In the first in a three-part series, we address the main issues behind Chile’s current unrest and the rightwing government’s disproportionate response.
On 13 October, Chile’s Transport Ministry announced that the Santiago underground fare would rise by 30 Chilean pesos, the equivalent of three pence sterling. This may seem a small amount to people in Britain or the US, but for a Chilean worker, whose average salary is under £350 a month, it means yet another burden. Commuters in Santiago spend around £50 a month on transport. Imagine having to feed a family and pay numerous bills on that salary.
In response to the rise, school students started organising fare-dodging acts all over the city during different times of the day. Soon, adults and other students joined them. The Minister of Economy, Juan Andrés Fontaine, indicated live on TV that workers should get up earlier to catch public transport when the fare is lower. His unwise comment came after a series of similar declarations by different government figures, such as suggesting people do not protest when the price of tomatoes or bread go up.
Instead of trying to appease the angry masses that joined fare-dodging demonstrations, Piñera’s office decided to deploy the police who, instead of protecting people, behaved like hired guards looking after private property. On 18 October, Transport Minister Gloria Hutt declared that fares would not go down and that the government was not evaluating ways to resolve the public discontent. The government’s overall rhetoric implied that people dodging fares were delinquents.
After the protests intensified, President Sebastián Piñera invoked the ‘Ley de Seguridad del Estado’ (State Security Law), under which anyone who commits public disorder or acts of vandalism can be charged with acts of terrorism. This clearly was disproportionate and further enflamed the situation. Some people had destroyed ticket machines to ensure every passenger could travel freely. Metro bosses decided to close the service in the face of ongoing clashes between police and protesters at underground stations.
On 17 October, the Union of Metro Workers announced it supported the protests. The union’s president, Erick Campos, said ‘the main issue is the fare increase. One can or cannot share different forms of protest, but we share the legitimacy of the demands against price increases in our public transport system. This is a moment where the government needs to remove police officers from the stations and open dialogue with workers and students’. In another important point, Campos added ‘the successive price hikes during the last two years respond to Minister Hutt’s whims and because of her bad decisions the fare increases are being paid for by students’ parents who, very rightly, protest today because they see that their salaries are not good enough to make ends meet’.
As the Metro closed its doors and workers had to find alternative routes home, it became clear that the discontent was not only related to rising transport costs. In fact, the fare increase was just the tip of the iceberg. Piñera’s vilification of the protests further angered many people who saw the protests as justified. Moreover, government rhetoric depicted protesters as delinquents when the people evading fares were students, workers and other members of the public.
Civil discontent was increasing. Insulted by Minister Fontaine’s declarations, by Minister Hutt’s disdain and by President Piñera’s suggestion that protesters were mere criminals unleashed public anger on a massive scale. Things got worse for Piñera when, as protests raged across Santiago, he was seen celebrating his grandson’s birthday in a high-end pizzería. With the capital enveloped in chaos, the president was absent from his post.
The pizza incident went viral online to the fury of many Chileans. Shortly afterwards, a nervous president announced on television that he was decreeing a State of Emergency – or State of Siege – in Santiago. The military, under General Javier Iturriaga, was now in charge of the city. The decision to declare military control has not been seen since Pinochet times. A democratically-elected president, unable to manage the situation, resorted to dictatorship-like practices. Instead of opening dialogue with different social leaders, Piñera imposed state force on the population.
To many, Piñera ceased being a legitimate president the moment he handed control to the military. General Iturriaga imposed curfew in the capital and other major cities such as Valparaíso, Rancagua and Concepción. The situation appears to be worsening with each passing day. There has been looting and police brutality, amid reports and videos of protesters being shot or hurt. Although Piñera tried to re-establish his authority by freezing the fare prices, it was too little, too late.
International news networks have reported on Chile but failed to sufficiently analyse why Chileans are so dissatisfied. The current unrest is not merely over fare increases. Social discontent has been accumulating for years. Many Chileans are tired of living in one of the most unequal countries in the world, where healthcare and pensions have been privatised to the benefit of a small elite who became rich during Pinochet’s regime and are closely linked to Piñera’s government; where pensioners receive less than £150 pounds a month; where water rights have been privatised; where some areas are so polluted that children are falling sick and schools have had to close down; where supermarket chains collude to charge more for their products; where there is no social protection for the most vulnerable in society; and where pursuing a university degree only means debt and getting a badly-paid job.
All these factors have contributed to the current uproar. When metro fares rise, bus fares and other services subsequently rise, while wages stay the same. The disconnect between the government and the average citizen is so wide that nothing can stifle the clamour for change. The problem goes far beyond Piñera to neoliberalism and its discontents, to the lie that democracy would bring social justice. Chile’s reopened wounds run very deep. For many, the post-Pinochet return to democracy was little more than an exercise in window-dressing in which major changes never took place. Will the current social insurrection change anything? We are living a new chapter in Chilean history, and the future is very uncertain.
The second article in this series will detail Chileans’ discontents with the current system, and the third will outline the numerous times the elite has shown itself to be above the law, another major factor in the protests.
*This article has removed a reference to the metro being ‘privately-operated’. It is in fact state-operated.