by Emma Chiu
Beginning on October 18th, 2019, the streets of Chile’s capital, Santiago, have become inundated with rallying cries of protest. These voices belong to 400,000 protesters, taking part in demonstrations across the country. Initially sparked by anger towards a government-imposed 4% increase in subway fares, the movement quickly snowballed into a series of violent clashes between civilians and the police. The issues at stake did not merely concern subway fares, but rather, long-standing frustrations against an underfunded education system, rising living costs, and booming inequality that is considered to be among the worst cases in Latin America.
The violent unrest is categorized to be the worst political crisis in Chile since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1990. Rampant outbreaks of arson, violence, and looting prompted the current Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, to declare a state of emergency, and subsequently summoned the army to quell the unrest in the streets of Santiago. So far, there have been reported to be 19 casualties and more than a thousand wounded. Due to the violent clashes involving the usage of military weapons against civilian protests, the Chilean administration is undergoing human rights investigations from the UN Commissioner and former Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet. Additionally, the INDH (Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos) compiled 67 legal cases against military and police agents, ranging from assault, homicides, sexual violence, and threats of rape among other crimes.
The violent showdown — which spiralled out of an increase in subway fares — snowballed because of an array of historically-rooted issues. Analysts have interpreted the reason for popular discontent with the government to be the political and socioeconomic inequality engendered by Chile’s economic model, which was imposed by Augusto Pinochet. This model deregulated markets and privatised social security systems, which contributed to the widespread inequality in present-day Chile. This gave rise to an extremely rich upper class, which have been the stimuli behind Chile’s economy throughout the years.
This economic model led to a result that can be misleading when considering international perception of Chilean economy. Why? When only considering the country’s GDP in assessing the state of its economy, it is natural to say that Chile is doing relatively well. The better question to ask in this instance is for who? Even though Chile enjoys one of the more relatively stable economies in Latin America and even witnessed a steady increase in GDP per capita in the recent decades, the combined wealth of Chilean billionaires comprise up to 25% of the country’s GDP. Not only that, but Chile’s unemployment rate booms at 55%, half of which are unable to generate sufficient funds to adequately save up for a decent pension.
These economic issues are largely salient and filter down to every socially stratified level. Due to underfunded education, it is increasingly difficult for the poor to climb up the social ladder. Additionally, privatised social security systems, coupled with exceptionally low wages, keep most of the Chilean population from having a way to live with sufficient comfort after retirement. All of these issues demand an answer from the current government administration, which has repeatedly sent out messages in an attempt to quell the protests. On October 23rd, President Piñera apologized on the government’s behalf, accepting Chilean protesters’ legitimate social demands. He admitted to the accumulating problems that different governments failed to address due to the lack of vision in recognizing their magnitude. Since then, he has promised the people that the administration would introduce social reforms, including increasing pension by 20% as well as the minimum wage. We have yet to see whether these reforms will be implemented, but it has had a very significantly little effect on the scale of demonstrations taking place.
These demonstrations have put the government in a state of agitation, in search of a way to steer public favor to their side. No party has been able to harvest political capital from Piñera’s friction with the public, since all parties are deemed to be at the root of this socioeconomic inequality that is driving the movement. For that reason, solving this issue will require a complicated set of reforms that tackle the country’s issues of inequality from the top of the social pyramid to the bottom. In order for the country to be effective, there has to be a prolonged collaboration between alternating government administrations to realize this goal over an extensive period of time, without completely alienating the elite class, who are at the basis of Chile’s economy at the moment. As the international community awaits the conclusion of this series of popular uprisings, what is also pending is the government’s plan to move forward in a further future.