“It’s not about the 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years”.
This statement is a line echoing from a video montage produced by Ana Tijoux. It reflects the current situation of the Southern American Country Chile. This country of 18 million people, until recently, has been often known as ‘the Latin American tiger’ mostly because of its political stability and economic growth. The country is currently having the highest GDP growth and a title of the most competitive country in the region by the World Economic Forum.
The last two months have forced the technocrats and the economic institutions to consider the image of the country. What started as protests over a spike in the subway fares has turned into much more. Now, the demands are not merely restricted to lowering of prices or hike in wages, but the reconsideration of the fundamentals of the country. The citizens have made a demand for a new constitution, with new principles; principles that do not abide by the objectives of an oppressive regime.
The protests began around mid-October, when Catalina Santana an 18-year-old student jumped a turnstile in the Santiago metro, because of the hike in subway fares, and launched a movement that changed the course of Chilean history.
This is not the first time Chile has been a host to these kinds of protests. Over the last decade, two similar student-driven movements which led to significant reforms in education policy, including lowering costs for university students have been witnessed by this nation. The protests led by high school students in 2006 had achieved discounts on public transportation and a waiver of charges for university entrance exams for some students. Five years later the protests held by university students were able to lower the interest on student loans. But this time the protestors intend to bring changes in the structure of the society by bringing into light the causes of inequality, economic injustice and poor social service in the country.
The protests led vandalism, looting, rioting, and burning of the metro stations everyday occurrence. The response of the country’s security forces was nowhere near pacifying. They responded with great violence. During the first month, around 22 people were killed and more than 2000 were injured. Most injuries and deaths were because of police brutality. Forces used rubber bullets as a weapon and blinded around 200 citizens. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the Organization of American States, and Amnesty International have started their investigations against the president for any human rights violation.
The Reason behind the protests
These reasons are not merely limited to the 4 cent hike in the fares. It extends to widespread inequality. Although Chile is one of the most economically stable countries, it has the highest level of inequality, among all the OECD countries. This justifies the rage among the citizens which is decades-long because of the ever-increasing healthcare and medicine cost, education costs, utility costs among others.
According to Marta Lagos, Director of Latinobarómetro and a political analyst, Chile has always been a champion of macroeconomics. The fiscal equilibrium, inflation has always been good on charts. But these do not say anything about the people in the society. She says, “The problem in Chile is the poor distribution of wealth”.
The end of the regime of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the president of the military dictatorship created high expectations for Chileans. The expectations were of removal of dictatorship and having the true spirit of democracy. But the neoliberal transformation continued. During Pinochet’s administration which was based on the Philosophy of the U.S. economist Milton Freidman, government role in regulating public services was minor. This continued even after the regime ended. So those expectations remained unmet. Although after thirty years of democratically elected leaders, Chile has surely achieved economic growth and has been named one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America. But not all Chileans are benefitted. The protests over the last decade have revealed the deep-seated frustrations of the citizens over economic inequality and the apparent fact that the benefits extended by the privatized health care and pensions are favouring the wealthy.
Since Pinochet’s regime ended, Chile saw remarkable success in the market economy. As the government moderated its policies and moved from an orthodox neoliberal economy to an economy with an agenda of ‘growth with equity’, it was no more a free-market haven. Since 1990 the country saw economic growth of 4 percent annually, with a strict emphasis on fiscal responsibility, privatization, stabilising inflation and other economic reforms. But excessive privatization, such as privatization of health care and education has created economic inequalities and has left the poor and middle class saddled with debt. The privatized pension systems have left many people on the verge of being destitute, because of the low amount of pensions. Further, the wages have gone low and the cost of living has increased.
The citizens, now frustrated by the decade’s long economic inequality and injustice, demand a new constitution. The present one, dating back to the Pinochet administration is still in line with the objectives of that time. While the citizens now want the constitution which would limit the role of government in the economy and would also, if not favour the lower and middle class, but meet the demands of them.
The government initially reacted by the dismissal of the protests for the transportation fare enraged the protestors. The decision to call out the army to control the protests worsened the situation. The violent actions of the military brought back the painful memories of the Pinochet administration. Protests during the Pinochet’s time would bring beatings from police; possible torture and ‘disappearance’ of people by security forces, thus Piñera’s decision to bring the military to control the crowd struck a chord with the people.
The UN report based on the first three weeks of November, details multiple allegations of torture, sexual violence by the police against the people held in detention. The report says that more than 28000 people were jailed between October 18 and 6 December. Many of them have been released now, but after becoming victims to the above-mentioned crimes. Further, the OHCHR report repealed that up to 10 December around 5000 people were injured including 2800 police officers.
President SebastiánPiñera with an approval rating of 14% (lowest since Pinochet)has made many attempts to control the protests. He has canceled some interests on the student loans and proposed measures to address inequality in health care, pension scheme, and funding to poor communities. He pledged to increase the pension by 20%, introduce a state critical illness cover law, decrease prices of medicine for the poor and an increased minimum wage of 480$. He also asked the members of the cabinet to resign and has also proposed the plan to improve the constitution. But he is still not able to pacify the protestors.
The government has slightly raised the pensions for the poor citizens, a hike in the minimum wage, tax increase for the elite and addition of medical benefits in the public scheme.
Sebastián Piñera is now under a lot of pressure to pacify the protestors. The protests are now starting to affect the economy. The economic and infrastructural sufferance that was undergone by Chile in the past months had made it necessary for the current administration to look into the issues and make concessions that have been ignored in the past.
Even though the new constitution with better social safety nets and better public services is in process, there is no extent defined, of the political and economic crises or of the state intervention.
The Head of the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development, Diego Sánchez-Ancochea draws a lesson from the Chile situation. He says that “Countries need to take much more seriously how to reduce inequality at the very top if they want to become more successful and stable economies”. After analysing the Chile protests he came to the conclusion that while economic growth does contribute to tackling inequality, but it is not to prevent a crisis like that of Chile in other countries. He further adds “Tax systems need to become much more redistributive, and wages need to increase in labour markets”.
Protests much similar to Chile are being held Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia. These are all held by demonstrators from the working class. The only difference between these protests and the protests held in Chile is that the Chileans are protesting for the things they never had. The key takeaway from these protests is that all hell will break loose someday.
It has taken thirty years for Chile to open its eyes. Even then it is a bit difficult for the government to realize what’s right. Even when they do, the denial still exists.
The question arises, that these kinds of demonstrations, which include such grave human rights violation, are they necessary to bring a change? Does every suffering country need to suffer a bit more, lose a bit more lives and then get their basic rights? Is the concept of a democratic country, devoid of dictatorship, hard to imbibe? Lastly, is democracy just a mirage?
Maria Borselli, What’s behind Chile’s protests, December 9, 2019 available at; https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/whats-behind-chiles-protests/
Charis McGowan, Chile protests: What prompted the unrest?, 31 October 2019, available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/chile-protests-prompted-unrest-191022160029869.html
Ian, Bremmer, What Happens Next in the Chile Protests, November 15, 2019 available at: https://time.com/5730814/next-chile-protests/
Aislinn Laing, Explainer: Chile’s inequality challenge: What went wrong and can it be fixed?, October 24, 2019, available at:https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chile-protests-explainer/explainer-chiles-inequality-challenge-what-went-wrong-and-can-it-be-fixed-idUSKBN1X22RK
Katy Watson, Chile protests: Concerns grow over human rights abuses, 7 November 2019, available at:https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50315106
UN human rights report cites ‘multiple root causes’ of deadly Chile protests, 13 December 2019 available at:https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/12/1053491
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