Revolution Against Neoliberalism in Chile, by Michael Livingston

After the outbursts of protest and violence on the 20th through the 22nd, protests became increasingly massive and peaceful. The culmination was a protest in Santiago on Friday, October 25, of 1.5 million people, according to official estimates.

Solidarity with the 357 protesters whose eyes were shot at close range by government security forces in Chile. From October to December, in largely peaceful demonstrations, thousands of protesters were injured, tortured or sexually harassed, and arrested. 25 died. Photo: Frente Fotografico

By Michael Livingston  WAMM Newsletter
Vol. 38  Num. 2  Spring 2020

UPDATE:

Almost as soon as the school year resumed after summer break in Chile, schools started closing because of protests against the government of Sebastian Piñera.  Then on March 8, over 500,000 women protested for women’s rights and against femicide. The women’s protests took place at the center of last year’s protests at Plaza Baquedano (also called Plaza Italia) now renamed by the Chilean people as Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Plaza).  Within a week, the government again banned all political gatherings, in part from fear of the protests and in part because of COVID-19, which appears to be spreading in Chile, as it is throughout Latin America. (tinyurl.com/swfxofc)

At present, we do not know if the elections scheduled for April on the process for a new constitution will take place. The Chileans are creative masters of nonviolent protest.  It will be fascinating to see how they respond to the latest developments.  Revolutions are not discrete events but social processes.  Many if not most revolutions fail, destroyed from without and within.  What is clear at this moment is that the revolutionary process that started on October 18 continues.  Who knows how far it will go, or how broadly it will impact the rest of Latin America and the world?

It started small. In the week of Monday, October 14, 2019.  Small groups of middle-school and high-school students started to jump the turnstiles and barriers at Santiago metro stations to protest a 30 peso (equivalent to approximately 4 cents U.S.) hike. The rate hike took place on October 6 and while it did not affect their fares, it was going to have a serious impact on their parents who also take the metro. In a country where 50 percent of the people earn less than $550 (USD) a month and where many prices are equal or almost equal to those in the U.S., the protests grew rapidly. Police tried to repress the protests on Thursday, October 17. In response, on Friday, October 18, students and parents sat down on the edge of the train platforms with their legs dangling over the edges. The train drivers refused to endanger the safety of either the protestors or their passengers. The 137 metro stations in Santiago were shut down. When police tried to clear the students using force, a minority of the protesters turned violent. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera (who is a billionaire) declared a state of emergency, calling out the army to maintain order and instituting a curfew in the capital city.

Then all hell broke loose.

At that time, my spouse and I were at a wine tasting, called a cata in Chile, in the city of Viña del Mar located on the Pacific coast of Chile. We had been in Chile for almost four months at that point.  This was the third time I had taught in Chile, having spent a semester working there in 2014 and 2016 as well. We started to hear the banging of pots and pans from the apartment buildings and homes nearby.  The cell phones of our Chilean friends started buzzing with calls and text messages about the mass protests and state of emergency.  The revolution had begun.

The state of emergency and curfew provoked widespread protest.  Spontaneous demonstrations formed throughout the capital, with many people banging pots and pans in a typical Chilean form of protest, a form of protest developed during the dictatorship of Pinochet. In addition to the large protests, which were met with tear gas and water cannons, small groups started setting fires to the metro stations or businesses. Others started to loot and rob grocery stores and pharmacies.

The next day, Saturday, October 19, the protests expanded to Valparaiso (Valpo, as the city is affectionately known by its inhabitants).  It is home to a large and radical working class. These peaceful protests were also repressed.  Police started firing shots into the air and using rubber bullets, in addition to tear gas and water cannons. Protesters burned a metro station that serves the metropolitan area of Valparaiso-Viña del Mar. They also burned cars and the building housing the newspaper El Mercurio de Valparaiso, the oldest newspaper in the country.

On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, October 20, 21, and 22 respectively, protests and violence spread to all parts of the country. The state of emergency was extended to all areas with differing curfews imposed. Valparaiso was the last area to have a curfew.

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In Santiago, approximately two million joined  the largest protest in Chile’s history, October 25, 2019.

After the outbursts of protest and violence on the 20th through the 22nd, protests became increasingly massive and peaceful. The culmination was a protest in Santiago on Friday, October 25, of 1.5 million people, according to official estimates. This was the largest protest in Chilean history, and as the Chilean media pointed out, official estimates of protests usually cut the real attendance in half. Independent estimates placed the number at almost 2 million in a city of 6.7 million people.  Similar large peaceful protests occurred in many other cities.

The next day, Saturday, the curfew was lifted nationwide and on Sunday, October 27, in the Valparaiso-Viña del Mar metropolitan area, 100,000 protested in a large march coming from the hills of Valparaiso and another crowd of protesters marched along the Pacific from Viña del Mar. The peaceful protests were incredibly diverse, with people of all ages and backgrounds. All were ultimately met by soldiers and police using tear gas and water cannons. Demonstrations and protests, with some occasional violence, have continued but diminished since the high point of protest on the weekend of Friday, October 25 to Sunday, October 27.

President Piñera responded to this massive popular movement with an apology to the Chilean people, and by replacing eight people in his 24-person cabinet, and rushing through measures reversing the fare increase and cutting utility rates. He also proposed a set of more substantial measures to address the protesters’ demands (see below). These reform measures, including a call for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, are now bogged down in the Chilean congress.

Neoliberalism: The root cause

The fare hikes themselves were merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The root cause, as many of the protesters clearly pointed out, was a capitalist system that had been imposed under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) and was left untouched, remaining through the next democratically elected governments (some from the Socialist Party) for the past 29 years. This neoliberal model, which is now found throughout Latin America, favors the rich with low taxes and little regulation while it privatizes most social services and taxes workers with regressive fees and taxes. In Chile, the top one percent own 33 percent of all the wealth in the country.

Chile is considered a developed country and has the highest per capita GDP in Latin America, at $26,667 (USD). This is highly deceptive in a country where half the population make $6,600 a year, there is no social safety net, and an apartment in Santiago costs as much as an apartment in Minneapolis. Of the ten most unequal countries in the world, Chile is number seven.

Eight of the ten countries with the greatest income inequality in the world are in Latin America. All are characterized by a neoliberal capitalist model imposed by the U.S. and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The neoliberal model of capitalism was first tested and refined in Chile after the September 11, 1973 coup against a progressive and democratically elected socialist government led by Dr. Salvador Allende. The CIA and economic advisors trained at the University of Chicago (and known in Chile as Los Chicago Boys) gave the new military government a plan to restructure the economy, destroy the social safety net, and privatize as much as could be privatized, such as basic utilities, education, and the social security fund. Constraints on capitalist accumulation were removed.  The plan was large and very detailed and was known as “the brick” (el ladrillo in Spanish) for its size.

The neoliberal model should be familiar to all of us.  It was partially imposed in the U.S. starting with President Reagan in 1980 and was known at the time as Reaganomics.  While we in this country have generally resisted the more extreme forms of neoliberalism such as the privatization of public schools and social security and the near complete destruction of labor unions, the U.S. elite has imposed many elements of the neoliberal model here.

Chile returned to democratic rule in 1990 after a 17-year heroic and largely nonviolent struggle against the dictatorship of Pinochet, but with the neoliberal model left untouched, the democratic opposition had to “govern with the enemy” as they say in Chile.  If the opposition attacked the neoliberal model, they risked a return to military rule.  As a consequence, Chile has been governed for the last 30 years under a constitution written by the dictatorship with an economy run according to the CIA’s economic plan.

The protesters’ demands

The Chilean masses raised several related demands, all attacking the neoliberal state. These demands include:

  1. A new Chilean constitution The current Chilean constitution, while it has been tinkered with since the transition to democracy, is essentially the constitution that was written by Pinochet and his advisors before the transition. The constitution has a number of undemocratic features and ensures that the wealthy and the political right wing have a significant share in the upper and lower chambers. In 2006 there was an effort to revise the constitution, but that effort was thwarted by the ruling class.
  2. A change in the pension fund Under Pinochet, the social security system was converted to a private pension fund system. All workers are required to pay into a private pension fund administered by for-profit entities whose shareholders make fat profits.
  3. A change in the education system Pinochet also destroyed the teachers’ unions and created a three-tier education system. There are elite, high quality schools for the rich (these have always existed in Chile), and for-profit schools similar to charter schools in the U.S. that receive a government subsidy for each student, but the parents also have to pay for these schools, which can be very expensive for a middle-class family. Finally, there are underfunded public schools which by all reports are overcrowded and of very poor quality.
  4. Reduction of fees for basic services Many of the basic services in Chile were privatized under Pinochet. Electric power, water, and sanitation are all controlled by lightly regulated corporations, many of them transnationals. Chile has faced a number of water crises similar to the Flint water crisis in the U.S.—contaminated water unfit for human consumption. The rate hike in metro fares is one example of these fees for basic services.
  5. An end to corruption in business and politics, and a reduction in the salaries of members of congress Political corruption scandals are common in Chile, as is insider trading. The members of congress make many times what the average Chilean makes.
  6. A change in the health care system Chile has a private health care system in many ways similar to the U.S. While prices are lower than in the U.S., drug and medical costs are very high compared to most people’s wages, insurance is expensive and does not cover what it should, and people often have to wait months to see a doctor or to have a medical procedure performed.
  7. A reduction in the work week to 40 hours and a guaranteed minimum income This is not a demand for a minimum wage, but for a minimum income wherein if your salary falls below a certain minimum, the government makes up the difference.
  8. A change in the tax system Chile has low taxes on the rich, who often avoid paying taxes altogether, while the middle and working class suffer under a regressive and burdensome tax structure. Taxing the 1 percent and making sure that they actually pay would provide the Chilean government with much of the revenues needed for the social safety net.

Banging pots and pans is a popular form of protest in Chile and was used again in the 2019 demonstrations against the government of Pinera.

In short, the Chilean masses are demanding a new government and a new social pact.  While the Piñera government and congress has made some small steps, such as rescinding the metro fare hike and proposing to add government money to the pension funds to augment the benefits the elderly receive, most Chileans see these steps as too little and too late. Approval of Piñera has dropped to 18 percent in the most recent polls, and many are calling for his resignation. Will the protests continue? The answer to this question depends on the actions of the ruling political elite and the decisions of the Chilean masses. As the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende wrote at the end of October: “This is the way revolutions start.”

We left Chile in mid-December to return to the U.S.  In Chile, it was the start of summer and school children and university students were out of school.  Many headed to the beaches or the mountains, as Santiago and other major urban areas get very hot.  While protests continued during the summer, they were smaller.  In addition, the Chilean people were dealing with the horrific toll of the earlier protests: over 3,000 protesters with severe eye injuries from the rubber bullets used against them, 30,000 arrests, and investigations of police torture and rape.  Current protests and COVID-19 have only deepened the political crisis (See update at the beginning of this article).  The next six months will be decisive and as I know firsthand you should never underestimate the courage and creativity of the Chilean people.  El pueblo unido jamás será vencido — The united people will never be defeated!

Michael Livingston is a professor of psychology at St. John’s University/St. Benedict’s College in Minnesota. He has lived and worked in Vina del Mar/Valparaiso, Chile and most recently, was residing there during the social uprisings. In the U.S., Michael has a decades-long history as an antiwar and anti-interventionist activist.
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