Jaime Barrientos, Facultad de Psicología, Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile.
Manuel Cárdenas, Escuela de Psicología, Universidad Valparaíso, Chile.
In Chile, at the beginning of October 2019, we were led to believe that we lived in a paradise. In fact, President Sebastián Piñera recently described the country as an oasis in the middle of the Latin American concert. It was a facade intended to serve as a window for investors, which triggered more than forty years of discontent, anger and disenchantment against a model of production imposed by force; and that remained, at its core, intact during the post-dictatorship era.
By mid-October, however, a group of school and university students started a series of manifestations against a rise in metro fares, which were violently repressed by the government police force. Those acts of protest happened parallel to offensive remarks made by state ministries on Chile’s costs of living, which most people rejected due to their lack of connection with what Chilean population deal with in a daily basis. The authorities words were humiliating, especially for those who have been working hard for many years without perceiving any substantial improvement in their quality of life.
Faced with the call to avoid paying the metro fare in Santiago on Friday 18th October, the government’s response was to shut down all metro stations of the capital, unleashing fury reactions, urban chaos and perplexity. From then on, things happened very fast: nationwide protests, the burning of some metro stations and the looting of various establishments that represent the heart of the Chilean neoliberal model (banks, supermarkets, electricity companies and pharmacies). All this occurred without the protection of police force, who just let things happen. Moreover, at that precise moment, the President was photographed eating pizza celebrating a relative’s birthday in a wealthy neighborhood in Santiago while the city was in total chaos. Hours later, he decreed a state of emergency and imposed a curfew letting the military take control of law and order in the city.
From that moment, constant peaceful protests have been taking place across the country, not just against the government but also opposing the legacy of Pinochet’s neoliberal economic model. This is important because the protest is also a social revolution against the Chilean model and its deep impact on people’s life. In Chile, almost everything is private and of high-cost: health, education, transport and housing. Living conditions in Chile are as high as any other Western European country, despite its low minimum wage and its obscene unequal distribution of wealth. To illustrate this, after working their entire life people will receive a miserable pension. Many of them postpone their retirement age to avoid lowering their living standards. Institutions responsible for administering pensions show a higher profit every year. Thousands of professionals go into the working market highly indebted with salaries that do not allow them to live and pay their debts, which increase rapidly every month.
Many people do not understand why young protesters have reacted with such anger – actively confronting the police and, some of them, vandalizing public and private property. The institutional response to the crisis has been of extreme violence: brutal repression, thousands injured and tortured, both physically and emotionally. According to statistics from the Chilean Ophthalmological Society, more than 285 people in Chile have suffered severe eye trauma from rubber bullets fired by Chilean security forces. Many of these young protesters have been out of the system their entire life; they have been expelled by the Chilean society and have not had any chance to enjoy the so-called achievements of the neoliberal model that Chilean elite class has been so proud of. They have been the leftovers, the ones society knew about their existence, without actually considering them. Decades of anger due to extreme injustices and daily humiliations.
Citizen’s response to state violence materialized in a historical massive march that gathered more than one million and a half people. The government, meanwhile, reacted with increasing violence and the criminalization of the protest, deepening the disconnection with people’s demands. This time, the government’s response to social discontent was not enough. Something changed. The people decided to rename their point of gathering, Italia Square, to Plaza de la Dignidad, or Dignity Square. While citizens’ discontent and anger increased, the president’s approval fell to less than 10%. The protest actions have intensified and are now targeting the most iconic symbols of the neoliberal system: supermarkets, Pension Fund Administrators (AFP), police stations, banks, retail stores and shopping centers, some of them vandalized and burnt.
Massive protests are still in place across the country, and the government has failed to find a political way out of the crisis. More than 80% of the people agree with social demands that ask for changes to the constitution and thousands of people in the streets are calling on Piñera to resign. The elite political class is in question as they also have been unable to provide a political solution to social discontent. Measures proposed by the government do not tackle the problem either, but rather reinforce even more the neoliberal rationality at stake. For example, increasing the minimum wage through a public subsidy, introducing medical insurance that excludes poor people from access due to the high costs of their deductible, and a miserable increase in pensions that is worth less than the minimum wage. How will Chile get out of this ongoing crisis? Hard to anticipate and even predict.
Things have been changing dizzily since October 18th. On Friday 15th November, almost all political parties agreed to a referendum on replacing the constitution. Many people, especially the government, are optimistic and think that this agreement may resolve important aspects of the crisis. From the perspective of people’s demands, however, this is a first step that by itself cannot sort things out. There are some critical voices though who actually think that the agreement deepens the crisis. They have good reasons to be wary of how the mechanism will finally be implemented, and are cautious about legitimizing an agreement that did not consider the mobilized people and their ways of expressing concerns through spontaneous cabildos and citizens’ assemblies. So far, the agreement looks like a representative’s convention, which differs significantly from what the street is demanding, that is, participatory democracy. The government’s proposal push for a two-thirds quorum rule, which, although contested, would give veto power to conservative minorities. The critiques also point out that the convention’s delegates would be elected through the same electoral system under question, which may benefit mainstream political coalitions and make the possibilities of independents to be elected even harder. As of today, there is no explicit indication that gender parity (sexual diversity included) and indigenous representation will be taken into account. As things stand, school students – who mainly sparked the revolution – may also be excluded from participating in the process if the legal age to vote is not amended.
Furthermore, the government seems to still not understand the magnitude of the crisis and people’s demands. It is determined to defend, at any cost, the economic model without even touching it minimally. Most probably, the government will not hesitate to continue intensifying its repressive responses, and human rights violations from police forces will also increase. On the other hand, protests have not ceased and demonstrators seem to renew their optimism every day and their willing to achieve structural transformations; communities that cry for solidarity and social justice, for their identities to be recognised and for their right to live in dignity. People’s awareness increase as more and more get involved in the protest, in self-organised cabildos and through the exemplary courage of young people and dwellers. The future of the country is at stake in the streets. From a shared history of struggles and social demands, the seed of a new hegemony could be born, a new and more inclusive “we” that gets stronger every day at the protests, in the streets, within collective action.
This social uprising will undoubtedly generate and is already producing, costs in the lives of many people. Already, during these weeks, much LGBT youth have been violently attacked by the police, whose abuses have been extensively documented in a report called Violence against dissident bodies in Chile collectively elaborated by a group of academics, lesbofeminist, trans and antiracist activists. Additionally, the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) has also documented cases of state repression across the country, reporting 93 victims of politico-sexual violence (40 of whom are women and 16 girls) that includes cases of sex abuse and mass violations by state agents.
Moreover, the Chilean reactionary extreme right, represented in the figure of former presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, has actively supported anti-gender campaigns in the country and has defended the economic model and police repression, which has affected LGBT people as well. Concurrently, high rates of political distrust go hand in hand with the emergence of populist leaderships that could drastically neutralise the human rights agenda achieved in the country, especially if they attain political representation or manage to be elected, as it happened in Brasil. Although a new constitution would clearly state that international human rights commitments remain unchanged, its normative nature in the country could be affected due to veto power from conservative groups, as I referred previously. This situation may relegate minorities’ rights to the realm of ordinary legislation, preventing them to acquire constitutional status.
With this in mind, we should evaluate how the events in the country will unfold in the near future, and what might be the socio-political effects of some of the measures proposed. While there has been much pain, sadness and anger, there has been also hope and resistance. We are still mobilised in the streets and in rebellion against social injustice enshrined in the model, which also destroys the environment and turns into privileges what should be understood as basic rights. Chile rebels against an exploitative system and against a way of organising the social based on abuse. As people say in the streets, the struggle continues until dignity becomes a habit.