Chile Despertó: the decades-long build-up to Chile’s mass protests

Chile’s protests, ongoing since mid-October, are the culmination of thirty years of frustration and disillusionment with Chile’s neoliberal economic model and rising inequality.

A hike in subway fares was the trigger. In mid-October, President Sebastian Piñera announced a 3% rise – the second in twelve months on fares that were already among the most expensive in Latin America. The minimum wage in Chile is 301,000 pesos per month before taxes, equivalent to 584.23 AUD. With this new increase, someone on minimum wage commuting to and from work five days a week would spend over ten per cent of their pre-tax monthly wage just on transportation.

In protest, Chilean students began jumping turnstiles and evading fare en masse. Police were sent into the subway stations to disperse them. But the students did not stop, and adult workers began to join them. Confrontations between Chile’s militarised police and protestors ensued. Police began teargassing and beating protestors – including uniformed students – with batons. Metro stations were set alight and Santiago continues to smoulder six weeks later.

But the demonstrations are about more than the subway – they are about the ever-increasing cost of living and the stagnation of wages that are the by-product of the neoliberal model installed during the Pinochet dictatorship. During Pinochet’s rule, everything from water, to pensions, to health care and education were privatised for the profit of a few. Thirty years later, health care is so expensive that families simply avoid going to the doctor. Even when attending public universities, students take out twenty-year loans and work multiple jobs to pay for tuition. Most of those receiving pensions, in a system created by the President’s brother José Piñera during the Pinochet dictatorship, earn 200-300 USD per month. Water and electricity prices are ever-increasing, with a 9.2% rise in electricity prices planned for November and since suspended in an effort to quell the protests.

Chileans have been peacefully protesting these causes – low pensions, the rising cost of education and health care – for years with little success. This neoliberalism is near impossible to reform because it was codified in the 1980 constitution, signed by the corrupt and money-laundering dictator General Pinochet himself and passed by means of a fraudulent plebiscite.

Chile may be the wealthiest country in Latin America, but it is also one of the most unequal. Chile’s GDP may be 15,130 USD per capita but, according to Forbes’ 2014 data, the combined wealth of Chile’s twelve billionaires accounts for a quarter of this figure. For comparison, in the United States – a country of substantial inequality – 540 billionaires comprise account for 12% of the GDP. The per capita income of the bottom quintile of Chileans, or 34% of the total population, is under 140 USD a month.

One of the twelve Chilean billionaires is President Sebastian Piñera, the third richest person in Chile. With a net worth of 2.8 billion USD, Piñera is a symbol of the nation’s staggering inequality. For decades Chileans have resented their country’s neoliberalism and have been frustrated with the unwillingness of politicians to evenly distribute the nation’s wealth.

Centre-right Piñera has shown himself to be out-of-touch with his constituency. A few days before the protests broke into violence, he boasted to the Financial Times that ‘Chile looks like an oasis’ due to its having apparently dodged the economic and political discontent occurring in Paraguay, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Peru.

Days later, while Chile’s militarised police indiscriminately launched tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of protestors, Piñera shared a lavish dinner with his family in Vitacura, the wealthiest neighbourhood in Santiago. Piñera’s wife, Cecilia Morel, inadvertently made herself the symbol of this disconnect. In a leaked WhatsApp audio recording, Morel likened the protestors to aliens, saying ‘we are absolutely overwhelmed, it is like a foreign invasion, alien, I don’t know how to put it.’ Images of Morel as a Men in Black agent armed with a bazooka full of ‘privileges’ and tasked to combat the alien invasion, have since started appearing on Santiago’s streets.

Piñera’s ministers have proven to be equally out-of-touch in their reactions to public discontent regarding the rising cost of living. When the price of water increased, finance minister Felipe Larraín consoled Chileans by noting the drop in the price of flowers – good news for romantics – while transport minister  Juan Andrés Fontaine, in response to the fare hikes, urged workers to wake up earlier if they wanted to save money.

After violence became a public issue, Piñera’s reactions grew aggressive. On 18 October, he declared a State of Emergency – the first since the Pinochet dictatorship ended in 1990 – imposing a curfew and giving the Armed Forces the power to restrict peoples’ right to assembly. He then announced he would reverse the price hike, only to give an unscheduled address from military headquarters the next day. Surrounded by military commanders, Piñera declared: ‘We are at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing or anyone and is willing to use violence and crime without any limits.’

These events are reminiscent of the dictatorship in both rhetoric and imagery. In 1973, General Pinochet declared Chile to be in a ‘state of war’ and renewed the State of Emergency status every fifteen days for three months to justify the coup and the mass repression that followed. Pinochet waged a war against unarmed people and, after similar declarations from Piñera, Chileans are frightened. They have come out banging pots and pans – a symbol of poverty as well as a declaration of their lack of arms. The words No estamos en guerra, ‘we are not at war’, have been plastered across the country.

The reactions from government figures are concerning but not surprising, considering that many members of Piñera’s cabinet are relics from the Pinochet dictatorship. Andrés Chadwick – now interior minister and President Piñera’s first cousin – was and continues to be a fervid supporter of Pinochet. Chadwick’s image has appeared all over protester’s signs next to Piñera’s.

It was Chadwick who confirmed the government would apply the infamous State Security Law, originally written by Pinochet, in addition to the state of emergency. The law gives special powers of prosecution to authorities to arrest and imprison people seen to be guilty of public disorder for up to ten years. It was used throughout the dictatorship to flagrantly detain people and is used to this day in the conflict against the Mapuche, the most populous group of First Nations people in Chile.

The police and armed forces, too, are relics from the Pinochet era. Never reformed after the 1990 transition, the police appear to be engaging in forms of violence used during the dictatorship. Allegations of police brutality, torture, rape, and human rights abuses have prompted the UN to send a team to investigate and Chilean singer Mon Laferte to write ‘In Chile they torture, rape and kill’ on her bare chest at the Latin Grammys. In late October, thousands of documents leaked from the Chilean police’s computer system indicated mass surveillance of student protestors. On  22 October, the government claimed the fifteen people who were known to have died (the most recent death toll stands at nineteen) were all looters or protesters who died as a result of their own violence.  Notably, the Pinochet dictatorship gave much the same explanatory narrative in 1975 in relation to Operation Colombo and the 119 people dead or disappeared in Argentina.

Seemingly realising that his aggressive response had exacerbated discontent, Piñera has begun to adopt a more conciliatory tone. On 22 October, he announced a 20% increase in government-subsidised pensions, a raise in the monthly minimum wage, the suspension of a planned 9.2% rise in electricity prices, and guaranteed cheaper medicines for the poor. He further declared a new tax bracket of 40 per cent for those earning more than $11,000 a month and apologised on behalf of his government and those before it. ‘It’s true that these problems didn’t appear in the last few days. They have been accumulating for decades,’ he said. ‘I recognize this lack of vision and I apologise.’ But the protests have not stopped.

On 23 October, first lady Cecilia Morel apologised via twitter for her ‘alien invasion’ remarks. Five days later, Piñera sacked two hard-line members of his cabinet whose comments had further inflamed protesters: Chadwick and Larraín. Most recently, he cancelled two major international summits as a result of the ongoing protests – the UN climate change summit (COP25) and November’s APEC trade summit.

But the protests continue, and images of Piñera as a bloody-handed Mr. Burns or Dr. Evil continue to spread across the nation on building walls and protester’s signs. The protesters are requesting Piñera resign – with the hashtag #RenunciaPiñera (‘resign Piñera’) going viral. Chile Despertó! – ‘Chile has woken up’ – the people are saying. And they will not go back to sleep.

In an interview with the BBC, Piñera vowed he will not resign. He declared Chile an economic success and dismissed his 14 per cent approval rating. ‘There are always people who say that anything we do is not enough,’ he claimed. ‘I am responsible for part of it’, Piñera said of Chile’s economic situation and the cause of recent protests, ‘but I am not the only one.’

To some extent, Piñera is right. The protests in Chile today have been brewing for thirty years. None of the governments since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990, have seriously tackled the neoliberal economic model codified in the constitution. In fact, even after the legacy of human rights violations were confirmed by the two truth commissions, this neoliberal model remains the one thing that commentators within and outside of Chile continue to celebrate about Pinochet’s regime. Ordinary Chileans, however, have a much different opinion, with polls showing that 78 per cent of those surveyed want a new constitution. Chile’s political parties appear to have agreed to the referendum, but whether the constitutional change will get a two-thirds majority in congress is yet to be seen.

The mass display of agency on the streets are not just about the metro or the extra thirty pesos. It is about thirty years of an uneven playing field. It is about the rich enjoying the fruits of development while the middle and lower classes work forty or fifty-hour weeks and are still unable to afford to take their children to the doctor. Piñera, a billionaire from a family of billionaires, may not hold all the responsibility, but he is a potent symbol of the inequality that is at the centre of the protests. While he has refused to resign and Pinochet’s 1980 constitution remains, the protests continue. Almost six weeks and counting.


All photos courtesy of Sofia Grimalt Rubio in Santiago and reproduced with her permission.

Amy Hodgson

Amy Hodgson is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching Chile's post-dictatorial transition in the 1990s and 2000s.

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