Over a Million Chileans Take to the Streets Demanding Economic Reform6 min read

Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon on Unsplash

In Santiago, over a million people took to the streets on Friday in protests ignited by a subway fare increase. Starting with “high-school students [launching] four days of turnstile-jumping,” the demonstrations eventually “exploded into a week of massive protests” against inequality (Weissenstein). Chile holds the distinction of being “one of South America’s most stable and prosperous nations” (“Chile Country Profile”). In 1990, it transitioned from the authoritative grip of Pinochet, and began a successful effort of democratization (Constable). This progress, however, was not Chile’s first attempt at liberalization. President Salvador Allende, a democratically elected socialist, was overthrown by a military coup in 1973 (“Chilean President”). As a result of Allende’s Marxist ideologies during the cold war, “The U.S. government and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had worked for three years to foment a coup” (“Chilean President”). What replaced Allende was an unforgiving and bloody dictatorship that would oppress the Chilean people for the next 17 years. 

A choice example of the failures of US intervention in Latin America, this democratic backsliding was part of a larger trend described by Samuel Huntington as the “second reverse wave,” which began in the early 60’s and concluded in the mid 70’s. Subsequently, its transition to democracy in 1990 was apart of Huntington’s “third wave” of democratization that followed the cold war (Penar). In a post cold war world, which is increasingly becoming more globalized and peaceful, it may seem like the world will continue to democratize and liberalize forever. However, Freedom House has recorded an alarming 13 year trend of “declines in political rights and civil liberties.” Chile itself is still rated remarkably high, at an aggregate freedom score of 94 out of 100. For reference, the United States is only rated at an 86 (“Freedom in the World”). 

The protests themselves are targeted at the rich elites who hold a significantly disproportionate amount of wealth. Although the dictatorship fell in 1990, “Pinochet and the continent’s other allied military regimes instituted a savage free-market capitalism that in many cases reversed decades of social welfare reforms” (Cooper). This free market capitalism is referring to the systematic privatization of Chile’s industries. This system led to considerable economic growth, but has exacerbated economic inequality. The continued protests are not over the seemingly inconsequential 4 cent hike in subway fees. They are over a long trend in economic inequality that threatens order and stability in Chile (“Chile Learns”). 

Yet, if Chile still enjoys complete civil and political liberties, what is troubling about the current protests? The protests themselves have not been entirely peaceful, and they include “looted supermarkets, burning buses and charred subway stations. The headquarters for an electric company and a major bureau for a national newspaper have both been set on fire” (Armus). So far, there have been eight deaths and hundreds of arrests (Armus). President Sebastián Piñera compared the protests to a war, and instituted measures such as a mandatory curfew and deploying the military to calm the protests (Armus). These actions especially draw parallels to the protests in 1983, where Pinochet “imposed curfews [in Santiago] and other cities,” and used the military to quell protests (Schumacher). Thankfully, Piñera since has softened his tone and promised to address the grievances of the protestors, including promising to reverse the subway fare increase (Armus). 

While the protests and unrest are troubling, I do not believe Chile is in imminent danger of falling from democracy. We live in a different world than that of 1973, when America was afraid of the Allende’s socialism. The international backlash would be unforgiving if Piñera were to deploy overtly authoritarian strategies. The military has not “fired machine guns to enforce the curfew” as it did in the 80’s (Schumacher). Hopefully, the people of Chile can let their voices be heard through democratic means. But the protests are also part of a larger global trend of protests over inequality. For example, in Ecuador and Lebanon similar protests have erupted over inequality and other grievances (“Do Today’s Global Protests”). These countries have considerably less civil and political freedom, but the people are on the street for the same reason (“Freedom in the World”). 

In Chile, while the country has been lifted from the political and social oppression of Pinochet’s regime, the economic policies that were instituted under the dictatorship largely remain. It’s easy to see the current policies in Chile as positive by looking at GDP growth and the sprawling financial district of Santiago (“Chile Learns”). But that ignores the plight of the majority of Chileans who will never experience the benefits of that wealth. The procedural minimum definition of democracy outlined by Dahl does not include a requirement for economic equality (Penar). But the people of Chile are not satisfied with their government even if it does meet Dahl’s minimum.A common question is whether inequality will lead to the downfall of democratic governance. Regardless of whether the democratic institutions of Chile will survive, are the people truly free when they face the unending inequality that distributes the majority of the benefits of economic development to a lucky few? 

Works Consulted

“Chile Country Profile.” BBC News, BBC, 12 Apr. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-19357497.

“Chile Learns the Price of Economic Inequality.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Oct. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/opinion/chile-protests.html.

“Chilean President Salvador Allende Dies in Coup.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Feb. 2010, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/allende-dies-in-coup.

Constable, Pamela. “Reporting on Military Rule in Chile Was Chilling. Today’s Protesters Cannot Imagine It.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Oct. 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/reporting-on-military-rule-in-chile-was-chilling-todays-protesters-cannot-imagine-it/2019/10/26/1b204d40-f803-11e9-b2d2-1f37c9d82dbb_story.html.

“Do Today’s Global Protests Have Anything in Common?” BBC News, BBC, 22 Oct. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-50123743.

“Freedom in the World Countries.” Freedom in the World Countries, Freedom House, 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/countries-world-freedom-2019.

Schumacher, Edward. “Curfew Is Ordered In Chile As Protests Grow.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Aug. 1983, https://www.nytimes.com/1983/08/12/world/curfew-is-ordered-in-chile-as-protests-grow.html.

Watson, Katy. “Chile Crisis: Fearlessness and Anger Drive Protesters.” BBC News, BBC, 23 Oct. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50151323.

Weissenstein and EVA, Michael, and Eva Vergara. “Stunning Wealth Gap, Poor Services Behind Chile’s Protests.” Time, Time, 28 Oct. 2019, https://time.com/5711937/chile-wealth-gap-protests-inequality/.

Cooper, Marc. “Pinochet’s Legacy.” The Nation, The Nation Company, L.P., 29 June 2015, www.thenation.com/article/pinochets-legacy/.

Armus, Teo. “’We Are at War’: 8 Dead in Chile’s Violent Protests over Social Inequality.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 21 Oct. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/10/21/chile-protests-santiago-dead-state-emergency/.

1 thought on “Over a Million Chileans Take to the Streets Demanding Economic Reform<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">6</span> min read</span>”

  1. Overall I really enjoyed this blog post a lot. I thought the topic was very interesting and relevant. I think you did a good job of explaining that these riots did not start solely because of the increase in transportation costs but rather the overall wealth inequality in the country. I also really thought it was smart to mention the different waves and the backsliding effect. Referencing other protests in different parts of the world such as Ecuador and Lebanon was a very interesting addition. It makes me think of this particular case in the broader context of the world, which I feel added a lot to your post. Additionally, comparing the protest to past protests in the country was a nice addition. It gave me some reference on the trends in the country and for me to further understand more about this case. I find it very interesting that Chile has a higher freedom score than America. Furthermore, your opinion section was very well defended with evidence and logic. I also enjoyed how you used GDP growth and the economic framework of Chile to demonstrate that it is not at an extremely high risk of slipping out of democracy. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post, and I found it very interesting.

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