Protests in South America’s Chile: It is time for action!

Updated: November 1, 2019 4:45:15 PM

After 30 years of left-wings and right-wings governments that have extended the neoliberal model, a large segment of the population faces the day to day with precarious access to public services.

South America, Chile, Chile protest, OECD, Chilean President, Sebastian Piñera, defence newsAlthough the riots were unexpected, the reasons behind the social unrest have been both, extensively researched, and announced. (REUTERS)

By David Alvarez Veloso

Recognized as one of the most developed and stable countries of Latin America, during the last two weeks, Chile -and the world- have witnessed clashes and lootings as surprising as the massive and peaceful demonstrations that have turned millions of people into the streets. What started during the morning of Friday 18th as a small group of students protesting the hike for subway tickets in the capital of Santiago, during the evening, events quickly turned into demonstrations all over the country demanding structural reforms to public health, education, and pension fund scheme, among others.

Analysts seem to agree that social’s rage lies in the population disappointment with the neoliberal economic model imposed during Pinochet’s dictatorship that created a mainly private-base system for health, education, pensions, transport, and even water. After 30 years of left-wings and right-wings governments that have extended the neoliberal model, a large segment of the population faces the day to day with precarious access to public services. At the same time, an increased aging population confronts the reality that their retirement represents only a fragment of their incomes during working life, barely enough to acquire some essential goods and medicines, the latest at the highest prices of the region.

Although the riots were unexpected, the reasons behind the social unrest have been both, extensively researched, and announced. While Chile shows one of the highest GDP per capita in the region -$16.277 in 2018- is at the same time one of the world’s most unequal countries and shows the highest Gini Index Score (a measure to evaluate inequality) in the OECD. According to the same Organization, while OECD’s children from low-income families need 45 years to reach middle-income, poor Chileans families need six generations -or 150 years- to achieve the same level, proving that an uneven playing field can define the future of a person above considerations such as work or education. After decades of promises that personal effort and merit would bring prosperity, the benefits of trickle-down economics never arrived.

Since the beginning of the protest, the government’s reaction has been slow and inadequate. During the night of Friday 18th, the Chilean President Sebastian Piñera declared the State of Emergency, including a curfew and the use of Armed Forces to control riots and looting. In a country where thousands of Chileans were victims of human rights violations by the military under Pinochet’s dictatorship, the moved was broadly criticized and proved ineffective. Indeed 36 hours after the declaration of Emergency, the army was unable to reduce the clashes and vandalism. This time, the president declared in a public statement that the country was at “war,” leading to even more demonstrations and evidencing that the government’s strategy was aimed to discredit the growing social movement.

After two weeks of clashes and riots, the official report left at least 20 people dead, hundreds of injured and dozens of legal challenges against the government, armed forces, and the police for excessive use of power and human rights violations. Additionally, the magnitude of the social movement forced President Piñera to announce the change of his legislative agenda and the resignation of crucial secretaries of state.

The inability to guarantee the security of large international delegations soon to arrive in the country also led to the cancelation of two important international summits scheduled for the upcoming weeks in Santiago. While the APEC summit, programmed to take place in November, got global attention for the expected agreement between US President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to end the trade war, the COP25 summit, organized to take place in December, represented a unique opportunity for Chile to lead the international discussion on climate change.

As per the president’s performance during the last weeks, it is unclear if the government will be able to satisfactory response to an extensive list of social demands that include the increase of salaries and pensions, the improvement of education and health, the frozen of prices on essential services, the taxation on wealthiest and a new constitution emanated by and for citizens. Although President Piñera will no longer be able to distribute the paraphernalia and souvenirs prepared for the COP25, it seems that he still will be able to use the logo prepared as a motto for the meeting. For the Chilean president, just like for the environment, “it is time for action”.

(The author is Washington DC-based Political Scientist and International consultant on democracy and citizens security issues. Views expressed are personal.)

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