“Good evening, we are at war…” These were the words that Chilean President Sebastián Piñera chose to open his address to the nation after a weekend of mass protests against his decision to raise metro prices by 4 percent. Surrounded by senior military officials, the President continued: “We are at war against a powerful, ruthless enemy that does not respect anything or anyone. We are going to win this battle.”
The “enemy” to which Piñera was referring were high school students who kicked off mass protests when they refused to accept the increase in metro prices and that have since then turned into a nation-wide movement against rising costs of living, falling wages, and the corruption and impunity of the elites.
The government has responded with extreme state violence, declaring a state of emergency, imposing a curfew, and deploying the military to the streets, leaving a death toll that currently stands at 19 and is rising higher every day. The images of armoured vehicles and tanks patrolling the streets as well as soldiers beating up and even shooting civilians has brought back to life memories of the US-backed dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).
The opposition that students and working class people have presented to Piñera’s devious attempt to push through austerity measures marks a continuation of an October full of popular revolt in Latin America. Only a matter of weeks before the Chilean protests began, indigenous-led mass protests forced the government of Ecuador to flee the capital city and cancel an IMF-imposed austerity package. In Haiti, one of the region’s poorest countries, major protests have called for the resignation of the US-backed President and an end to neoliberal austerity. However, it is particularly important that this is happening also in Chile.
The Birthplace of Neoliberalism
On September 11, 1973, the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende was removed in a coup backed by the US and led by General Pinochet. Pinochet’s top economic advisers were Chilean graduates from the University of Chicago, infamous as the intellectual birthplace of neoliberalism under Professor Milton Friedman. These Friedmanites advised Pinochet on how he could turn his country into the first ever nation-wide neoliberal laboratory. The resulting tests were horrific.
Beyond the state violence, which according to declassified CIA documents included 13,500 arrests and hundreds of executions in just the first few days after the coup, the Friedmanites also advised Pinochet to employ what would become known as “shock treatment” – a turbocharged transition to extreme market liberalization.
Naomi Klein described the Chilean process as such:
“a rapid-fire transformation of the economy – tax cuts, free trade, privatized services, cuts to social spending and deregulation. Eventually, Chileans even saw their public schools replaced with voucher-funded private ones. It was the most extreme capitalist makeover ever attempted anywhere.”
The results of this shock treatment were record high levels of unemployment and inflation, and extreme hunger and poverty.
“It’s not 30 Pesos, it’s 30 Years!”
Despite the fact that Piñera has tried to quell the protests through concessions such as measly wage rises, modest tax increases on the rich, firing his entire cabinet, and lifting the imposed curfew and state of emergency, many Chileans say they are not willing to leave the streets until they see major structural reforms.
These demands are even starting to radicalise with calls for a Constituent Assembly that would re-write the 1980 Constitution from the Pinochet era, responsible for laying the legal basis for the ultra-privatisation that Chile has experienced during and since the dictatorship.
With the original protest spark being the 30 peso (US$0.04) increase in the metro fair, the ruling elite tried to undermine the movement by saying that 30 pesos do not justify the response of the students and other groups, which in the initial days included burning metro stations and supermarkets.
However, the Chilean people fought back against this and showed their solidarity with the students through the popularisation of a phrase that has become a key motto of the uprising: “It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years!” This is a perfect representation of how so many Chileans feel – sick and tired of suffering decades of being the quintessential neoliberal testing ground.
This is why the significance of these protests occurring in Chile cannot be overstated. The country of 18 million has eternally been championed as a regional model of prosperity and stability. Despite Chile being classified as a middle income country and a member of the OECD, it is among the most unequal in the world.
OECD data shows that the top 0.1 percent of the country receive 19.5 percent of all income. And not only are students and workers feeling the brunt of the country’s economic system, so too are retirees, “the average monthly (pension) benefit is about $300, less than earnings from a minimum wage job.”
Despite the statistics, President Piñera, himself a billionaire, had the audacity to recently call Chile a “true oasis in a troubled Latin America.”
More than One Million Fill the Streets of Santiago
Although the protests began with no clear leadership, La Mesa de Unidad Social (Committee for Social Unity), which spans a diverse range of groups including students, unions, and feminists, has slowly become a leading force, calling successful general strikes across the country which have included highway blockades, whilst threatening even more.
The people-led nature of the protests has been a key in bringing so many Chileans to the streets, which included over a million people in Santiago alone on October 26. Whilst political parties have offered differing levels of support to the movement, no party has been a key player.
According to Pedro Santander, Professor at the Strategic Latin American Center of Geopolitics (CELAG), even the left-wing parties “have not managed to sow the social fabric with the popular sectors.” The demands of the protests have been equally undefined. In Santander’s view, “it revolves around popular revolt that embodies how fed up Chileans are with a model that has privatised and made precarious everything: health, education, social security, basic services, water; absolutely everything is privatised in Chile”.
Unfortunately for the Chilean ruling class, the protests show no sign of slowing down. If anything, the concessions granted by the government have only strengthened the resolve of the movement to not stop until there is the type of serious reform being demanded.
Given the failure of these concessions, as well as the fact that the protesters have for the time being defeated the strategy of repression, it remains an open question what the government’s next step will be.
The international community must continue to shine a light on Chile in these defining moments to ensure the regime does not attempt to increase state violence, and that a return to the authoritarian days of Pinochet does not present itself as a viable option. The coming weeks and months have the potential to be very telling for both a country and region that is already in the midst of a popular uprising.