuel prices broadened to include general dissatisfaction with the current regime. Inequality and unemployment are rampant in Iran. The government response was swift and violent, and included a complete shutdown of internet access. Some reports indicate that over 200 protesters have been killed, and widespread arrests have been reported. Unlike Hong Kong, Chile or Bolivia, the protests in Iran did not achieve their initial aim and prompted backlash from a state that tightly controls its social media, military and police.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. The last two months have seen protests in Spain, Guinea, France, Haiti, Nicaragua and elsewhere. Although the above protests were kindled by different grievances in disparate locations around the world, they do have commonalities. First, many of the above protests began as a simple complaint, against a hike in fuel or transport costs, for example. Social media allows grievances against wider government policy to be piled on top of the initial narrative, creating a snowballing effect. Second, economic inequality and perception of corruption often fuels this snowball effect.

Protest can lead to regime change (Bolivia), stalemate (Lebanon), or a brutal crackdown (Iran). Regime change leaves firms with new partners with unknown regulatory preferences. A stalemate offers prolonged business disruption risk. Repressive regimes that brutally crackdown on dissent and protest represent markets with significant reputational and legal risks.

Protest, ideally peaceful, is a necessary part of free speech and expression. But the presence of violent protests and the resulting government response requires firms to be vigilant in 2020 and to explore new technology tools to mitigate the risks to people, planet and profit that result. By doing so, they will sidestep painful geopolitical issues and gain market share against less geopolitically aware competitors.