[image found here] October 18, 2019, marked the start of the ongoing popular uprising in Chile. It is generally accepted that it was the latest fare increase in public transportation which ignited the protests.  These were first manifested in a series of actions in the subway stations under the call to EVADE paying the fare, which was spearheaded by students. As these protests escalated, Police, Special Forces, and the military were called by the government to dissuade, repress, and eventually crush the protests and the protesters. Nevertheless, the protests increased in size and style.  Peaceful protests, with up to two million in attendance, became a weekly feature. And so increased the violence, with unprecedented repression of peaceful protests as well as with violence stemming from looting and fires.  The government had to take the military off the streets but allowed the police and the special forces to continue repressing protesters.  At the same time, the President rearranged his cabinet and made some small concessions, which angered rather than appeased the protesters.  With an escalating of protest, Congress met to contain the situation and address the main demand, that of a plebiscite and a new constitution.  This was done in one day, behind closed doors, which again angered most protesters, who do not feel represented by the political class.

Reasons for the discontent

The neo-liberal economic model, which was first implemented during the Dictatorship (1973-1988), and later expanded during the Transition to Democracy (1989-present), created an unequal society, with an ever increasing precarity of life in most sectors, and a first world standard of living for the wealthy 1%. To illustrate, fifty percent of Chileans who work for a wage earn 550 USD or less a month; the minimum wage is 426 USD for workers older than 18 and younger than 65, while it has been calculated that to have a decent, debt-free life in Chile, the minimum income would have to be 2,400 USD. Retirees not in the pension system receive a “solidarity” pension of 116 USD a month, which accounts for homelessness, suicide, ill health, and a host of other ills in that sector. Twenty percent of Chileans (1 in 5) live in multidimensional poverty. Eleven million out of 18 million Chileans are financially indebted, and 34% of those 18 and older (4.6 million people) are not paying their debts. One in 3 Chileans cannot meet their financial commitments.

The indigenous question as well as the feminist one take center stage in these protests, because of the systemic violence exerted against both groups.  At the forefront of protest are the young, because they see no future in this society for themselves.  Therefore, climate change concerns are also part of the protests, as they see the country’s natural resources being depleted by foreign interests, and prices skyrocketing for privatized water, electricity, fuel, and transportation.

One important concern/demand is “Dignity”. Most Chileans think they are treated with disrespect and lied to in every aspect of our national life. Very prominent in the general discontent are the cases of corruption in every area of the political and economic system. A prominent slogan in the protests is: “We will struggle until dignity becomes the norm”.

Main demands

Besides the call for a Plebiscite and a Constitutional Assembly, most of the demands are of an economic nature:

  • A just, not privatized pension system
  • A significant raise of the minimum wage
  • Equal access to health and education
  • Livable housing and safe neighborhoods
  • Nationalization of natural resources
  • End to privatization
  • End of inequality
  • Respect and Dignity

Other demands

  • Indigenous demands: A plurinational state with recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination. End of occupation and repression in the Wallmapu (Mapuche Indigenous territory).
  • Women and LGBTQ activists’ demands: Rights over their bodies’ health and safety; reproductive rights; equal pay for equal work. End of individual and systemic violence against them.
  • Seniors: Pensions that allow them to live with dignity. Access to health and medicines. Affordable, preferably free, transportation.

Human Rights Reports

To date, there have been four reports that itemized the human rights violations perpetrated mainly by Police and Special Forces under the orders of the government.  The most damning report is the one issued by the United Nations’ Human Rights taskforce.

Since October 18:

  • 30,000 detainees
  • 442 legal cases for personal bodily injuries and 74 complaints for sexual harassment.
  • 11,564 injured
  • More than 3,000 people have been treated at clinics for moderate to major injuries.
  • 1,015 have suffered injuries caused by police anti-riot armaments.
  • More than 350 people have suffered eye injuries (mainly caused by rubber bullets, but also by tear gas canisters thrown at people’s faces). Thirty-four of these cases are of extreme seriousness; 16 people lost vision in one eye; two people have been confirmed to have lost vision in both eyes.
  • 28 deaths are under investigation and 18 deaths were supposedly produced in lootings and fires.

* Since this report was issued, several more deaths as well as cases of eye injuries caused by anti-riot armament have occurred.

One of the most important points made by the Report is that their findings confirm the intentionality of the physical damage caused to protesters by the police. It confirms what the protesters and other sectors have claimed: in other words, that the police are not on the streets to dissuade but to punish. The most recent study issued by the Chilean National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) concludes that

…based on solid data, we can point out that the country is facing situations of numerous and extremely serious violations, which cannot be understood as simple or isolated abuses.  At this time, numerous human rights have been violated, specifically those that affect the life and physical integrity of people.

Beyond the facts, we are facing here what I believe is an unprecedented case since the implementation of neoliberal projects. On the one hand, we have a citizenry that is fully aware of fighting a life and death struggle against the economic system and the political class that administrates it and, on the other, a political class that will not give up on the economic system and that holds power over the citizenry through force.

More than 30 years ago, Milton Friedman suggested that the neoliberal model could not function well under dictatorial conditions.  He was referring to the collapse of the model implemented under his own guidance during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. Friedman’s declarations in the 1980s had a significant influence on the democratic forces in Chile, which rearranged their strategies to do away with the dictatorship and moved quickly to defeat it through a plebiscite in 1988; what followed was the longest “Transition” to democracy in history, one that has lasted to this day.  But what we see in the uprising today is proof that the model does not work under so-called democratic conditions either, no matter how long it has taken the Chilean people to revolt against it.  Therefore, short of military rule, the system recurs to violence and repression to maintain the order a free-market economy is claimed to need.

The transitional nature of the system claimed by successive democratic governments allowed them to implement and administrate a neoliberal model, without either the restraints or the drawbacks of dictatorship; at the same time, these governments could claim that the evident economic inequalities and arbitrary political constraints were residues of the Dictatorship and the constitution of 1980, which they were hard at work to modify.  Although modified, the Constitution of 1980 continues to be a mechanism that allows the economic elites to expand a model that benefits them exclusively.  That is why the main demand of protesters is a new and truly democratic constitution, and the main slogan of the recent protests “It is not 30 pesos but 30 years”.  In other words, what we are witnessing is a struggle against the entire system put in place 30 years ago under the guise of restoring democracy.