Turmoil in South America: Trying Times for Chile

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By Aparaajita Pandey

With 18 dead and over 2000 people detained, Chile is going through one of its most violent protests since the fall of the Augusto Pinochet. The taboo of 'El Pueblo' and an almost American fashion of suspicion and shunning of communism has governed Chile since the dawn of democracy in the country from which happened in the 1990s after the fall of the dictatorial Pinochet regime.

After decades of laissez-faire governance and neo-liberal economic policies, Chile was lauded as the most stable economy in Latin America. While most of the Latin American countries have seen boom and bust cycles, sharp economic growth and fall incentivized by the commodity boom in China, and /or excessive reliance on deposits of crude oil or natural gas; Chile has managed to maintain a consistent and stable economy. The macro-economic indicators of the stable the Chilean economy has belied the problems that have persisted in Chile for decades. While neo-liberalism in Chile was supposed to provide a secure economic future for the entire country, its failure has been made evident by the million-strong Chileans who are in the streets of Santiago, banging their pots and pans together as they express their anger and ask for reform.

The immediate cause for this protest was a four per cent increase in the metro fare in Chile. While the fare increase is equivalent to about four cents when it was coupled with the student dissatisfaction of underfunded public education, inaccessible higher education, privatized pensions, low standard of living, and an ever-increasing gap between wages and cost of living; it combined to become the ingredients of an explosive Molotov cocktail that has been exploding on the streets of Chile for the past few weeks. The response of the Chilean regime was swift within the first few days of the protests, the rightwing Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced the revocation of the increase in metro fare and then went on to apologize to the people of Chile on national television promising more social reform, an increase in the minimum wage and benefits to the people. However, these announcements were made against a backdrop of military and police in the streets, tear gas and water cannons let loose on protesters, and women being threatened with rape, and protesters being unlawfully detained, beaten, and attacked. As the former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and UN High Commissioner has sent a team to investigate the human rights abuse allegations, the Chilean have been reminded of a dark and painful past that is marred with the secret police, death squads, and torture.

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It is important to understand that the protests are the outcome of dissatisfaction and hopelessness that has been brewing in the nation for the past 30 years. Chile has been recognized as one of the most unequal economies. The neo-liberal reforms that were supposed to save Chile from the eventual dilapidation of socialistic economic structures that the rest of Latin America tended to favour, it ended up concentrating all the wealth in the hands of the few, leaving the rest with limited resources. Sectors like education and public health have remained overcrowded and underfunded for decades. Pursuing higher education for most of the Chilean middle class has meant accruing a huge debt. Education is supposed to be a ladder out of the pit of poverty, but it more often than not comes with an anchor of debt.

Chile is not just unequal economically. It also suffers from some of the worst levels of the wage gap between the genders. Women tend to earn much less the men in the same job, which further spills into a larger educational gap between men and women, and also impacts the social gas between men and women. Then there is also the problem of prejudice. Most young Chileans are often dismayed when they find out that despite their best efforts, getting educated, and amassing debt they are not preferred for the job. Chile tends to subscribe to antiquated social norms where the social standing of a potential candidate is often as important as their qualifications. These practices have added to the frustration that most of Chile has felt for decades.

The Chilean shunning of everything even remotely socialistic in nature has led to the state moving away from people's welfare. It has also led to an obscenely large chasm between the rich and the poor, while the regime is filled with people that belong to the wealthier class. This has led to a ruling class that is completely unaware of the problems that people face and out of touch with the reality of the average citizen of Chile. Protests against economic inequality aren't uniquely Chilean in nature. Most societies across the world that subscribed to the capitalist or neo-liberal model today face a problem inequitable distribution of resources. The yellow vest protests of France were a depiction of the same frustration, where honest hard work and education no longer guaranteed a respectable standard of living.

Chile has had a history of student protests, and this one again was led by students. As the university and high school students, first jumped over the metro turnstiles in an act of defiance against the increase in prices, they unknowingly started a movement that had been long coming. The Chilean protest has started the chain reaction that has led to anti-government protests in Bolivia, Colombia, and it is speculated Brazil would soon follow.

The revocation of the increase in fair and a promise of better living standards came soon after the protests began but it failed to pacify the people. Most Chileans are demanding a completely new constitution, one that bases itself on equitable distribution of resources. It would be interesting to see if Chile gets a new constitution and how that impacts the rest of Latin America.

(The author is a Doctoral Candidate at Centre for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Asst. Professor at Amity University. Views expressed are personal.)