Chilean Protests Are a Symptom of Inequality

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No one should be surprised by the protests that have rocked Chile in recent weeks, shattering its image as an oasis of relative stability in a turbulent region and shocking the world.

An Oct. 8 increase in subway fares triggered the protests, which began with a student movement in Santiago of jumping turnstiles en masse to avoid paying the increased prices. The raised fare was repealed by right-wing president Sebastián Piñera after two days, but demonstrations have continued across the country to protest the gross economic inequality affecting many Chileans. 

The mostly peaceful protests have at times turned violent, with some accusing the military and police of escalating tensions and employing more force than necessary. At least 20 deaths have been reported. 

Decades of economic prosperity have reshaped Chile into one of the wealthiest countries in South America, but these dramatic gains have only benefitted a select few. Chile has the highest income inequality of the 36 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Furthermore, a 2017 study by the United Nations Development Programme found that 1% of Chileans hold 25% of the country’s wealth. The current protests are a result of long-simmering frustrations stemming from the extreme wealth gap and the inaction of the government to rectify it.

Pablo Geraldo, a Ph.D. student in the UCLA Department of Sociology, grew up in the coastal northern Chilean city of  Iquique, where his family has been involved in the near-daily protests.

Geraldo has a history of social protest as well, having participated in the 2006 and 2011 movements against privatized education and societal inequality. To explain the vice-like grip the Chilean elite have on the country’s resources, he references the work of sociologist Florencia Torche, who studied economic stratification in Chile. “There is a lot of mobility from poverty to middle class, but the elite is pretty much hermetic,” Geraldo paraphrases. “For generations they have been in power.” According to Torche, the unstable socio-economic system causes people to cycle through middle class and poverty at different periods in their lives. 

The 4% subway fare increase in Santiago — the catalyst for the protests — was merely the latest addition to a long string of government policies that widen the income gap, including privatization of healthcare and education, high costs of public transit, and consistently low wages and pensions. All of these institutions adversely affect the large middle and lower classes while the elites remain virtually untouched. 

Juan Matamala, a Ph.D. student in Global Economics and Management at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, from Santiago, says that the protests are about more than the fare increase. According to him, the cumulative effects of 30 years of economic policies that promote inequality has led to a “social explosion.”

In the days after the first protests, Piñera put forth a series of social reforms including a 20% pension increase aimed at defusing the unrest. Many Chileans, however, have rejected the proposal, claiming that it fails to address the root causes of inequality and reform the broken system of privatization.

Matamala believes that one of the problems with the proposals is that they won’t be implemented, saying that “Piñera has announced plenty of things, but I think he has been very vague. There has been a lot of announcements, but there are no bills. We want to see actual laws.”

Echoing Matamala’s sentiment, Geraldo says, “I think the government response has been totally inept.” He traces the out-of-touch reaction to the realities of the ruling elite, whose power has caused them to be “totally disconnected from the rest of the country.”

Additionally, there have been calls among protesters for a new constitution, as the current one, which dates to the Pinochet dictatorship, is widely considered to exacerbate the issues caused by economic inequality. Pinochet’s neoliberal free trade policies are commonly cited as the cause of the nation’s growth, but the legacy of deregulation has resulted in Chile having the lowest level of government spending of any OECD member country and a regressive tax system that fails to redistribute wealth. Conservative economic policies are protected by the constitution. 

Protesters argue that a new constitution is necessary to loosen the elite’s hold on power. Geraldo sees this step as particularly urgent given declining voter turnouts in Chile as people from the large middle and lower classes lose trust in the political system.

“At this point, people don’t trust in anything. It’s a crisis of representation. The politicians perform the dance of representation, but at the end they are just representing their own interests,” says Geraldo, citing the unfulfilled promises by Bachelet and Piñera, the two previous presidents of Chile who have traded terms since 2006.

An organized military response and reports of human rights violations have fueled the ideological conflict between the government and the people. Piñera declared a state of emergency on Oct. 19, with a mandatory curfew running until Oct. 27 and reinforced by the military. Over 3,000 people have been detained and there have been reports to the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) of torture and sexual assault of detainees. 

Police and military are also accused of violence against peaceful protesters, including the use of perdigones, or pellet bullets, which have resulted in at least 140 injuries and possible blindness for some.  

Geraldo believes that the government is responsible for the actions of the military, saying that they are “working with a military trained under the values of the dictatorship,” referencing Pinochet’s 17-year reign of violent suppression and torture.

“I don’t want to equate what’s happening now to what’s happening then, but that is too low of a bar,” Geraldo added, noting that Piñera’s ministry includes several public Pinochet supporters, including Interior and Public Security Minister of Chile, whose agency is in charge of the military response to the current protests. 

Frustrations over inequality in Chile have been building for years, finally bursting to international attention over the past month. Confusion by international commentators, who wonder how this could have happened in such a prosperous country, is misplaced. Social unrest is the natural result of a government that favors the wealthy and neglects its responsibility to ensure the welfare of all its citizens, and there should be no surprise that the demands of the Chilean people have erupted in this way after so many years of being ignored. 

However, many are hopeful about Chile’s future. “In a positive way, I see people gathered together to fight for their rights for the first time,” says Matamala. “It gives me hope.”

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