#ChileDespertó: A Case Study for Failed Neoliberal Politics

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 18

Santiago, Chile “History is ours and it is made by the people.” Source: Orizon Villalobos

Chile has been taken over by mass protests with anger and frustration pouring onto the streets. From abroad, this surge in popular activity has taken many by surprise. On a continent where economic stability seems to evade almost everyone, Chile has always been hailed as the exception, and sold around the world as a ‘capitalist success story.’ This uprising is shaking up that image. For about three weeks, Chile has experienced mass turbulence— two massive protests have taken place on the streets of Santiago, where more than two million people congregated demanding change.While those looking from the outside may see the idealized image of Chile’s success story fracturing, Chileans are not shocked. They are responding to long promises, from both sides of the political spectrum, that free markets would lead to prosperity, but these market-based promises have failed them.

#ChileDespertó, or “Chile woke up,” is the unifying chant of the protestors, who are demanding economic reform and the expulsion of its current president, Sebastian Piñera. Chileans are crying out in favor of better access to health care and education, pension system reform, nationalization of natural resources, a crackdown on corruption, recognition of indigenous rights, and even a new constitution.

In 1970, the free election of the socialist Salvador Allende marked a new era of Chilean politics. The hope of many Chileans was the birth of a prosperous and equal society. However, these dreams were easily crushed in 1973 by the military coup d’état. What took place in the country instead was the fast privatization of many sectors of the population in a neoliberal experiment. With the help of the Chicago Boys, economists trained by Milton Friedman, the dictatorship implemented legislation that would deregulate and privatize almost everything. Laws like the one concerning the State of Emergency, first passed in 1958 but greatly extended under the dictatorship (in the constitution), serve to protect the state as a part of the market economy. The state therefore only guarantees the value of money and sets up the legal and defense structures required to secure private property rights. For the Chilean people, this meant a complete overhaul of the health care system, failing schools, poor pensions, and even the systematic privatization of water. As a result, Chile is witness to the growing inequality of its people.

In the 1990s the country transitioned from the Pinochet dictatorship to a democracy, but this came with an important caveat; the laissez-faire policies implemented under the dictatorship would remain. So, while experts have qualified the following decades as marked by unfettered growth (in contrast to the rest of the continent), what is becoming painfully clear is that this growth has evaded large swaths of the population.

Inequality is embedded within Chile. The middle class is struggling with low wages, debts and high prices. Chileans are dealing with a privatized retirement system that is leaving the older sectors of the population in extreme poverty. Education reform has not been as successful as promised. Multiple collusion scandals between toilet paper companies, poultry industries, and pharmaceuticals have crowded the news cycles. These realities erode the image of a thriving Chile.

While the protests were sparked by a 30 Chilean peso increase in subway fares, it is really rooted in growing economic disparities. These protests have transformed into a countrywide movement demanding economic reform, even a governmental overhaul.

President Piñera has responded to the surge of protests with hostility. He first declared a State of Emergency (SoE). He also implemented a country-wide curfew. The SoE was intended to ensure private order by restricting people’s civil liberties, movement, and right to assembly. He sent about 10,000 armed military personnel to Santiago to contain the growing unrest. These measures are an echo of the past harkening back to the abuses endured under the dictatorship. Instead of calming the situation, they have done the opposite; it[MOU2] has further enraged the population. In a second attempt to restore order, the President eliminated the fare increase and has promised higher pensions, better health coverage, higher taxes for the rich, and pay cuts for politicians. During that time, 8 members of his cabinet have been replaced. These measures are being taken as “more of the same,” and the protestors are still on the streets.

The governments that followed the dictatorship preserved the laissez-faire economic system, and today, these policies represent a threat to Chile’s political stability. Chileans see the economic precarity they are experiencing as a result of the conservative economic policies, and they want change. To them, it was never just about 30 pesos, but 30 years of decaying quality of life.

Protestors and experts alike agree that the country needs structural reform, including the replacement of the 1980 constitution adopted under the dictatorship. If the protesters are successful, it would mark Chile’s real emergence from the Pinochet regime.

The installment of neoliberalism as a hegemonic political force has led to the destruction of Chilean society. When President Piñera declared an SoE, he reopened the wound of the dictatorship, a regime marked by systematic political repression as well as the persecution, torture, and murder of dissidents. He reaffirmed the state’s power as one legislated by private interests. In doing so, he is dismantling the healing of the trauma of the dictatorship. He is invoking the memory of a violent past into a turbulent present. Students, who were the primary organizers of the first protests, are now fighting hand in hand with older generations who survived the dictatorship. The timeline of Chile’s history is blurred on the streets of Santiago. The cries of the past are echoed in the cries of today.

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