In early October 2019, large groups of high schoolers, outraged at an increase in the price of public transportation, coordinated mass subway fare evasions in Santiago. The campaign soon sparked massive protests across Chile. On October 18, a day that now marks the beginning of a Chilean Spring, angry protesters took over the capital, where they blocked streets and set metro stations on fire. City authorities closed the subway, leaving the majority of commuters stranded. President Sebastián Piñera imposed a state of emergency, and the army took control of major cities—something that hadn’t happened since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet ended in 1990.
In a statement Piñera said: “We are at war with a powerful and relentless enemy, who doesn’t respect anything or anyone.” Though the military had worked to contain the protests early on, General Javier Iturriaga, who was responsible for security in Santiago, seemed to disagree, saying in his own statement, “I am a happy man. I’m not at war with anyone.” Soon after, the state of emergency was lifted and the Carabineros, the national police force, was put back in charge of public order.
From October to February, more than thirty people have died in connection to protests—most of them at fires during riots or accidents, but in about ten cases prosecutors are investigating the presumed responsibility of agents of the state. According to a report by the National Human Rights Institute, which has filed five complaints for homicide, thousands of protesters were hospitalized, 445 received eye injuries (principally from rubber bullets), and nearly 200 reported sexual harassment or assault while under arrest.
Piñera has said he acknowledges the legitimacy of people’s frustration, but several times he has asked Congress to approve a stronger crackdown. Meanwhile, the government’s popularity has continued to fall. In a mid-January poll, approval ratings barely reached 6 percent.
In November Chile Vamos, the center-right governing coalition led by Piñera, reached a deal with the opposition to hold a national plebiscite. On April 26 citizens will vote on whether or not to replace the country’s constitution, which was originally imposed during the dictatorship. The deal represented a victory for the protesters, but unlike earlier eruptions of discontent in Chile’s recent history, neither political concessions nor police repression have prompted Chileans to leave the streets.
The ongoing social explosion that began in October has befuddled the Chilean elite. Many political analysts have blamed irresponsible millennials, incapable of bearing the slow pace of change. Since the return of democracy, Chile has reduced poverty and homelessness and has moved in global rankings from a poor to a high-income country. There are more cell phones than people, the number of cars increases every year, and in the summer months the highways to the beaches practically collapse under the weight of the traffic. What, wonder some, are the protesters complaining about?
Other analysts cite economic causes; income inequality and the concentration of wealth have not significantly diminished in the thirty years since the return to democracy. But if we rely solely on economic statistics, we risk losing track of a key part of the story. Inequality is not enough to get people out into the streets. They need to perceive themselves as collective victims of injustice, with a narrative that confronts the status quo. In Chile, that narrative is shaped by the traumatic events that took place during the dictatorship. These traumas have had lasting consequences not only for individuals but for entire communities—for those who lived through the dictatorship as well as their descendants.
The Pinochet regime left a legacy of serious and widespread human rights violations. Less discussed is how the dictatorship stripped Chileans of the social gains they had made through the early 1970s. Political gatherings and organizing were criminalized. Poverty and extreme poverty grew sharply. Words like obrero (“laborer”—more commonly associated with workers’ movements than the related trabajador) and compañero (something between “companion” and “comrade”) disappeared from public discourse. With economic liberalization came a revaluation of people’s self-worth: to be a somebody, you had to have money, influence, and the right last name. Otherwise, you were a patipelado (literally, “barefoot”)—a derogatory term for the poor resurrected last year by a right-wing parliamentarian.
The democratic transition in Chile fell short of addressing the lasting effects of the dictatorship. The frustration that can be heard in the streets today isn’t just about the facts of inequality, but the contempt of the elite. Chileans want to be respected and heard, and to have some say over the organization of the economy and the state. They want dignity.
In the 1980s, one of Pinochet’s ministers was asked how he could say the economy was doing well when unemployment was so high. I recall him replying that certain people were simply “left over”; the economy needed fewer workers than Chile had. The theme appeared in a 1986 song by the musical group Los Prisioneros: El baile de los que sobran—“The Dance of Those Left Over.” It’s no accident that this song, once used by those who marched against Pinochet, has become an anthem of the new protests.
A Long Wait
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chile was a feudal and oligarchic society. Peasants, workers, women, and illegitimate children had almost no rights; socially, they were nonexistent. The formation of workers’ parties on the left; the successive elimination of voting restrictions based on property ownership, age, and gender; and the introduction of measures to prohibit bribery all pushed the political system to begin to respond to the needs of these groups. Beginning in the 1920s, the government created public health, education, and pension systems. Women were given the right to contraceptives and family planning; mortality at birth, for both mothers and infants, fell dramatically. Between mobilizations and bloody repression, workers won rights for themselves, too.
By 1970 there were still acute social problems, but there was also a legion of poets, artists, intellectuals, and political leaders who were not children of the aristocracy. After literacy requirements for voting were dropped, the socialist Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970. His victorious coalition represented only a bit more than 30 percent of the electorate, but the Christian Democratic candidate Radomiro Tomic ran on a similar platform and earned another third of the votes. Allende deepened the program of social reform and economic transformation, which infuriated the right. In 1973 his political opponents staged a coup d’etat, with the help of the U.S. government.
The new military dictatorship committed massive and systematic human rights violations. Political leaders, trade unionists, peasant organizers, and students faced detention, execution, disappearance, and exile. Public workers were fired en masse, as were leftists who worked for private companies. Agrarian reforms were undone. Judges, professors, writers, and singers—anyone who could oppose the regime—were intimidated. The new regime’s model of femininity was based on the “soldier’s wife”: self-sacrificing, devoted, and quiet. Under these fearful conditions, the government dismantled social rights. Public pensions, healthcare, and education—won through decades of hard struggle—were handed over to private administrators. Workers’ rights were pulverized.
In the 1980s, in actions as surprising as today’s, Chileans took their pots and pans and began to beat them in the streets in opposition to the regime. They confronted police and military repression, leading to a still unknown number of deaths, but that did not stop their outcry. Supported by the force of that revolt, opposition political parties were rebuilt. In 1988 those parties joined the campaign to vote “No” in a plebiscite, which posed the question of whether Pinochet should remain in power for another eight years.
The “No” campaign promised not only to recover democracy and remove Pinochet; its supporters also wanted to recover lost social rights. Even the most moderate politicians of that era supported replacing the 1980 constitution. Nevertheless, as journalist and writer Rafael Otano describes in his 1995 book Crónica de la transición (Chronicle of the Transition), after the defeat of Pinochet political leaders demobilized the thousands of citizens that participated in the movement to end to the dictatorship. The same night that “No” triumphed in the plebiscite, Patricio Aylwin, the spokesperson for the “No” coalition who would soon be elected president, asked Chileans to leave the streets and go easy on the celebrations. Everyone understood that the triumph was fragile and caution was required. They didn’t want the military to regret handing over power. People obeyed. They trusted their leaders.
Chile’s Enormous Credit Bubble
The newly elected government, led by Christian Democrat Aylwin at the head of the center-left alliance Concertación, decided not to touch the economic model of the Pinochet era. There were other priorities, and political leaders were wary of provoking the military. Besides, they argued, Chile’s economic model was doing well, while Europe was burdened by its pension systems. The technicians of the World Bank advised shrinking the state and lowering barriers to foreign investment. The first finance minister in the democratic period, Alejandro Foxley, said in 2000 that the dictatorship’s economic policies had been correct: “Pinochet led the most important transformation, especially economic, of this century.”
During its two decades in power from 1990 to 2010, the Concertación alliance took a mostly hands-off approach to the economy. Under the coalition’s second Socialist Party leader, Michelle Bachelet, the price of copper—Chile’s principal export—increased so much that the economy was flooded with dollars. The Finance Ministry resisted political pressure to invest the excess money in social programs, arguing it was better to hold it in foreign accounts, because if it returned to Chile, it would “overheat” the economy. Economist Ricardo Ffrench-Davis has argued that Bachelet’s government followed economic orthodoxy even more closely than the previous government under Ricardo Lagos, who is considered to the right of Bachelet. The answer seemed to be always the same: If the country was doing well, social investment was not possible because it would put the economy in danger. If the country was doing poorly, the resources for social investment simply did not exist.
The Concertación governments, as well as the governments of the right (2010–2014 and 2018 to the present), continued to give something to the poorest of the poor without touching the basic economic structure. Bachelet, for example, started the practice of giving “cash grants” to the country’s poorest citizens. Economists discovered that it was cheaper to transfer money directly than to establish permanent rights. But those arbitrarily given the name of the “middle class” have none of the certainty that that term usually suggests.
The majority of the workforce in Chile is either un- or precariously employed. According to data from the Fundación Sol, a left-leaning think tank, while the government currently puts unemployment at 7 percent, it is in reality about 12 percent, if you take into account people who survive on activities that can’t properly be considered a job. That percentage is greater among women (14 percent) and young people (20 percent). Among those who do have work, slightly more than half have a protected job with a long-term contract and payments into health and pension systems, while almost half of the population is self-employed or has only part-time or subcontracted work. Women and young people have the highest levels of vulnerability, and they are concentrated in the service sector. Chile also has the worst social mobility of any OECD country, and proportionally, Chile’s level of inequality is unmatched across Latin America and the OECD, with the recent exception of the United States.
How, then, has the Chilean economic model been sustained for such a long time? One answer is that Chile has survived on an enormous credit bubble. For the 63 percent of the Chileans with some kind of work, everyday stability comes in the form of credit cards or consumer credit, offered not only by banks but also stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets. The broad middle class sustains its daily consumption (payments for schools, food, rent, travel, vacation, transport, heating, and food) with plastic. Because a good proportion cannot pay off their cards at the end of the month, they make minimum payments. Tourists looking to know the real Chile should visit the basement in the center of Santiago where Banco Santander pressures its clients into unequal repayment plans. The smiling salespeople who initially offered lines of consumer credit are replaced by rude executives who threaten overburdened debtors with foreclosures and lawsuits. Today, 4.6 million Chileans are in default—a number that represents more than half of the working population of the country. And a significant proportion of the operating funds used by lenders come directly from workers’ pension funds, which were privatized during the dictatorship and are equivalent to about 77 percent of the country’s GDP.
Workers with formal contracts spend, on average, 20 percent of their salary on health insurance and the privatized pension system. With both, the amount put in affects what a person gets back. The quality of healthcare a worker receives depends on how much they contribute. The median pension comes to less than 35 percent of the worker’s last salary, and the average monthly payment is less than a minimum-wage salary. A highly regressive 19 percent value-added tax brings in more than half of state revenue. In other words, many workers pay a large proportion of their income to the state or to their private provider, but receive limited services in return.
Despite these problems, until last October, the Chilean public gave off the impression that its demands were not primarily economic. People wanted equal gender rights, environmental protection, better education, more police on the streets. (The links between these issues and inequality went largely unnoticed.)
Perhaps believing that silence was contentment, politicians kept turning the screws even tighter. In 2019, Piñera’s government attempted to install new power meters in homes, which would result in higher energy costs. The move generated so much opposition that he had to reverse course, but the price of power and public transportation still increased. Additionally, in recent years the judiciary has uncovered massive fraudulent schemes committed by the police and military forces. The scandals included corruption, fraud, and tax evasion by some of the richest men and high profile politicians, but most of those caught only received reduced prison sentences or compulsory “ethics classes.” For Chileans who take pride in their country’s historical lack of corruption, these light punishments were a slap in the face.
All of these factors lie behind the massive fare evasion initiated last October; the high-schoolers upset about the costs of public transport set fire to a prairie whose grass had been dry for many seasons. The marchers have attacked many of the symbols of order and progress in Chile: the metro, supermarkets, banks. Rafael Otano, who lives a block away from Plaza Baquedano—the site of the greatest mobilizations in Santiago, and renamed Dignity Square by protesters—told me that the area looks like a war zone. Cobblestones were broken; grass and flowers were uprooted. All his routines have been disrupted: vegetable vendors no longer show up, and the pharmacies have closed. “Not even in the dictatorship have I seen something like this,” he said. “People in that time never attacked the metro. That was a kind of symbol of national pride, the place where you could see people of all social classes.”
Many voices from the center-left, including those who were once part of the Concertación coalition, have argued in favor of many of the social demands of the protesters, while also expressing support for the efforts of police to keep the peace. Juan Gabriel Valdés, for example—a Socialist and former government minister and ambassador to the United States—said that without public order the country risked suffering a coup d’état. Mario Waissbluth, a respected center-left intellectual and public education advocate, argued that while some Chileans had suffered socioeconomic and state violence, there were also groups that preferred unrest to a functioning democratic system. “For anarchists and narcos … the greater the chaos, the greater their success, ideological or financial.” The far right has identified other nefarious elements behind the protests, which the president has also referred to in some of his statements: an infiltration of foreigners who want to turn Chile into “another Venezuela.”
Yet it is an error, as Otano told me, to try to separate the “lumpen” protesters, as the young masked rioters have been called by elites, from the “civilized” marchers. All are furious. They feel tricked by the political class that thirty years ago promised a kind of happiness that never arrived. Chileans were promised more than just the rights of the consumer. They were to be recognized as autonomous beings with their own identity and desires, which were not necessarily the same as those suggested by the media, the Catholic Church, or the Chilean elite.
Those greater yearnings can be seen in the irreverent culture of the protests. Humor and satire have featured prominently in the streets. One group, known as the Chilean Avengers, included people dressed as Pikachu and Spiderman. Negro Matapacos (“black cop-killer”), a street dog who died in 2017, is just one of many symbols of resistance. Chilean street artist Caiozzama has put up murals memorializing Matapacos, along with saint-like portraits of Felipe Camiroaga (a beloved TV host and supporter of social causes who died in an airplane accident during another wave of protests in 2011) and Keanu Reeves (who, notably, is famous for riding the New York subway, and whose John Wick character is a lover of dogs).
These are not the protesters of 1988; they do not trust politicians. Women, who voted more heavily than men to keep Pinochet in power, now make up one of the most visible political forces on the streets. A performance piece created by a group of Chilean feminist artists called El violador eres tú (“The Rapist Is You”) has been replicated all over the world. Although there are no figureheads or leaders that can be considered representative of the whole crowd, there are clear demands: a new constitution, drafted by direct representatives of the Chilean people, of native peoples, and with gender equality; justice for the victims of violations of human rights in this period; and substantial reforms to the education, health, and retirement systems. Elites have already conceded that a new constitution will be drafted if the “approve” option wins in the April plebiscite, and Congress passed a measure to ensure women would make up 50 percent of the drafters. The second question on the ballot is to determine if that constitution would be written by a mix of current members of Congress and citizens or by a completely new convention. What economic, institutional, and social transformations would lead from there is an open question.
Will an “approve” vote quell the insurgent spirit in Chile? If it prevails, the new constitution will be finished two years from now. That might feel like an eternity for an angry people who desire deep changes. The only certainty for now is that the old fantasy about a well-behaved, stable, and prosperous Latin American country named Chile is over.
Alejandra Matus is a journalist, master in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and 2010 Harvard Nieman Fellow. She is the author, among other books, of The Black Book of Chilean Justice, whose censorship led her to live for more than two years as a political asylee in the United States, and Doña Lucía, an unauthorized biography of the widow of dictator Augusto Pinochet.