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The Chilean Crisis: behind a thirty-peso fare hike, thirty years of bourgeois domination

Chilean demand Pinera’s resignation. Source: Quartz.

On October 6, a fare hike on Santiago’s subway network triggered protests led by secondary students, putting on display the terrible conflict-management skills of president Sebastien Piñera’s right-wing government in Chile. The mass fair-dodging was too quickly called a criminal act, and from then on, government officials started digging their own graves. What started out as a student protest became a massive demonstration that took a whole furious population out onto the streets.

People’s discontent does not just come from a 30 Chilean peso fare hike [ed. the equivalent of $0.04 USD]; but from 30 years of a model that couples continuous economic growth with structural inequality. What started as a mass fare-dodging action reached nation-wide dimensions, combining violent and peaceful protests, all asking that Piñera resign. At first, when social discontent exploded, government officials called the demonstrators criminals and, on the night of October 19, Piñera announced that “the country is at war.” After this declaration, he imposed a night-time curfew that was extended for seven consecutive nights in Santiago, during which helicopters could be heard overflying the city and the military patrolled the streets shooting at unarmed people. This repressive measure was imposed in 13 of the country’s 16 regions, with state violence brutally deployed in all of them.

The president’s decision to declare a state of emergency, and later a state of war, is not new to us. The same people who are now in government supported the mass killings and tortures during the dictatorship, the ‘disappearing’ of thousands of people whose bodies are still missing, and a massive exile that broke families apart for many years. During our 17 year-long dictatorship (1973-1990) a neoliberal model was implemented and backed-up by a Constitution that has made it really hard to change things structurally. The implementation of a ferocious neoliberal model had the close attention and financial support of the USA, a political force that had always been in search of controlling Latin America at large. The economists behind the installation of this model are known as the Chicago Boys as they all studied at the School of Economics of the University of Chicago. Chile for many years was the USA’s favourite child, yet now the economic and political crisis is showing its cracks and spilling filthy water in all directions.

During the protests and demonstrations many subway stations were destroyed. Until now we don’t know for certain if the stations set on fire were actually burnt by the so called ‘criminals.’ Non-mainstream media and ordinary civilians are wondering why the metro stations lacked protection despite the government having deployed thousands of police officers to secure them. The latest investigations have reported that the fires started in restricted areas, fuelling theories of government set ups. This has not been proven, yet plenty of videos circulating around are showing police officers dressed as civilians throwing Molotov bombs into supermarkets, public buses, and onto public property. People also denounced police officers dressed as civilians who were found to be ransacking fruit and vegetable markets, while the corporate media kept broadcasting the destruction of public property and attributing the looting and theft to people from impoverished areas.

The government strategy has been to blame these individuals for what is actually their political responsibility. The current slogan says it has been thirty years of inequality, yet the dismantling of the social fabric started 46 years ago during the dictatorship, and deepened later in democracy with the growing individualism and consumerism that the economic model brought with it. In these thirty years of democracy the impoverished areas have been filled with narco- and drug-trafficking accompanied with a horribly segregated educational system, where the rich have access to good education while the poor are left to their own devices. So yes, looting is a fact, but the people are not the ones to blame; it’s been thirty years of bad government policies that shaped a subject with no political education nor class consciousness.

Bear in mind that salaries in Chile are one of the lowest among the OECD, while its tertiary education ranks fourth on the list of the world’s most expensive (2015). According to a World Bank and Fundación Sol report, in Chile 1% of the population owns 33% of the country’s wealth, half the population earns less than $550 USD / €500 monthly, and 50% of retirement pensions put old people way below the poverty line (receiving less than $204 USD / €182 monthly). In a country where the cost of living is similar to some European cities, these salaries are insufficient, forcing people to buy food on credit, thus adding more zeros to their accumulated debts.

Meanwhile the upper classes and wealthiest groups live an oasis-like life in their US-looking suburbs, where they go to spotless shopping malls, attend private clinics and schools, and are the only ones who can afford to pay for all the services privatised during the dictatorship [1]. President Piñera is of course a part of this privileged group and was seen eating pizza at a fancy restaurant in one of the richest areas in Santiago when the protests exploded. According to Forbes 2019, he is one of the richest men in Chile, and yet he will only pay 3 years of pending taxes of the 30 years he owes to the state. This makes him the biggest tax evader and gives him no authority to call students ‘criminals’ as he has insisted on doing.

Despite the military’s presence, the violence and fire, since October 19, protests and demonstrations have been taking place every day throughout the country. It’s been mostly youth who are out at night contesting the legitimacy of the government’s repressive measures, because they see their grandparents in desperation committing suicide due to the squalid pensions they get after an entire life of hard work in precarious jobs earning miserable salaries [2]. The new generations are not afraid of state violence, literally putting their lives at risk to see their elders get their dignity back. 

The city has been set on fire by violent protesters, yet the targeted buildings and monuments symbolise the feral neoliberal policies that have us struggling on an everyday basis. Corporate media buildings (El Mercurio de Valparaiso) have been destroyed because they were —and still are— accomplices of state violence during our 17 year-long dictatorship. Corporate media at the beginning was obsessed with the looting, with showing destruction and spreading fear about supply shortages, while failing to inform and report on how many people the military killed and injured in the first three night of the curfews. Later on, the official media changed their approach starting to convey the actual situation in the country and sharing people’s real concerns and demands. The wide use of social media has put non-official and non-mainstream media on top of the game, and now official media seems to have no choice than to show what is really happening. 

The latest reports from the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) says among the 20 people that have died during the protests, 5 have been killed by state agents (the police and the military), 1,659 were seriously wounded by gunfire and rubber-bullets, 160 presented eye injuries or total vision losses from rubber-bullets, 4,634 have been arrested and many are still in detention with no clarity about their legal status, 479 are children and minors, and there’s more than a 150 legal cases under investigation for sexual violence and torture (including forcing people to undress, physical harassment, rape, and beatings). The report has also denounced the unjustified use of violence and police brutality (indiscriminate use of tear gas and other mixed toxic liquids), gunshots directed at protester’s bodies with rubber bullets covered in toxic chemicals that get quickly infected, and there’s also the presence of police and military officers without identification on the streets. To date, the number of disappeared people is 20. None of these abuses were reported on the news at the beginning, but as the accusations of human rights violations grew, the media had to report the latest numbers provided by the INDH. The current Minister of Women’s affairs has remained silent, and feminist organisations are now asking her to resign. 

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) convened a visit on October 28, but was later cancelled without providing a new date and later clarifying that it will be only a “technical visit.” Luckily, Amnesty International (an organisation that is despised by the right-wing for its interventions in the 1980s) is monitoring the situation and providing direct channels for people to send proof of human rights violations via video and audio captured on their mobile phones. At the local level, now there is an ongoing controversy involving the Director of the INDH (Sergio Micco) who recently stated that “there isn’t systematic violations of Human Rights in the current protests in Chile.” Soon after this, Micco tried to clarify by stating that: “it is too early to speak of systematic human rights violations.” However, the numbers are clear; in its nine years of functioning, the INDH has filed 319 lawsuits against the police, which involve torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of people. 45% of these lawsuits have been filed in the last 19 days (between October 17 and November 5). 

On October 25, the biggest rally in Chile after dictatorship was spontaneously summoned by an Instagram story (or so the story goes). No leaders and no political parties were behind the biggest demonstration after the dictatorship. 1.2-million people gathered in the main intersection that symbolically divides the rich from the poor in Santiago, displaying signs with a plethora of demands for equality and for an end to —or a significant reformulation of— the current economic model. 1.2 million people are now asking for a new Constitution that allows for deep social and economic changes, and for a social agenda that shows the government’s willingness to secure basic human rights in order to enable people to live a life with dignity. This impacts the corporate elite very deeply because they have invested —and are quite invested— in a model that has made them extremely rich. 

President Piñera’s obsession with selling the image of an oasis like country with political stability, superficially showing continuous economic growth, has now come to an end. The two big conferences (COP 25 and APEC) that were going to take place later this year, and where the President was going to showcase how well Chile is doing, are now a dream. They have both been cancelled this week, because with the war Piñera himself has declared, now nobody wants to visit a city filled with commandos repressing protesters (who are tin-kettling and pot-banging until the police arrives and violence breaks out).

We don’t know what is going to happen in the weeks to come, but the protests seem to have a long life ahead of them. In the last two weeks members of parliament have been working on discussing and approving bills, some of which have been sitting in Congress for six years or more. The corporate media changed its approach going from frightening people with continuous violent images of looting to showing more optimistic future landscapes and standing on the side of the majority of demonstrators. Morning shows now host politicians who for 30 years helped sustain this ravaging neoliberal model and, all of a sudden, they start to sound like social democrats from the first world. A little too late though; now everyone can tell that they are trying to co-opt the political messages and demands of the streets (thinking about their next political campaigns).

For all the reasons given above, people are sceptical and now more than ever we are all asking for real participation in matters that concern us all: working conditions, pensions, education, housing, healthcare, and so much more. As the Chilean journalist Mirna Schindler has recently stated, with the latest protests what is clear is that there is a close relation between our everyday lives and the most important document that rules us: The Constitution. People now want to have a say in what that document lets our governments and politicians do when they do business with our lives. 

[1] Chile is the only country where water is private since 1981 – a legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

[2] A report named “Isolation, economic problems, social exclusion and painful illnesses” as “risk factors influencing suicide in elderly people.” Accessible in Spanish in a Senate link: “Soledad, problemas económicos, exclusión social, enfermedades dolorosas: algunos de los factores de riesgo de adultos mayores para cometer suicidio.”

Special thanks to Fernando Alvear Atlagich for his thoughtful sociological insights and suggestions. A version of this article has been published in Chinese by the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao.

Alejandra Villanueva Contreras, a Chilean social anthropologist, is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University in Australia.