In October 2019 protests exploded in Chile over a rise in metro fares. Now in February 2020, protestors are still gathering every weekend. Why?
Metro fares were going to rise by 4% making them among the highest in Latin America. Students hopped over the turnstiles in defiance of the new fee, and were met with police opposition. Protests spilled into the streets, metro stations were vandalized, shops were looted and gas stations were burned, leading the president to call for a state of emergency. In response to the protest, president Sebastián Piñera said “We are at war against a powerful enemy, willing to use violence with no limits.” As one would expect, vilifying the protestors didn’t exactly encourage dialogue and only served to stoke the anger of participants.
But the fare increase was really just a breaking point as the students were joined en mass by Chileans demanding social justice, their frustrations stemming from a high cost of living and growing inequality. Since the initial protests, participants have called for higher wages and larger pensions, free education, a new constitution and for the conservative billionaire president, Piñera to step down.
The protests are the most violence Chile has experienced since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that tortured, disappeared and murdered thousands from 1973-1990. Perhaps one of the reasons the tensions in Chile have reached this boiling point is because older Chileans remember the oppression suffered under Pinochet’s regime and were therefore cautious to protest. Since younger Chileans don’t remember these horrors first-hand they are more willing to enter the streets.
Many of the economic concerns coming to light through the protests stem from the legacy of Pinochet. Chile was the first Latin American country to adopt neoliberalism under Pinochet, becoming the “poster child” for this economic model in the region. The tenets of neoliberalism as agreed upon in the Washington Consensus include the privatization of industry, the removal of trade/tariff barriers, minimal government regulation in the economy, and the cutting of spending on social programs, amongst other provisions.
Additionally, Pinochet privatized health care, education and the pension system, and enshrined the legal basis for this market-driven economic model in the constitution.
This mass privatization occurred during a recession sporting an elevated interest rate, making the only people able to purchase companies and property those with excess wealth. This event was an instance of the reproduction of the large socioeconomic void in Chilean society between the elite and working-class and a direct reason these tensions still exist.
Today, Chile has the biggest gap between the rich and the poor among OECD countries. Countries a part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have high performing economies and a very high Human Development Index, meaning that among developed nations, Chile’s inequality is the most stark.
More than 20 people have been killed in 4 months of protests and 50,000 others arrested. The military and police have been criticized as using unreasonable amounts of force. The UN Human Rights Commission has documented 140 cases of abuse, torture and sexual violence used against protestors as of December 2019.
Since the start of the protests, Piñera has made concessions, he suspended the subway fee hike, agreed to raise pensions and the minimum wage, and reshuffled his cabinet. He has also agreed to begin the process of overhauling the constitution, and enshrining basic health care and education as human rights. In April 2020, Chileans will vote on whether or not they want to throw out the constitution drafted by Pinochet in 1980, and how they want to create a new one. The vote is likely to pass but it won’t be until late 2021 before a new document would come into force.
Despite all these measures, Chileans are still continuing to gather en masse. While violent clashes continue, the majority gather with peaceful intent, banging pots and pans in a traditional form of protest across Latin America known as a “cacerolazo.” While a new constitution is an opportunity to move towards a more inclusive system, inequality won’t be solved with the approval of a new document. It will take time and the political will to undo decades of neoliberal policies.