Let’s face it, the world is a complicated place and, despite our purest of intentions, sometimes as travelers we can be drawn into complex local political debates. Other times, we (meaning I, since I like writing about such things) seem to search them out. But how can political activism impact us as visitors, both from a legal and moral standpoint, as well as a practical one?
If you read the news lately, you’ll notice a number of places where demonstrations seem to be fairly commonplace. In Hong Kong, protests began in response to a proposed law allowing extradition of accused criminals to mainland China (with its 99% conviction rate in highly politicized trials). Venezuela’s protests of the government have seemed almost civil war-esque, and don’t seem to be ending any time in the near future. India’s changing the status of Kashmir to allow for less regional autonomy has also sparked protests, which will likely get worse before getting better. And this is only to name a few of the current hotbeds of political activism.
So, if we visit these places, or anywhere else with active – or even spontaneous – protests going on, what should we do?
France’s “yellow vest” protestors in Marseille’s Vieux Port
Let’s start with the legal concerns. Different countries have different degrees of political expression allowed, both for citizens and for foreigners. In Singapore, for instance, citizens are only allowed to demonstrate in a single corner of a single park, while it is an immediate jailable offense for a foreigner to do so anywhere, or even to observe a demonstration. While some countries don’t immediately jail non-citizens expressing their views, there can still be legal consequences. It would not be surprising for a demonstrator – even a peaceful one – to be removed from the country if arrested, and perhaps prevented from returning.
Some nations might be a little more relaxed legally than others. In the United States or Great Britain, for instance, large-scale demonstrations against gun violence or Brexit, respectively, might be perfectly lawful for a non-citizen to attend, assuming it is permitted and, above all, peaceful. Make sure to study the laws of the place you are visiting if you intend to participate. If you find the consequences outweigh the benefit, it is probably a good idea to avoid the areas of demonstration entirely.
Morally there are also concerns on both sides. It might be morally the right thing to protest a dictatorial government, as in Nicaragua’s recent wave of political expressionism. I, for one, am not a fan of Daniel Ortega and would love to be able to stand with the people of Nicaragua against his rule. However, my getting involved could end up backfiring on any local people I know, or my Airbnb hosts. I recall that Anthony Bourdain did a show in Iran in which he was critical of the government – with valid reason. After he left the country, a couple of people he met with while there were arrested. I am not sure that endangering locals, simply by being a foreigner, is worth the moral points of demonstrating for a righteous cause.
A pro-government demonstration marches past me in Leon, Nicaragua.
Finally, there are the practical concerns. Sometimes, demonstrations are perfectly safe. I recall being in Colombia just before the first (failed) popular referendum on a peace treaty with the guerrilla terrorist group FARC. Students were demonstrating in favor of the deal, and I took photos, and even applauded along with them before continuing on my way. Other times, demonstrations that begin as lawful and safe turn violent. In Hong Kong, tear gas has been used regularly to try to disperse the protestors, while hundreds were killed in Nicaragua’s spate of anti-governmental protests in 2018. As travelers, safety is one of our most paramount concerns, and it is generally safer to avoid protests at all times, regardless of place or ideology.
A rainy day didn’t stop students in Colombia from demonstrating in favor of a peace deal with FARC.
Local politics are interesting. I certainly enjoy speaking to people about the issues of the day when I travel, and tend to develop opinions about many of them. However, I have avoided becoming involved in active political demonstration in any country but my own, and during my most recent travels in France and Nicaragua, I have even walked blocks out of my way so as not to cross paths with demonstrations there – although I did get trapped inside a coffee shop by a pro-governmental rally marching past me in Leon, Nicaragua. It may be tempting sometimes to want to join in when issues are close to our hearts. Just be aware of the potential consequences.
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