Last week, hundreds of thousands of Chilean protesters joined those in Hong Kong, Bolivia, Lebanon and Spain to demand democratic reforms. Though driven to the streets by a rise in the cost of public transportation, demonstrators quickly turned to protest political injustices, demanding reforms to a tragically broken neoliberalist constitution and an unjust political system.
Chile is in crisis. Roughly 20,000 soldiers were deployed to the streets Oct. 23 to violently quell the protests after President Sebastián Piñera announced a national state of emergency in response to the protests. More than 7,000 demonstrators have been arrested so far. At least 18 have died in the violence.
While Chile’s rapid fall into chaos was a surprise from an outside perspective, a closer look reveals that the economic and political injustices that fueled these protests have been mounting for decades. In a political system wrought with corruption and injustice, Chileans had no choice but to take to the streets.
Chile appears to be thriving economically at first glance. With one of the highest GDPs in Latin America, Chile stood as a continental pinnacle for development and democracy. What Chile has accomplished in economic growth, it lacks in economic development. Economic growth describes the size of a country’s GDP and its overall wealth. Economic development addresses internal economy matters like inequality, poverty and quality of life. While Chile’s economy as a whole has grown significantly over the last decades, many Chileans have been left behind in the country’s push for economic growth.
Chileans live in a deeply divided society governed by economic class. Chile ranks third in the world for income inequality according to 2018 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data. Since the fall of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship in 1990, Chile has developed a system that caters to people with money. Those born into wealth enjoy the high standards of living that the country’s economic data indicate they should. For those who are less than rich, prosperity remains a fantasy.
Americans should care about what is happening in Chile because we are partly responsible for it. It has been 46 years since Pinochet, aided by the U.S. government, overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende, marking the beginning of nearly two decades of darkness, terror and violence that shook the nation. Beginning in 1973, 40,018 people were victims of violence or torture perpetrated by Pinochet. Of these, 3,065 were murdered or disappeared. Only in 1990 did Chile emerge from the Pinochet era and return to democracy.
American interventionism halted Chile’s democracy in the late 20th century. Today, Chile continues to struggle as a result. Neoliberalism, the economic structure put into place in the dictatorial constitution of 1980, privatized public goods, slashed regulations and cut expenditures for social services. Privatization and deregulation spurred by neoliberalism exacerbated the cost of living for working-class Chileans. Minimalist welfare programs leave retired, disabled and sick Chileans struggling. Rising costs in privatized water, gas, light, public transportation, education and health care are met with stagnant wages and indifference from Piñera’s government. Neoliberalism, an American-backed solution to Allende’s socialism, makes life difficult for the everyday Chilean, increases economic inequality and is therefore largely responsible for today’s protests.
Chile’s protests show us that history’s shadow is long and dogged. Chile today tries to paint itself as a changed nation — a stable, developed and thriving democracy decades removed from its traumatic dictatorial past. As Piñera deployed the military to the streets to quell demonstrations for the first time since Pinochet’s reign, Chile made it clear that today it is further away than ever from the democratic image it projects.
In an official announcement from the government palace, Piñera said, “We are at war with a powerful, relentless enemy that respects nothing or anyone,” referring to Chilean demonstrators. Chile is battling a powerful enemy named Piñera. Piñera is responsible for maintaining the unsustainable neoliberal economic system that has persecuted Chileans for years.
Chile’s democracy is failing as Piñera and his government attempt to suppress dissent rather than make the reforms needed to alleviate the economic injustices responsible for the protests. Numerous reports of police and military violence against demonstrators prompted United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to send a delegation to Santiago to investigate possible violations. Despite the allegations, Piñera and his government have done nothing to reign in state-sponsored violence against protestors, all but permitting its continuation through their silence, acting in ways reminiscent of Pinochet.
Piñera and his advisers have shown they are not prepared to meet Chile’s needs. The next Chilean government must fight for a vision for the country’s future that this government shares with the people it governs. Chile needs someone willing to work for all Chileans, someone willing to enact far-reaching constitutional reforms to rid Chile of oppressive, unequal neoliberal policies. If Piñera is not willing to take action in his capacity as president, he has an obligation to cede the office to someone who will. Chileans are speaking. Their government should listen.
Brian Britt is a junior in the School of Foreign Service, currently studying abroad in Santiago, Chile.