Chile: Can Piñera Contain Popular Rage Against Liberal Capitalism?

By Irina Domurath and Stefano Palestini Céspedes*

Protesters in Chile

Protesters in Chile/ Photo by the Authors

Chilean President Piñera’s declaration of a state of emergency and public statements last weekend suggest he is prepared to suppress demonstrations rather than deal with social and political demands. On Saturday, the center-right president also delegated control of public order to Army Commander General Iturriaga and declared nighttime curfews. What started as citizen disobedience – groups of students entering the subway without paying – quickly developed into a massive, albeit uncoordinated, mobilization. Protesters destroyed several subway stations, forcing closure of the transport system that 2.8 million people rely on daily. Despite the government controls, protests spread to other Chilean cities on Sunday, reaching a scale unseen since the end of the military regime.

While the immediate trigger of the protests was an increase in subway prices, underlying the unrest is a deep social discontent over the results of decades of neoliberal policies. Most of them were implemented during the Pinochet era and largely preserved by successor democratic governments. While they were successful in reducing extreme poverty, they have also led to high levels of socioeconomic inequality.

  • The private pension system has yielded huge market revenues instead of dignified pensions; the health sector is split into an underfunded public system and a privatized system that discriminates against women and the elderly; the public education system fails to deliver social mobility; and the public transport system has not helped to overcome extreme socio-geographic segregation in the capital and beyond. Consumer markets are rigged by anti-competitive practices and collusion. The oligarchic political elite sees social policy not as a matter of citizen rights, but as a matter of charity. Parliamentarians refuse to discuss their salaries, which amount to 33 times the minimum wage. Trust in the police and the military has plummeted due to scandals of corruption and abuse of power.

Although some of the protesters targeted symbols of neoliberalism, the government’s response has reflected a lack of awareness of these underlying issues – or, worse, is trying to lay blame on individual vandals. In a televised address from Army headquarters on Sunday night, Piñera sounded a dark note: “We are at war against a powerful enemy, who is willing to use violence without any limits.” Suggesting he does not distinguish between social protesters and groups of vandals, he said, “We are ready to do everything to not fall into populism.” Piñera had previously shown a tin ear on Friday night, when shortly after eating at a high-class restaurant, he admonished citizens for evading subway fares. His remarks fueled social discontent coming just days after two businessmen were sentenced to take ethics classes as “punishment” for involvement in tax-evasion schemes and irregular payments to political allies of Piñera’s coalition.

The Piñera government is addressing the crisis as it has done it before with the student movement and the Mapuche conflict over indigenous lands in the south: treating what are indeed political issues and social discontent as a security threat. The president is playing deaf to the legitimate social and political demands of Chilean citizens, undermining the government’s credibility as a political interlocutor while also fueling an escalation of violence.

  • Chile now joins Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and others in facing serious pressure to deal with an array of problems that incumbent governments have failed to address – reminiscent of the social mobilizations in Brazil in 2013 that culminated in impeachment and the rise of a reactionary president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose commitment to democracy is seen by many as questionable at the very least. In this context, the Chilean political elite has a huge responsibility to avoid a breakdown of democracy and the rule of law. The government cannot ignore popular desires for a plan to overhaul the neoliberal Chilean model – and it would be wise not to cast opposing views as a security threat.

* Irina Domurath is a legal researcher at the School of Governance, Catholic University of Chile and external fellow at the University of Amsterdam, and Stefano Palestini Céspedes is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Catholic University of Chile.

 

 

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