A major crowd gathers at an anti-government protest in Santiago, Chile. Photo: Cristian Beltrand, CC, flickr.com
By Mike I. HermidaO
n October 13, people from the Chilean capital of Santiago took to the streets to protest an increase in metro and bus fares. Since then, riots have broken out, the police and government responded violently, and protests spread to other parts of the country.
The metro price has gone up 30 Chilean pesos, the equivalent of 50 cents Canadian. These increases disproportionately affect economically challenged workers.
The government cited multiple reasons for the rise in price, including increasing cost of diesel and the exchange rate with the U.S. Discontented with these reasons, Santiaguino students implemented a mass fare evasion – a form of civil disobedience where they jumped turnstiles to avoid paying the fare.
In response, the Sebastián Piñera government increased the number of agents at every metro stop. This was the decision that first sparked protests, which quickly escalated into a broader movement that is about so much more than just transit fare hikes.
“It’s not 30 pesos,” said Chilean union leader Esteban Maturana, in an interview with Sputnik. “It’s 30 years of abuse.”
The unrest has grown into a populist protest against economic exploitation. Chile has one of the most expensive education systems in the world, major economic inequality, problems with housing and healthcare, and privatized water and pension regimes.
Days after the initial protests began, Interior Minister Andrés Chadwich invoked the Security of the State Law, which criminalizes various acts that might harm the state or national sentiment. This law was reformed and applied regularly during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship to silence political dissent. The government also set a curfew.
Much like the fuel tax increase that led to the yellow vest movement in France, the transit fare increase was merely the tipping point for Chileans.
Thanks to the protestors, the government has repealed its hike to transit fares. Nevertheless, the protests have continued, with people organizing against general economic inequality and hardship.
Much like the fuel tax increase that led to the yellow vest movement in France, the transit fare increase was merely the tipping point for Chileans. The events of the past few weeks are the result of built-up anger from years of economic hardship and bad social policy, leading to the first major anti-government movement since the fall of the Pinochet regime in 1990.
The protests are a way of showing the people’s discontent with the government’s continued neoliberal policies. Protestors are calling for the government to resign, including President Piñera, and for a new constitution to be written.
The current 1980 Chilean constitution dates to the military dictatorship of Pinochet, who was installed by a U.S.-backed 1973 coup that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. Pinochet ruthlessly restructured the Chilean economy under the direction of the neoliberal “Chicago Boy” — Chilean economists who were disciples of Milton Friedman and other University of Chicago free-market fundamentalists. Along the way, Pinochet’s regime executed, disappeared, tortured, and imprisoned tens of thousands of Chileans.
Currently, several protesters have clashed with police, who responded with acts of brutality. While most protests have been non-violent cacerolazos – a common Latin American protest where people bang pots and pans to make noise – some Chileans have resorted to setting buses on fire, looting Walmart stores, breaking out into riots, and fighting cops.
However, in two weeks of protesting, dozens of protestors have been killed and hundreds injured across the country. This was caused by police use of rubber bullets and tear gas.
In the face of government brutality, there is a strong sense of solidarity among protestors. “[When I was looting] there was a comrade telling people to cover their faces because there were cameras inside,” an anonymous protestor told CrimethInc. “You sometimes recognized people and smiled and greeted each other in this new and very particular situation.”
As a result of the unrest, two major international summits have been moved from Chile. On October 30, Piñera declared that his country could no longer host the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the United Nation’s COP 25 climate meeting. (However, the Estádio Nacional in Santiago will still host the Copa Libertadores final, the last game of the premier South American soccer cup.)
This change of plans means that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who is currently in the Americas, must travel back to Europe for the summit. Thunberg avoids air travel for environmental reasons and arrived in New York by sailboat in August.
“It turns out I’ve traveled halfway around the world, the wrong way. Now I need to find a way to cross the Atlantic in November,” Thunberg wrote on Twitter.
In a series of tweets on October 26, Piñera announced that “we have all heard and understood the message of the Chilean people. I have asked all ministers to resign from their positions.”
However, given the continued civil unrest, despite the cabinet shuffle, suggests that protestors will not stop until substantive change takes place.
“This will not stop until people wake up and Piñera and Chadwick resign!” another protestor told CrimethInk.