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From Lebanon to Chile, economic uncertainty is driving a wave of protests

As 2019 enters its final quarter, protesters have taken to the streets in dozens of places worldwide. While circumstances differ from country to country, demonstrators are united in frustration with economic disparities -- and perceived government inaction to address them. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson and Nick Schifrin take a look at ongoing protests in Lebanon and Chile.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the world, in dozens of countries, protesters have taken to the streets. The demands in each country may be unique, but demonstrators are united in desperation with economic disparity and unrealized expectations.

    We begin in Lebanon, where, as special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports, anger at the government crosses religious and political divides.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Lebanon, defying religious divisions is a revolutionary act in and of itself. This protest movement, less than 10 days' old, aims to overcome decades of deep sectarianism that have led to a corrupt government and devastating economic crisis.

    Corruption and bad leadership have made Lebanon the second most indebted country in the world. It may default on its debts if it doesn't balance its annual budget. The government has tried to claw its way out of the financial disaster by promising reforms, but demanding more taxes.

    These people have had enough.

  • Abdul:

    I am an engineering student. Here, there's nothing for sure. You have to fight. You have to. It's not easy.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    This group of young men are angry that there's no future here.

  • Essam:

    The level of unemployed is very high. There is a large brain drain in this country. People graduate and then they try their best to leave because there's no opportunities for young men and women.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Lebanon's political system is based on the country's sectarian divisions, with top government posts being shared out between Sunni Muslims, Shia, Druze, and Christians. It is designed to keep the peace, but leads to constant deadlock and corruption.

    Those sectarian leaders, in place since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, have become entrenched. All sides exploit sectarian fears to shore up their positions and stay in power, where they enrich themselves.

    Sami Nader is an economist who has been predicting these protests for months.

  • Sami Nader:

    There is no separation between business and politics. And the politician either is doing business directly or, now, if it's so obvious, he has around him circles who get big contracts. It's the case in the electricity sector. It's the case in the waste sectors, and the case in the telecom sectors.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    A State Department official voiced American support for the protesters, telling Saudi channel Al-Arabiya the people of Lebanon are rightly frustrated with their government's inability to prioritize reform.

    These protests have shaken the country's political elite, with Prime Minister Saad Hariri appearing on television four days ago to offer the protesters reforms.

  • Prime Minister Saad Hariri (through translator):

    These decisions are not for bartering. They are not to ask you to stop protesting or expressing anger. This is something that you decide. And we are not giving you a deadline, and I will not allow anyone to threaten or intimidate you.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The protesters rejected his offer, and instead demanded all political leaders resign.

    Hariri is a Sunni Muslim, but his rival, Hassan Nasrallah, from the Shia Hezbollah movement, is also rattled by the protests. Hezbollah is not just a military force here, but a political one, too.

    Just as he was due to speak in a televised address today, several hundred of Nasrallah's supporters arrived at the protests, bringing loudspeakers to blast his words over the sounds of the protesters calling for his resignation.

  • Hassan Nasrallah (through translator):

    We are scared for the country. We are scared that there might be someone who wants to take Lebanon and create social, security and political tensions that would lead to civil war.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Nasrallah, whose movement is largely funded and supported by Iran, also claimed the protest movement was an international conspiracy.

  • Hassan Nasrallah (through translator):

    Information and data that we got from different sources show that now the situation in Lebanon has entered the target of political instrumentalization internationally and regionally that involves internal actors.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    "All of you, all of you" has become a common chant here, telling the Hezbollah supporters that their leader should step down too.

    The riot police are separating the different protesters. The main protest over here are those who are calling for the fall of the government and all political elites. And just behind this thick layer of riot police are Hezbollah supporters who have come down and caused quite a bit of tension here today.

    When we crossed the police line and headed over to speak to them, they told us the protesters should go home. But the police eventually told them to move on instead, and the angry crowd threw sticks and water bottles as they were shoved out of the street.

    They put up some resistance to the police before giving up and going home. The protesters know that sectarian leaders will not surrender their grip on power here easily.

    You think the current system tries to divide and rule?

  • Man:

    Exactly, because they are benefiting. There's like the $100 billion they have stolen from the country.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    As night comes, Beirut's city center reclaims the carnival atmosphere that has characterized these protests from the beginning.

    Across the country, music and dancing have been used by protesters to defy religious divisions and call for elites to step aside. Keeping their movement peaceful and united will be just as great a challenge as creating real political change.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Beirut, Lebanon.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I'm Nick Schifrin with a look at protests 8,000 miles away in Chile.

    For the past week, Chileans have also filled city streets to create a leaderless, spontaneous movement calling for fundamental reforms. Struggling to feed their families, pots become instruments of frustration. They protest unaffordable health care, low pensions, and what they describe as a government that's lost legitimacy.

  • Sofia Guancauava (through translator):

    This country is unjust. The price of gas and electricity go up, and there is no respect for the people, only enriching business and the government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Chile has been one of Latin America's most stable countries, touted as a model of regional success. In the '90s and 2000s, prosperity expanded. But it also has one of the world's largest wealth gaps.

  • Arturo Valenzuela:

    People who were very, very poor in the past, who could not think about protesting, now have a whole host of rising expectations.

    And so it's a crisis in the sense of rising expectations that are not fulfilled on the part of many, many people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Arturo Valenzuela was the director of Georgetown's Latin American Studies Center and a former senior State Department official who has tracked the country as it modernized and grew richer.

  • Arturo Valenzuela:

    People then become much more aware also of the enormous gaps between the people who are going to private schools, the people who live in really well-off neighborhoods, and so on and so forth.

    And so the inequality issue — and, certainly, Chile has become far more unequal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And this week, that feeling of inequality exploded, not only into peaceful protests, but also deadly clashes between government and the governed.

    At least 17 protesters have been killed, and hundreds of police injured, in running battles that paralyzed the capital, Santiago.

    Billionaire President Sebastian Pinera announced increased pensions and minimum wages, improved health care, and reversed the public transit price hike that helps spark the protest.

  • President Sebastian Pinera (through translator):

    We have heard loud and clear the voice of the people, the voice of the Chileans who have peacefully expressed their problems, their pains, their shortages, their dreams, and their hopes for a better life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But he also deployed the military that's targeted protesters, and enforced a curfew with batons and smoke grenades.

    It's the first time that's happened since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, when 40,000 Chileans were killed, tortured or imprisoned.

    And the fear is, some of those dark days are returning.

  • Man:

    Here we are in militarized Santiago.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Monday, Miguel Sofia filmed as 9,000 soldiers took over Santiago's streets, and he talked to protesters unafraid of violence or the curfew.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The social discontent is not just about the fare rides for the subway.

    The only thing the government does is criminalize a situation that, in truth, they have dragged on for so long. Now the military are using the same strategy they used during dictatorship, making fun of people and shooting people in many regions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Suddenly, an unmarked car screeched toward them.

  • Man:

    Shooting, man.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sofia and reporter Jonathan Franklin screamed that they were press.

  • Man:

    No!

    (SHOUTING)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The car made a U-turn and fired a few final shots.

  • Jonathan Franklin:

    Just came and started shooting indiscriminately at people. We had to hide behind this tree — the bark off here, the shotgun blast. You can see different pieces of the tree were blown away.

    We were, fortunately, behind the tree, but they were shooting at people.

  • Man:

    More coming, more coming.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They could have been unmarked police or provocateurs.

    But this kind of violence in Chile hasn't been seen in decades, and it's not going to stop.

  • Man (through translator):

    I'm not in favor of violence at all. In fact, I have never liked it, but I think it is the only way that they will listen to us.

  • Arturo Valenzuela:

    Many citizens are probably going to say, well, look, we need to take care of the violent elements right here.

    But, on the other hand, it's quite clear that there is an opening right here for significant abuses of human rights on the part of the authorities, when a protest is repressed in that way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.N. vows to investigate reports of human rights violations. And protesters say the government's concessions are too little, too late.

    That's the same message from many protesters around the world, not only in Chile and Lebanon, but also in Iraq, in Haiti, and in Ecuador. All these protests have local causes and local politics, but they're all organized online, and protesters object to widespread economic disparity and increase, but unrealized expectations.

    And the underlying problems they demand fixed are not easy for any government to deliver.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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