Fuel prices — an incendiary global issue

PHOTO: Kathleen Merrigan / FS
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In the United States, the price at the gas pump is setting new records. The same is true around the world. As fuel expenses affect most aspects of modern life, people are hitting the streets to protest the impossible costs of survival.

Demonstrations during fuel price spikes have been a fact of life for decades. This writer was in Jamaica in January 1985 and witnessed the second of what came to be known as “gas riots.” The first was in 1979, and a third hit in 1999. Two of the protests toppled Jamaican governments.

The latest hike in petrol costs has been enough to ignite open rebellion in countries across the world. Kazakhstan has large oil and uranium reserves, yet this wealth doesn’t trickle down to the general population. The doubling of fuel prices kicked off demonstrations in January 2022 that rocked this country. The protests forced the reinstatement of government subsidies, bringing costs back down. Additionally, the upheavals secured anti-corruption amendments to the constitution and promises of more reforms.

Ecuador is also rich in energy resources. It exports nearly $5 billion in petroleum per year. Yet almost 25% of its 18 million people live in poverty. A list of popular grievances — headed by an increase in fuel prices — led to an explosion of protest in mid-June. Over 14,000 people took to the streets in Quito alone. The capital city was paralyzed and several people lost their lives when the authorities cracked down. In late June, leaders of the indigenous organization CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) agreed to suspend the demonstrations and negotiate with the government. President Lasso, in turn, ended the state of emergency which had been in place to quell unrest.

In many instances, fuel cost increases provide the initial spark for rebellion, but protests quickly grow to include demands for the affordability of other daily essentials. In Athens, Greece, the 2022 May Day celebration saw 10,000 people take to the streets angry at out-of-control prices for energy and food. This fury pressured the Greek Prime Minister to demand the European Union cap energy rates. Additionally, the government promised reforms to mitigate the impact of the rising cost of living.

In Sri Lanka, massive demonstrations over exorbitant gas, food and medicine prices forced the president and his cabinet to resign. Other countries, including Peru and Guinea, experienced fuel-driven upheavals in 2022. Since these actions have the potential to fell governments, peaceful protest is often met with violent repression.

In the United States, the record-breaking price of gas — over $5 per gallon (and diesel considerably higher!) — has not yet led to mass rebellion. But In California, truckers were protesting the cost of diesel back in April, stopping traffic on the freeway near Los Angeles. Their signs read: “Lower diesel prices” and “Stop ripping off customers and carriers.”

Of course, fossil fuels need to be replaced with environmentally sustainable options for all our sakes. But that does not take away from the reality that energy, in any form, is essential to modern-day life.

The main reason for inflated rates at the pumps is not, as the government would have you believe, scarcity. Rather, the biggest problem is oligarchs trying to maintain their oil profits. Working people should not be at the mercy of corporate price-fixing, chaotic speculation by investors, and shifting global economic alliances. Instead, the energy industry should be publicly owned. And the people who toil in the trade should be in charge. Protesters the world over should demand the nationalization of all spheres of the energy industry under workers’ control.

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