Within the past year, a kind of revolution has taken place in Chile. Some worry this revolution will turn out to have been stillborn, ended prematurely by the pandemic. Others worry that the country’s government has already succeeded in blunting its force. But what has already happened still has the potential to change the course of Chilean history.
Last October, a thirty-peso fare hike for public transportation sparked mass protests that brought together almost every marginalized or disaffected sector of Chilean society: high-school and college students, feminist groups, indigenous activists, environmentalists, the economically shaky middle class. The protests did not end until March, when the coronavirus lockdown began. What came to be called the estallido social, or “social outburst,” included clashes between protestors and security forces, looting, hundreds of injuries, at least thirty-four deaths (including six protesters who died in clashes with security forces), and millions of dollars in damage to urban infrastructure. On November 14, the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera tried to appease protestors by agreeing to a plebiscite that would allow Chileans to approve or reject a new constitutional convention.
One of the protest movement’s leading critics is Arturo Cifuentes, an expert in finance who has consulted for previous governments in Chile and once testified before the U.S. Senate on the subprime-mortgage crisis. Cifuentes senses that a historic moment is at hand for his country. “This is the Chilean Brexit. It is a jump into the void without being clear about what comes next.” While affirming that Chilean society is in many ways “unjust,” he has also called the estallido social a “coup d’état.”
Supporters of the revolt also foresee a break with the past, but cast it in more positive terms. For them, the movement that began on October 18 is the predictable result of long-term economic and social trends. But for many of the activists most devoted to this new movement, the connection between its true ideals and Piñera’s plebiscite is tenuous at best.
I spoke with one such activist, Dominga G., a college student who took to the streets almost every day for three months, often volunteering as a nurse for wounded protestors. She said that while Piñera’s plebiscite might work as a “peace treaty,” what she and many other protestors desire is “el buen vivir,” the good life, “a form of life of the ancestral countries, a communitarian way of life, a home, school, small debt, a no to a life for the sake of work.” Many, if not most, of the protestors subscribe to similarly radical ideas. For them, the protests are less about the constitutional order than about the ideological order that supports it. Their word for that order is neoliberalism.
When the Piñera government announced its fare increase last October 6, high-school students were the first to protest. Though it might sound implausible to North American readers, high-school activism is a major political force in Chile, and its organization and methods have roots in the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. Most high-school activists are organized under the banner of the Secondary Students Coordinating Assembly (Asamblea Coordinadora de Estudiantes Secundarios, or ACES), a dynamic and media-savvy organization founded in 2000. The group’s Instagram account captures something of their character and ideology: provocative posts denouncing the police; images of raised fists accompanied by calls to join this or that protest; gender-neutral spellings of conventionally gendered Spanish words (e.g., “Libertad a lxs presxs políticxs Mapuche”). But they are primarily known for marching in the streets.
The students, most of whom use public transportation to get to school, quickly recognized that another thirty pesos per trip (about four cents), though it may not seem like much, was a significant expense for the struggling middle class. They saw the fare increase as a symbol for other pressing injustices in Chilean society. They swarmed the metro stations, chanting and shouting and jumping turnstiles, helping non-protestors to get on the trains for free. For months, they occupied the Plaza Italia, the public space at the heart of Santiago where Chileans usually gather to celebrate joyous occasions, such as a World Cup victory.
On October 18, violence erupted. Protestors burned down subway stations, including the one near Plaza Italia. (Investigators have yet to establish whether this was a spontaneous or coordinated action.) They went on to occupy several sectors of the capital city, employing a stratagem made famous during the 1999 anti-globalization protests in Seattle and known by the English term “black bloc”: protestors, all dressed in black to make it harder for the police to identify them, mass together in public spaces. Grainy footage, distributed through WhatsApp, shows burning buses and cars in Santiago, as well as acts of police brutality. Black-clad protestors, many of them wearing masks (this was before the pandemic), were seen chanting songs and clashing with police. On October 18, three people died from injuries they suffered when a supermarket was looted by protestors. On November 8, a Catholic church was vandalized, its statues burned in a bonfire. Protests spread to other major cities. A slogan emerged: “It is not thirty pesos. It is thirty years.”
The slogan refers to the period of economic liberalization that began under General Augusto Pinochet, who took power in 1973 after a bloody coup that ousted the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. After Chile suffered extreme inflation during the first two years of Pinochet’s regime, he turned for economic advice to the “Chicago Boys,” a group of University of Chicago economists who promoted a market-driven model of the modern state. Public services were to be either privatized or gutted. Pinochet wanted to make Chile a country “not of proletarians, but proprietors.”
A bloodless transition to democracy in 1990 put an end to Pinochet’s regime and its egregious human-rights abuses (censorship, imprisonment, assassinations, torture), but it did not put an end Pinochet’s economic policies. Even today, Chile still has a largely privatized pension system, and a mostly private health-care sector. Moreover, the national constitution adopted by the Pinochet regime in 1980 remains in place, though it has since undergone a series of reforms and today bears the name not of Pinochet but of the socialist Ricardo Lagos, who was president of Chile from 2000 to 2006. But further attempts to change the constitution, including one in 2012, have failed to obtain parliamentary approval.
Today, most Chilean politicians on the right reject Pinochet’s authoritarianism but defend the Chicago Boys’ economic reforms. Juan S. Montes, the former governor of the Los Lagos Region in southern Chile who is now a professor of business at Boston College, maintains that the thirty years now being decried were in fact a great success. “After 1990, we combined democracy with a free market, and like in most cases, when that happens, society thrives and prospers. That has been the case in the past thirty years in Chile. Chile moves from an economy dominated by hyperinflation (more than 1,000 percent in 1973), closed to international trade, regulated prices, to a fully open economy.... The outcome is that if in the 1980s almost half of the population was living below the poverty line, today it is 13 percent.”
According to the World Bank, today 65 percent of Chileans are middle-class, up from 24 percent in 1990. And many Latin Americans would happily acknowledge that Chile is arguably the most prosperous country in the region. I grew up in Paraguay, one of the poorest countries in Latin America, where Chile is sometimes spoken of as “casi Estados Unidos”—“almost America.” This phrase implies prosperity, security, order: people wait in line for the movies in Chile; public utilities work in Chile; banks don’t (usually) collapse in Chile. Chile ranks high in what political scientists call “stateness” because its institutions run efficiently. (By way of comparison, a friend from Santiago once guiltily confessed that in Chile, he’s heard people refer to Paraguay as “almost Africa.”)