Online Editor Ellie Cook writes about the spiralling chaos and widespread political protests spreading through Chile.
As the violence, polemics and activism in Chile threaten to enter a fourth week in the nation’s capital, Santiago, the government appears to have lost control of the nation and the spontaneous, leaderless protests breaking out from Iquique to Puerto Montt on the edge of Chilean Patagonia. The civil unrest, the most marked since the end of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1990, has brought much of Chilean quotidian life to a chaotic halt.
The protests were originally sparked by President Sebastián Piñera’s decision to increase the cost of metro travel in the capital city, Santiago; this move made one of Latin America’s most expensive public transportation networks into one almost out of the economic reach for many commuters and daily users in the city. Initially a student-dominated protest of fare-dodging and peaceful protesting, ill-judged comments made by prominent governmental figures for travellers to merely ‘travel before 7AM when fares were cheaper’ only fanned the flames of the protests that erupted in mid-October that have come to take on a significance of far deeper profundity in Chile.
These were merely the catalyst for the articulation of more acutely experienced and entrenched social malaise. These protests, spanning the length and breadth of the country, have come to embody a social outcry of indignation and an unrelenting demand for reform. Between disillusionment with an elite plagued by scandal and corruption, a middle class unable to keep pace with high costs of living and low incomes and rising poverty figures, these protests are also consciously opposed to illusions of the prosperity lauded by what has been labelled as right-wing neoliberalism. There is a tension between figures presented to indicate prosperity in Chile and the reality that the protestors are so determined to expose. Rather than paint an image of a ‘Latin American economic success story’, the protestors aim to call attention to the deeper issues highlighted in, for example, a 2017 UN report that labelled Chile ‘the most unequal country in the OECD.’
The bottom line of public clamour is one of deprivation and marginalisation in an effort to reach a semblance of social equality in the face of a fundamentally divided society.
The socioeconomic foundations lurking behind these headlines prove to be illuminating. The enduring legacy of former military dictator General Augusto Pinochet is one pervasive in contemporary analysis of Chilean society, in which a gaping wealth disparity – continuing to widen in modern-day Chile – has its roots firmly planted in Pinochet’s economic conceptualizations and implementations. The current reality is one of stratified and firmly demarcated inequality. A 55% employment rate, further jeopardized by the transitional and often temporary nature of elusive employment, has contributed to a wealth polarization. Furthermore, it is not a single-faceted social outcry. In Temuco, for example, indigenous Mapuche protestors tore down a statue of Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. The bottom line of public clamour is one of deprivation and marginalisation in an effort to reach a semblance of social equality in the face of a fundamentally divided society where the combined wealth of Chilean billionaires is equivalent to a staggering quarter of the GDP for the entire country.
It is against this backdrop that in excess of one million protestors spilt out onto the streets of Santiago in one single day. In the face of staggering and leaderless social mobilization, the governmental response has been counterproductive to the quenching of the blaze. Yet President Piñera has seen himself become a target for protestor ire; declaring a state of emergency- entailing curfews, troops and tear gas to crush and disperse protests- he has publicly appeared to condemn actions of a ‘violent enemy’. The billionaire Chilean president has been part of the maintenance of ‘laissez-faire’ economic models of the dictatorial era, a consistent feature of Chilean economic politics in recent decades. He is, to the Chilean population shouting in the streets, very much part of the problem.
The approval rate for the protests reportedly stands at approximately 84 per cent of the Chilean population.
Friday, 18th October marked an escalation from peaceful protest and fare-dodging to vandalism and property damage, and as metro stations were burned to the ground and mass looting took hold, the governmental response was one of panic and military force. This clampdown on protestors had not merely been controversial. The Chilean National Institute for Human Rights has filed lawsuits against the military, including for sexual violence and homicide, in a move that has only fuelled the support for the protestors. The approval rate for the protests reportedly stands at approximately 84 per cent of the Chilean population: a staggering percentage taking into consideration the scale of the disorder and disruption. An excess of 20 people have lost their lives in the past three weeks, in addition to more than 7,000 arrests and approximately 1,700 injuries incurred, a current estimate of $1 billion worth of damage and more than $1.4 billion losses to businesses does not appear to be heralding a restoration of everyday activity in the immediate future.
These protests have led to the cancellation of international summits due to take place in Chile, in a move certainly indicative of protestor success undermining the façade of such a ‘Latin American success story’. Piñera may have scrapped the metro rate increases, dismissed his entire cabinet and appeared on national television, but his attempts to control the protests have been drowned out by the popularised chant of ‘its not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years’. The inequality ingrained in Chilean society has reached a watershed, and it is difficult to predict what such protracted and widespread protests will set in motion in the coming weeks.